Life-Cycle Assessment: Constraints on Moving from Inventory to Impact Assessment

Authors


Corporate Professional C Regulatory Services, Environmental Science Department, 5299 Spring Grove Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45217, The Proctor C Gamble Co., USA, owens.jw@pg.com

Summary

Life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a technique for systematically analyzing a product from cradle-to-grave, that is, from resource extraction through manufacture and use to disposal. LCA is a mixed or hybrid analytical system. An inventory phase analyzes system inputs of energy and materials along with outputs of emissions and wastes throughout life cycle, usually as quantitative mass loadings. An impact assessment phase then examines these loadings in light of potential environmental issues using a mixed spectrum of qualitative and quantitative methods. The constraints imposed by inventory's loss of spatial, temporal, dose-response, and threshold information raise concerns about the accuracy of impact assessment. The degree of constraint varies widely according to the environmental issue in question and models used to extrapolate the inventory data. LCA results may have limited value in two areas: (I) local and/ortransient biophysical processes and (2) issues involving biological parameters, such as biodiversity, habitat alteration, and toxicity. The end result is that impact assessment does not measure actual effects or impacts, nor does it calculate the likelihood of an effect or risk Rather, LCA impact assessment results are largely directional environmental indicaton. The accuracy and usefulness of indicators need to be assessed individually and in a circumstance-specific manner prior to decision making. This limits LCAs usefulness as the sole basis for comprehensive assessments and the comparisons of alternatives. In conclusion, LCA may identify potential issues from a systemwide perspective, but more-focused assessments using other analytical techniques are often necessary to resolve the issues.

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