Takeaways from the 2017 American Center for Life Cycle Assessment XVII Annual Conference

I have had the pleasure of attending the American Center for Life Cycle Assessment (ACLCA) annual conference for the last several years, wearing many hats as an academic, representative of private industry and as a consultant. This year, set in picturesque Portsmouth, New Hampshire, ACLCA’s conference brought together more than 240 participants from industry, academia, government and NGOs to discuss the most up-to-date insights on LCA and its many applications. For the past two years, WSP has been a proud organizational member of ACLCA and I have had the opportunity to represent WSP on the ACLCA board of directors. During the conference, the board met to discuss several important topics, including updates to the ISO standards that govern LCA, education efforts in LCA and preparation and planning for future LCA events.

On the first day of the conference, keynote speaker Greg Norris, chief scientist at the Living Future Institute, encouraged attendees to be optimistic about the sustainability of our future. He urged us to switch our lens from impact on the environment (as footprints) to benefit of our activities on the environment (as handprints). This was further echoed in presentations about quantifying environmental benefits in addition to burdens (e.g. environmental impacts including GHG emissions, acidification, eutrophication and other negative results of our actions) throughout the conference. In the closing plenary, student volunteers presented on the environmental impact of this year’s conference. Not surprisingly, the largest GHG emissions source was participant travel (mostly by air) to and from the event. Interestingly, they noted that direct flights result in lower emissions than flight paths with connections as more fuel is consumed for multiple take-offs and landings. Additionally, as this was the second year that the conference was vegetarian (with some local seafood) and mostly vegan, the students explained the substantial GHG emissions and water reductions achieved compared to an event that included meat-based foods. I always leave ACLCA feeling invigorated and inspired with new concepts and connections and this year was no exception. I found three key themes throughout the conference – circular economy, use of LCA in voluntary reporting and LCA education.

1. Circular economy driving emerging technologies
I attended a fascinating presentation on the environmental and social impacts of the burgeoning 3D printing industry presented by Jeremy Faludi of Dartmouth College, Bill Flanagan of GE, Tom Etheridge of HP and Lise Laurin of EarthShift Global. They highlighted the great potential to reduce environmental impact by light-weighting components and allowing the use of bio-based and biodegradable materials. 3D printing also enable circular economy by reducing the geometric complexity of parts, and making simple replacement parts easy for consumers to print so that they can keep using devices and machines even if a small part breaks. Finally, they highlighted the social benefits of 3D printing such as for customized prosthetics, but also the potential pitfalls in intellectual property infringement.

On the final day of the conference, I presented with Brian Desmarias from Reterro Inc. on a screening-level LCA WSP conducted on Reterro’s novel soil desorption technology for in-situ soil remediation compared to conventional dig and haul. Reterro is using the findings of this study to provide insights into the GHG emission, energy and particulate matter emissions savings that could be achieved using its technology. In an afternoon session that day, I led an interactive activity during a session called Product Sustainability by Design: Life Cycle Thinking Through the Supply Chain and Beyond. Based on case studies of how I have seen LCA implemented throughout the product design process, participants engaged in an activity to brainstorm design changes related to circular economy, novel business models and biomimicry to common products that cause real-world environmental impacts.

2. Using LCA in voluntary reporting
On the second day of the conference, I presented with Megann Head from Steelcase on Communicating and Leveraging LCA Findings Strategies and How to Use LCA to Inform Your CDP Response. Methods for incorporating the results of LCAs into CDP’s Climate Change, Water, Supply Chain and Forest questionnaires is a topic of increasing interest to organizations both inside and outside of ACLCA. Several sessions in the conference’s executive track focused on how companies can use LCA internally to make product decisions and externally to communicate the environmental impact of products to customers and other stakeholders.

3. The importance of increasing education around LCA
In a session titled Bringing LCA into the Classroom and Beyond, I presented a hands-on activity that can be scaled to the age and understanding of the audience to leverage LCA to help educators meet the goals of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). As part of this session, Bill Flanagan and Angel Fischer from GE presented on distance learning activities and web courses they developed for internal use at GE, but that can be adapted for online LCA education. As vice chair of the Education Committee, WSP has been working to connect ACLCA with educators and bring LCA into college and grade-school classrooms. This past year, the ACLCA education committee worked with high school and college educators to better understand how LCA could meet these educator’s needs and be incorporated into course curricula.

Comments are closed.