LCAs and EPDs: Everything You Need to Know

For designers committed to sustainability, the quest for the most eco-friendly options (both online and offline) can be both exhilarating and overwhelming. Amidst this journey, a recurring question emerges: how can one truly verify or quantify the sustainability of a product?

No matter where one looks, the answers invariably include the terms LCA and EPD. These acronyms often mark the end of the search, a sort of conversational full stop. But not today. Today, let’s break down those barriers and finally demystify what LCAs and EPDs actually stand for!

What is LCA?

Imagine tracking the journey of a piece of furniture from the initial design sketches to its final placement in a room, and eventually to its disposal or repurposing. This journey is known as its life cycle. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methodically reveals the environmental impacts at each stage of this journey—from the sourcing of raw materials and manufacturing, through usage, to disposal or recycling. LCA offers a comprehensive method for understanding the ecological footprint of everything, from a coffee cup to a car, by calculating the emissions (read CO2e) produced at each step.

Why are LCAs necessary?

LCA asks the hard-hitting questions:

1) To what extent, does the product emit greenhouse gases or harm the ozone layer?

2) What particle emissions are generated by the product?

3) How does the product impact land use?

4) What is the water usage associated with the product?

5) How does product affect human health?

An LCA study gathers a detailed inventory of all the energy and materials used throughout a product’s supply and value chains, calculating the resulting environmental emissions.

LCA not only helps identify eco-friendly potential within design processes but also enables comparisons between similar products or services. The goal is to determine the most efficient and least environmentally detrimental option.

Who can benefit from LCA?

– Companies/Businesses: Utilise LCA for sustainable product design and manufacturing.

– Policymakers: Rely on LCA data to craft effective regulations.

– Consumers: Benefit from LCA to make informed purchasing decisions.

For interior designers and architects, LCAs are invaluable. They guide material selection, energy-efficient design, and sustainable construction practices.

Role of LCAs in Sustainability

LCAs are central to companies aiming to maintain a strong sustainability reputation. A thorough analysis of LCAs across various products and services is necessary to understand a company’s carbon footprint comprehensively.

Besides, today’s consumers are increasingly considering environmental impacts when choosing between similar products or services. Conducting an LCA helps identify potential environmental harm caused by a company’s products or services, enabling proactive steps towards more resource-efficient alternatives.

LCAs also pinpoint sources of pollution and waste, helping companies develop innovative strategies to enhance their products’ environmental performance. They are essential for creating comprehensive sustainability roadmaps and setting and achieving corporate decarbonisation targets.

Standardised Procedures for LCAs

The procedures for conducting LCAs are widely recognised and included in the 14000 series of environmental management standards by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), specifically in ISO 14040 and ISO 14044. ISO 14040 outlines the ‘principles and framework’ for LCAs, while ISO 14044 (designed for practitioners) details the ‘requirements and guidelines.’

LCA methodology is about looking at the big picture and understanding how every stage of a product’s lifecycle can affect the environment.

How are LCAs Conducted?

Conducting a life cycle assessment involves thorough research into every aspect of a product’s production and lifecycle. This includes understanding the origins of raw materials, energy consumption in manufacturing, packaging methods, transportation logistics, and end-of-life disposal practices, including recycling.

Key Stages in LCA

To simplify the process, let’s divide the LCAs into four main categories:

A: Creation Phase (Product and Construction)

B: Use Phase

C: End-of-life Phase

D: Recycling/ Beyond Life Cycle Phase

A: Creation Phase

This phase involves significant energy and resource consumption. Environmental impacts are assessed on several parameters including air, water, and soil pollution, destruction of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity and CO2 emissions. The phase includes:

Product Stage:

  • Extraction or manufacturing of raw materials
  • Transportation of these resources
  • Production and transportation of individual components
  • Assembly of the complete product
  • Packaging and distribution

Construction Stage:

  • Transportation of goods
  • Unpacking and installation

Resources in this phase range from fuel for transportation to electricity for production processes, and water or potentially harmful chemicals. Companies often focus on this stage to reduce their carbon footprint.

B: Use Phase

After purchase, the environmental impact of a product continues through its usage, which can consume significant resources such as fuel, energy, and water during:

  • Preparation and use
  • Maintenance
  • Repair
  • Replacement or refurbishment
  • Operational energy use
  • Operational water use

These variables, although challenging to quantify, are crucial to the LCA and must be accounted for to ensure comprehensive analysis.

C: End-of-Life Phase

LCA delves into how a product is managed at the end of its life, encompassing stages such as:

  • Deconstruction and Collection 
  • Transportation to the disposal site
  • Water processing 
  • Disposal

This phase is intricate, and mishandling at this stage can have significant environmental consequences. Unregulated dumping or unchecked incineration may result in air, soil, and water pollution, along with harmful emissions.

D: Recycling / Beyond Life Cycle Phase

In addition to the cradle-to-grave assessment, this phase, also known as cradle-to-cradle, prioritises recycling over disposal. It aims to minimise environmental impact through sustainable production, operation, and disposal practices. This approach typically involves:

  • Reuse
  • Recycling
  • Recovery*

For instance, aluminium cans can be melted down and repurposed to create new aluminium products like cans or car parts. Similarly, paper and cardboard can undergo recycling to become packaging materials or insulation.

