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The Origins of LCA: Perspective from The Father of Modern-Day Life Cycle Assessment

May 3, 2022 | Insights,

This is the first blog in a series exploring the foundations and future roles of LCAs.  Jim Fava, Executive Director at Anthesis, shares insights from his experience, being known as the father of modern day LCA. Caroline Gaudreault, Anthesis LCA Service Line Lead, interviews Jim about his perspectives, his role, and the relevancy of LCA to current and future product sustainability policy and practice. Jim shares his firsthand observations from leading and playing a key role in helping set the foundation for modern day LCA.  In the subsequent blogs, Caroline as well as other members of the Anthesis LCA team will share perspectives on where and how LCA is being applied, and where LCA will be used moving forward to contribute to positive sustainability impacts.

A need to expand beyond pollution control

What was happening [globally] that generated the need for a tool like LCA?

Environmental protection in the early days focused mainly on controlling the amount of chemicals from manufacturing that were released into the air, water, and land, and on reducing waste (i.e., on pollution control).  Governments in North America, Europe, Japan, and a few other countries had laws and regulations in place to limit those amounts.

Questions were being raised about the amount of energy and natural resources used and solid waste produced, not just from the manufacturing processes but from the products. From a customer perspective, what typically was the most obvious in terms of product waste was its packaging.  So, questions were being asked about environmental impacts associated with this packaging. Questions also started to be raised around energy use and other environmental attributes of products. These product-related environmental questions influenced the need for a systems-based methodology to understand environmental impacts associated with products over their entire life cycle. However, at that time, there was no accepted methodology to understand the impacts along the life cycle of products that could be used.

Predecessors to LCA

Were there other approaches that led to LCA?

Yes, when one examines the history of looking at products from a systematic perspective, there were early efforts by pioneers in the UK, USA, Sweden, and Switzerland to use a methodology that could be classified more as mass balance-like and/or energy management approach (which eventually became life cycle inventory analysis).  These accounting-like methods were referred to as Resource and Environmental Profile Analysis (REPA) or Eco Balances. An example application of this was by Coca-Cola, which used it for making packaging decisions and challenged its supplier of packaging material to improve their performance, recognizing that any material would have an environmental impact.

Modern-day LCA

Jim, you refer to the modern-day LCA.  What do you mean by modern-day LCA?

When we speak about modern-day LCA, we are referring to work by The Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) that led to the general LCA framework described in the ISO 14040 series of standards and continues to be used globally nowadays.

In the late 1980s, conversations were occurring about how best to develop a methodology to assess the environmental impacts of products over their entire life cycle and SETAC had a proven approach to advance environmental practices. In this approach, multiple stakeholders were brought into weeklong workshops. At the end of the week, a book was written. SETAC held four of these workshops. The first one I chaired, to reach a consensus on key methodological principles and frameworks to assess environmental impacts associated with products from raw materials acquisition to end of life management. To my knowledge, it is in this series of workshops that the terminology “Life Cycle Assessment” was used for the first time. A four-step methodology for LCA was proposed which became the core phases within the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) LCA standards – i.e., ISO 14040 series of LCA standards.

Over a few years and four workshops, SETAC published four books:

1) Technical Framework for Life-Cycle Assessment

2) A Conceptual Framework for Life-Cycle Impact Assessment

3) Life-Cycle Assessment Data Quality: A Conceptual Framework

4) Guidelines for Life-Cycle Assessment: A “Code of Practice”

These books and their relevance are described in a Globe article which also provides a link to download them.

SETAC workshops

How did you get involved in these earlier workshops?

In the late 1980s, the questions that I was being asked to address as a consultant were beginning to move away from pollution control and how to ensure my clients were complying with those laws and regulations. Clients started to have questions related to the product’s life cycle that were broader than compliance.  Being already active in SETAC, and in 1989, President, I had been involved with using SETAC’s Workshop Series process to co-chair a workshop report book on ‘Research needs in Ecological Risk Assessment’.  After a series of conversations with EPA and companies, I ended up leading a multi-stakeholder group to organize and run the five-day workshop resulting in SETAC’s first LCA book – Technical Framework for Life Cycle Assessment.

“Change is hard”

As you previously mentioned, the early days approaches focused on collecting inventory data. Why was life cycle impact assessment added? 

This is a good and interesting question.  Some of the workshops’ participants thought that the outcome of the workshop would support the primarily inventory type analysis.  They were surprised that the phrase ‘life cycle impact analysis’ was added.  I even heard one say, “if the workshop had been held by a chemical engineering organization, not an environmental fate/effects/risk assessment organization, we would be able to continue with the mass-balance inventory analysis approach”.  My reaction was change is hard, but it is all about improving the method and understanding core foundations for any assessment approach.  To me and the others at the 1990 workshop, understanding the potential environmental consequences of using natural resources that release pollutants could not solely by captured by a mass balance. There was a need to convert to metrics describing the potential impact on the environment.  Since SETAC’s core was in understanding fate and effects of chemicals, it was a logical addition to the LCA method.

… the results should drive change and go beyond just quantifying the inputs and outputs and assessing the impacts, and move towards identifying opportunities for improvement.

Improvement vs interpretation

Your use of the term ‘life cycle improvement assessment’ was unexpected.  For many years the fourth phase of LCA has been ‘interpretation’.  What happened to change the term?

The Technical Framework for LCA (the first SETAC book) created an expectation that the results should drive change and go beyond just quantifying the inputs and outputs and assessing the impacts and move towards identifying opportunities for improvement. That is why the fourth phase was ‘improvement assessment’ in the SETAC LCA books. However, during the ISO LCA standard setting process, ‘improvement’ was changed to ‘interpretation’. The rationale was that LCA can be used for more applications than just improvement. Improvement is just one application within the ‘interpretation’ phase. But for me, the fundamental purpose of the LCA methodology was to identify and drive change – i.e., improvements. When I have been asked, would I have changed anything?  Yes, I would have kept ‘improvement assessment’ in the four phases.

In this first of our series of blogs on the current and future value of LCA to inform positive sustainability impacts and business values, we have heard from Jim and Caroline on questions related to the value in developing the modern-day LCA methodology, and how it happened.

Stay tuned for ensuing blogs on success factors in the use of LCA and perspectives on where we see the future practice and value going forward.

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