What does a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) tell us?

The environmental footprint of a product, starting from its creation, is not always intuitive. So how can it be known and measured, and why is it important?

An LCA is an internationally standardized analytical methodology used to quantify the environmental footprint of a product or service along all the stages that compose its life cycle. It starts from the raw materials used for its production to the activities required for its disposal, reuse or final recycling.

Life Cycle Assessment represents the main operational tool of “Life Cycle Thinking“, an all-inclusive approach to the environmental impacts of a product. Indeed, with LCA, it is possible to comprehend the consumption of natural resources, pollutant emissions, waste generation and human health impacts associated with each phase of the life cycle of a specific product or service.

At Fedrigoni, Life Cycle Assessment is fundamental in guiding new product development. As of 2021, the LCA of Fedrigoni’s products is calculated with Im:pact, twin tools (Eco-design Tool) developed by Fedrigoni to calculate the energy, water and carbon footprint of its paper-cement products and self-adhesive materials. A cradle-to-gate approach (from the extraction of raw materials to the exit from its plants) is used. These tools are third-party verified and are aligned with ISO 14040 series standards.

Why Life Cycle Assessment Matters

LCA is a science-based methodology that enables a company to identify potential areas for improvement and make more informed sustainability decisions concerning its operations. The analysis can also compare similar products to support the design and development of innovative new products with less environmental impact.

Most importantly, the Life Cycle Assessment is a tool for transparent communication with all stakeholders, especially customers, to whom it can provide reliable and accurate measurements and demonstrate the practicality of its environmental commitment.

A company’s adoption of Life Cycle Assessment is voluntary; no regulations mandate it. At the European level, the push for the use of LCA methodology is clearly expressed within the Green Paper on Integrated Product Policy. It is also suggested within the European EMAS and Ecolabel Regulations.

How is an LCA measured?

The first step is the ‘definition of the objectives and scope of the analysis,’ which serves to circumscribe and specify the object of the analysis precisely.

Take, for example, a Fedrigoni paper product: ‘LIFE ECO100‘. To conduct an LCA, details are essential. One should indicate the exact product name rather than just generically stating ‘white recycled paper’ as the object of the analysis. Then, one should indicate a well-defined product category (in this case, paper and cardboard consisting of 100% recycled content, FSC certified, high whiteness) should be specified. Then, the exact location it was produced (Verona) and the specific machine used should also be outlined. Plant location and machinery used are variables that can affect the environmental footprint, as they can have different energy consumption for the same process.

Instead, the ‘recipe’ by which this type of paper is made will put under observation the raw materials used, such as pulp and chemicals, the pre and post-consumer waste generated, transportation, and packaging.

All this is combined with the identification of the life cycle stages taken into consideration. In the case of ‘from cradle to gate’ LCA, the analysis will start from the phase of material extraction and end at the exit from the plant, considering all the intermediate stages that have taken place, including transport and packaging. This is the basis of analysis for the realization of the product eco-profile.

The data collection phase is fundamental: this is perhaps the most challenging part, detailing inputs and outputs of each assessment area, identified based on the ‘recipe’ of each product category.

At this point, there are all the elements for an initial analysis: the LCA report of the ‘LIFE ECO100’ product will tell us what the CED (Cumulative Energy Demand) is, i.e., the total energy extracted from the environment to make the product; the carbon footprint, i.e., climate-altering gas emissions and biogenic content; and freshwater consumption.

The following steps involve a strategic assessment of how the company uses the results of the Life Cycle Assessment:
– the interpretation of the results, in which the life cycle phases that contribute most to the overall environmental impacts are analyzed;
– the communication of the results to interested parties (stakeholders);
finally, the identification of more sustainable alternatives and the development of strategies that promote their implementation.

LCA analysis can have different levels of detail and measurement, depending also on the data availability. But it is important to emphasize, how Life Cycle Assessment is the basis for continuous improvement of the product’s environmental impacts.

Different approaches exist today, but thanks to the contribution of organizations such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), there are guidelines and standards such as ISO 14040 and ISO 14044 that allow organizations to measure environmental impacts related to products and processes in a harmonized way around the world.

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