Excerpt 4 from the book ‘Full Product Transparency‘
‘LCA as a way to avoid burden shifting’
The LCA approach studies whole product systems and thus enables businesses to avoid mitigating one environmental impact at the expense of aggravating another. LCAs are used because they can help avoid a narrow view of environmental concerns by compiling an inventory of relevant energy and material inputs and emissions. They evaluate the potential impacts associated with identified inputs and releases. This information can in turn help an organisation make more informed decisions.
The goal of an LCA is to compare the full range of environmental effects assignable to a product or service with the aim of improving processes, supporting policy and providing a sound basis for informed decisions.
The product or service output: The functional unit
One of the key features of LCA is that it measures the impacts of a product or service instead of the direct impacts of the company that produces it.Therefore it is especially important to define the boundaries and scope related to any metric by which a product is measured. In LCA terminology this is called the ‘functional unit’, which defines precisely what is being studied and quantifies ‘the service delivered by the product system’, providing a reference to which the inputs and outputs of environmental impacts can be related.
Let’s start looking at it in a very simplistic way. Think of a glass. A glass is a countable thing: one glass, two glasses, three glasses. Glasses can be counted in units. The liquid contained by a glass, on the other hand, is not counted by units but in litres. So, in a simplistic way, the functional unit needed to carry out an LCA for a glass is units, but for the liquid in the glass it is litres.
But it gets more complicated. That way you could not compare two glasses with different capacities. You would need to compare the number of glasses needed to contain a given amount of liquid, because people want the glass to drink with. You would also need to think about cleaning them. If one was crystal and needed to be hand washed, and the other could be washed in a dishwasher, then you would need to take this into account over a given number of uses. Also, if one was very fragile, typically only lasting 100 uses, whereas the other was robust, then this would also need to be included within the functional unit. For drinks, then the question is whether it is just about the volume, because you are just using them to quench your thirst, or it might be about calories. Milk needs to be refrigerated, squash doesn’t.
Declared unit instead of functional unit
For most construction materials, the function cannot be finalised until we know how they will be used in the building. A carpet can provide sound proofing and thermal insulation, but this may not be required or used in the building, or may need to be compensated for if it is problematic. Cement’s function can only be considered based on the concrete it is used in and how it is used. For building products, we therefore consider ‘declared units’ of 1 kg, 1 m3, 1 item.
I argue that for FPT we should work on the basis of declared units rather than functional units, because a manufacturer of products should declare the impacts of their products irrespectively of how their clients will use their products. The declared unit for many raw materials, such as steel or cement, is kg. The functional unit for office space can be measured in m2. For power generation it could be kWh. The functional unit for carpet is m2 per product installed. That’s the functional unit over which product manufacturers should strive to make impact reductions. How the products are used is a matter for customers.
This idea of focusing on declared units is likely to cause some outrage to the LCA academics but declared units can work as building blocks while traditional functional units are better for comparative studies. For example, if you have the EPD of steel and cement per kg, carpet per m2 and so on for building materials, you can calculate the impacts of a building.
Defining functional units can get very tricky, especially in connection with services. What is the functional unit of a mobile phone service, for instance? Should it be a minute of a call? But the network is also used for the internet, so should it be MB of traffic? For tangible things such as ice-cream, t-shirts, or pens, the functional unit is quite clear: it’s what the customer gets. Unilever bases its LCAs on consumer use: one use of toothpaste, one use of rinse aid for the dishwasher, or one use of soap for a shower.
Example of functional units for LCA studies:
• Lighting 10 square metres with 3000 lux for 50,000 hours with daylight spectrum at 5600 K.
• Seating support for one person working at a computer for one year.
• 1 m2 of insulation with sufficient thickness to provide a thermal resistance value of 3 m2K/W, equivalent to approximately 100 mm of insulation with a conductivity (k value) of 0.033 W/mK.
• The amount of paint necessary to cover 20 m2 with an opacity of 98%. • A single pair of dry hands (to compare hand dryers, paper and textile towels).
• 1 km of gravity sewerage system under a road in a non-aggressive soil and groundwater environment, used for the removal of mixed household water, consisting of pipes DN 300 or DN 450 and manholes DN 1200 or DN 1350, with a service life of 50 years.
Example of simpler declared units:
• 1 kg (cement, steel)
• 1 m2 (carpet, office space, building)
• 1 litre (drinks)
• 1 use (toothpaste, soap)
Ancillary materials or processes
The point of ancillary materials or processes is particularly important. All the extra stuff needed to make a product or service actually work has to be taken into account. It’s quite obvious that you need to take into account the fuel needed to use a car. When looking at drinks, you need to factor in whether they need to be refrigerated or heated. When looking at soap, you need to factor in the water and heating needed to use that soap.
Note that it’s not the m2 of product sold, because you need to take into account the installation waste (cutting the carpet to fit the shape of the room). You also need to factor in the impact of ancillary materials used to install it, such as underlay or adhesive.
Problems with manipulating the scope and assumptions of LCA
Lifecycle assessment alone is not sufficient proof of a positive product footprint, for the simple reason that the scope of the study can be manipulated. There have been many examples of a ‘well chosen’ scope that can make good features look better than they really are while making bad points virtually disappear. You may, for example, have a mobile phone made with highly toxic materials but with a good battery life that exceeds the industry average. Solution for the unscrupulous business: choose energy or carbon as your main indicator, which will hide the toxicity and emphasise the good battery life.
Some years ago we saw manufacturers of paper tissues and manu- facturers of hand dryers simultaneously claiming that LCAs have shown their products had a lower impact than each other. This was because the hand dryer manufacturers assumed that customers used four paper towels per visit or a very short hot air blast, while the paper towel makers assumed one towel and a significantly longer hot air session. So it’s all about fair assumptions and scope. And better if there are strong rules than just relying on the interpretation of LCA practitioners or companies.
What are product category rules and how do they fix the assumptions?
Product category rules (PCR) are a set of regulations for products in a sector or category that are established by an independent technical committee that includes experts from that sector. Each PCR has within it a set of functional units and metrics common to that industry. The rules act as guidance to help a company understand what LCA data to collect. Product category rules explain how calculations should be made and presented – so as to best capture the different elements of a product’s total environmental footprint.
The PCR process is carried out in an open, transparent manner, and there is ample opportunity for various stakeholders to comment on how it is drawn up. This is crucial to making sure the PCR documents are of the highest quality possible. When all relevant comments are incorporated into the PCR it is approved and can then be used in the marketplace.
Although in theory each product is unique, it is not feasible to have a PCR for each one – that would lead to an avalanche of PCR documents. Instead, groups of product category rules have been created for similar products that consist of the same raw materials, types of chemicals, and compositions and components or for a group of different products that provide a similar function. This allows for the same set of rules to be applied to a large number of similar products – mobile phones, steaks, fridges, milk, cars, and so on.
Each PCR incorporates its own set of common functional units and metrics that are relevant to the industry in question, with agreed metrics relevant to the creation of the products or services in question.
Next time ‘What is an EPD’
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