Life Cycle Assessment and Materiality Assessment Part 1 – Should I cry over spilled milk?

I do Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) for a living. A lot of people look at my quizzically when I say this. “So… you study butterflies?”

Nope, no metamorphosis here.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Life Cycle Assessment is “a tool for the systematic evaluation of the environmental aspects of product or service system through all states of its life cycle.”

Or, as I like to explain it in simpler terms, a way to sum up all the environmental impacts from the production, use and disposal of goods and services. The quizzical looks continue.

“So, is this a way to tell if a product is better for the environment?” is a common reply. To which I respond with more questions, such as “how do you define better?” and “what environmental aspects are important to you, your company or your customers?”

LCA is a method that simply tells you what is – not what is best. To determine what is good, better or best, you need to perform a materiality assessment to identify what is important to your company, clients and stakeholders. An LCA can help companies benchmark and a materiality assessment helps companies determine what impacts to prioritize. When done together, an LCA and a materiality assessment aid in setting performance-based targets and defining a strategy to meet those targets. Adding a materiality assessment can create a weighting system to come up with a score for various categories. Then performance-based targets are based on improving the environmental aspects, calculated with an LCA, that contribute to the total score. A scoring system example will be explored in a later post.

A great example of this is a discussion that I sometimes have about the most environmentally-preferable type of milk container. If you care about the environment, should you get your milk in a glass bottle, a plastic bottle, a carton or an aseptic pack? Well, it depends on what aspect of environmental quality is most important to you. There are many aspects of sustainability to consider, but some things that are important to me are greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and waste. Waste is a multifaceted problem in itself, because it refers to both the waste of the milk in the container and the end-of-life (EOL) treatment of the milk container. At EOL, the container could be recycled or it could end up in a landfill. A lot of my friends and fellow consumers have told me that they don’t like it when a container is not recyclable, because they don’t like the thought of having it end up in a landfill forever. This is a valid and important concern. Personally, though, what upsets me more is the waste of the actual product. According to the USDA, between 30% and 40% of the food supply in the U.S. is wasted. As an LCA practitioner, I know that it takes a lot of resources to produce food and transport it to consumers, and that this process results in a lot of impacts to climate, water and land. Therefore, preventing the waste of the product and ensuring that it serves its original purpose of nourishment is very important to me as a consumer.

Read Part 2 – Life cycle assessment and materiality assessment – setting up the study.

Read Part 3 – Life cycle assessment and materiality assessment – what do the numbers mean to you?

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