*Energy Recovery:

If materials are incinerated, the energy released can be harnessed for electricity production, providing a lower-impact energy source compared to fossil fuels. Although incineration emits more greenhouse gases than landfills, modern waste plants employ regulated pollution control equipment to mitigate these emissions.

By considering all these phases, an LCA offers a comprehensive view of a product or service’s environmental footprint from inception to disposal.

Benefits of LCA

Identifying Harmful Processes: LCA is an effective tool for pinpointing the most environmentally detrimental processes within a company. This could involve changing packaging materials, refining raw material extraction processes, optimising transport methods, or enhancing end-of-life recycling strategies, all of which can pave the way to eco-certification.

Strategic Decision-Making: An LCA provides a valuable perspective on sustainability, guiding companies toward a greener future. By comprehensively understanding environmental impact, one can make informed strategic decisions, improve products, and contribute to a more sustainable world.

Improving Efficiency and Innovation: Conducting an LCA can lead to improved energy efficiency, better waste management, and innovative ideas for new sustainable products.

LCA to EPD

After conducting a thorough life cycle assessment (LCA) to understand the environmental impacts of a product, the next step is often to communicate these findings transparently. This is where Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) come into play. EPDs serve as a standardised method for conveying the environmental performance of products based on credible data.

What is an EPD?

An Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) is a third-party verified, standardised document that details the environmental impact of a product, based on data derived from an LCA. EPDs provide transparent and comparable information about the environmental performance of products or materials.

Why Are EPDs Created?

Regulatory Compliance: EPDs provide a standardised method for assessing and comparing the environmental impacts of products, which is useful for developing and enforcing environmental regulations​. In the UAE, particularly in Dubai, EPDs are becoming increasingly significant for compliance with environmental standards. For instance, the Estidama Pearl Rating System and the Dubai Green Building Regulations and Specifications mandate the use of sustainable materials and practices. Similarly, global green building standards such as LEED and BREEAM are also gaining traction in the UAE, reinforcing the importance of EPDs in meeting these stringent environmental certifications.

Transparency and Trust: EPDs help companies build trust with stakeholders by demonstrating their commitment to environmental responsibility. They provide a standardised way to disclose environmental impacts, which can attract environmentally conscious consumers and investors​.

Market Differentiation: EPDs allow companies to differentiate their products in the market by showcasing their environmental credentials, which can be a significant competitive advantage​.

Why Should the Topic Interest Interior Designers and Architects?

Sustainable Design: EPDs enable architects and interior designers to make informed choices about materials and products that minimise environmental impacts, supporting the creation of more sustainable and eco-friendly buildings.

Compliance and Certification: EPDs are often required for green building certifications such as LEED and BREEAM. Understanding and utilising EPDs helps designers ensure that their projects meet these certification standards​​.

Market Demand: As clients increasingly demand sustainable and environmentally responsible designs, familiarity with EPDs allows designers to meet these expectations and stay competitive in the market​​.

Innovation and Efficiency: The use of EPDs can drive innovation in material and product selection, leading to more efficient and sustainable design practices. This not only benefits the environment but can also reduce costs and improve the overall quality of projects​.

Components of an EPD

An EPD consists of two key documents:

Underlying LCA Report: This is a systematic and comprehensive summary of the LCA project, designed to support the third-party verifier during the verification process. It is not intended for public communication.

Public EPD Document: This document provides the LCA results and other relevant EPD content, making the information accessible to the public.

While an EPD is a voluntary declaration of a product’s life-cycle environmental impact, it does not imply that the product is environmentally superior to alternatives. Instead, it only offers a transparent view of the product’s environmental performance, enabling more informed comparisons and decisions.

How to Create or Access a Product’s EPD

To create or access an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD), one can either encourage the manufacturer to provide the necessary EPD data, or utilise several external sites and services that specialise in creating custom EPDs for products.

Conclusion

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) plays a pivotal role in promoting transparency by quantifying and communicating environmental impacts in a standardised and comprehensible format. Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) extend the benefits of LCA by providing a third-party verified, standardised document that details the environmental performance of products.

Both LCAs and EPDs represent a promise for the future. They embody a continuous improvement process, where the emphasis is not on making all changes immediately but on identifying areas for future enhancement. Embracing them  is a step towards a more sustainable and responsible future, encouraging continuous learning and growth.

References:

Everything you need to know about LCA (Life Cycle Analysis). (2024, April 23). https://greenly.earth/en-us/blog/company-guide/everything-you-need-to-know-about-lca-life-cycle-analysis-in-2022

The EPD | EPD International. (n.d.). https://www.environdec.com/all-about-epds/the-epd

Zacharia, M. (2024, May 3). What are Environmental Product Declarations? https://oneclicklca.com/en/resources/articles/what-are-environmental-product-declarations

Environmental Product Declarations (EPD) | cove.tool Help Center. (n.d.). https://help.covetool.com/en/articles/6843292-environmental-product-declarations-epd


Article info

Article:

Date added:

2 July, 2024

Related Articles