The Basics of Life Cycle Analysis

Life cycle assessment (LCA) assesses a product’s environmental impact throughout its ‘cradle-to-grave’ life span. With the advent of LCA databases, tools, models, and international standards (the International Organization of Standardization [ISO] 14040 series was adopted five years ago, and is currently being updated), the focus on life cycle management is becoming a more important part of sustainable design.

ACC’s Plastics Division served on the Executive Committee of the American Center for Life Cycle Assessment (ACLCA), an organization determined to increase knowledge and use of the life cycle methodology. Aside from supporting the concept of ‘sustainability,’ the group has identified the role of LCA in the built environment as:

  • supporting science-based legislation that leads to overall environmental improvement, rather than impact-shifting;
  • providing a logical framework for corporations for managing their environmental issues;
  • engaging the public in environmental decision-making; and
  • creating a framework to identify where research dollars should be spent.

In recognition of the growing need for solid LCI database for the North American plastics industry, ACC’s Plastics Division conducted an ISO compliant life cycle inventory for most major plastic polymer (i.e. cradle to pellet) and key polyurethane plastic precursors for entry in the U.S. LCI National Database project (a public/private partnership). This means an opportunity to use the most up-to-date LCI data (aggregated by polymer/transformation processes) as a basis for conducting full product life cycle studies for plastics products.

Plastics markets are far-reaching and diverse, including packaging, consumer goods, automotive, building and construction plastic products, furnishings, and electronics. ACC’s Plastics Division LCI data will provide current information to help stakeholders make better-informed decisions on key components of their plastic products. This can result in energy efficient optimization of the use-phase, minimizing the overall environmental burdens of the plastic product’s production, and providing comparisons between plastics and other materials for key impact categories, such as greenhouse gases and climate change. These are all important steps to get closer to sustainable production and processes.

The global plastics industry is a major player in the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) Life Cycle Initiative for sustainable development.


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