Life Cycle Assessment
Background and drivers
LCA started in the late sixties and early seventies in a procedure known as ‘Ecobalance' which was an inventory based methodology which, at that point, dealt predominantly with energy efficiency, the consumption of raw materials and to a small extent, waste disposal for items including beverage containers. Ian Boustead calculated the total energy used in aluminium, glass, steel and plastic beverage containers in the UK in 1972 and over the following years consolidated his methodology into the first published guide: the Handbook of Industrial Energy Analysis.
Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is a technique used extensively in the sustainable building industry as a way to evaluate the sustainability and environmental impact of a new construction. Life Cycle Costing (LCC) is more commonly used in general construction and can help to select materials in large scale builds, by comparing environmental impact to cost. Although neither technique is very commonly applied at present, the range of software tools to calculate them is growing rapidly.
Over time, companies and individuals have become increasingly keen to use less environmentally damaging materials in their builds. This has led a demand for a consistent way to measure the amount and impact of damaging materials used and in turn this has led to the growth of Life Cycle Analysis methodologies.
Within LCA there are four main stages which are: the acquisition of raw materials, including the fuel for the extracting equipment such as diggers and the transportation; the production, which also includes the use of water; the use of the product, which usually entails the highest use of energy and the end-of-life treatment or disposal which is how the object is dealt with at the end of its useful life.
The LCA calculation methodology you choose to assess a material, or indeed an entire construction, is predominately governed by how in depth you need to be. Tools range from free online calculators to carefully designed software with the capacity to account for many detailed inputs. Alternatively you can use one of the many databases of existing product LCAs.
"The first studies to look at life cycle aspects of products and materials date from the late sixties and early seventies, and focused on issues such as energy efficiency, the consumption of raw materials and, to some extent, waste disposal. In 1969, for example the Coca Cola Company funded a study to compare resource consumption and environmental releases associated with beverage containers. Meanwhile, in Europe, a similar inventory approach was being developed, later known as the ‘Ecobalance'. In 1972, in the UK, Ian Boustead calculated the total energy used in the production of various types of beverage containers, including glass, plastic, steel and aluminium. Over the next few years, Boustead consolidated his methodology to make it applicable to a variety of materials, and in 1979, published the Handbook of Industrial Energy Analysis."