5 Life-cycle assessment (LCA) and eco-design

Integrated Product Policy

5.1 Introduction

Life-cycle assessment (LCA) and eco-design, the most typical applications of industrial ecology on a microeconomic scale, constitute the subject of this chapter. They are important enough for some authors to focus their attention on these two aspects alone when presenting industrial ecology (for example, Graedel and Allen by 1995; Anastas and Breen 1997). LCA and eco-design from the core of this field, just as they represent the core of the IPP. They are closely related, with eco-design aided by LCA in order to design products to have the least possible environmental impacts throughout their life-cycles.

Before the development of industrial ecology and its tools, some of the stages of product life-cycle were not considered during the design phase, especially the later ones – the use phase and those that follow it. Now, LCA and eco-design refer to full product life-cycles, which they treat as similar to life-cycles observed in nature – they attempt to imitate the natural, circular flows of matter and energy in the human economy. Furthermore, eco-design is meant to follow natural ‘design’, so that products designed with this concept in mind should easily integrate into natural material cycles, just as do natural products (or the products of organisms in nature and those organisms themselves). Careful obser­vation of nature reveals that it mostly provides us with its functions as referred to in previous chapters (introduced for the first time in subsection 3.2.2). Thus, turning products into services might constitute an important step forward in designing the environmentally friendly economy.

In its Communication on the IPP, the European Commission (2003a: 5) dif­ferentiated between LCA and a general idea of life-cycle thinking, and in the IPP focused on the latter. In some cases, life-cycle thinking may indeed be more important than a comprehensive LCA. The former reveals the most important impact areas, while the latter supplies a much more detailed picture of what can be improved. Introducing the idea of life-cycle thinking to companies may serve as an important leverage point in reducing their environmental impacts. Often, less significant changes introduced to a larger number of actors may prove more effective than a few more advanced undertakings. Nevertheless, the European Commission (2003a: 10) did acknowledge that ‘LCAs provide the best framework for assessing the potential environmental impacts of products currently available’ and suggested that they ‘are therefore an important support tool for IPP’.

In this chapter, after reviewing some general, basic issues common to LCA and eco-design (section 5.2), I attempt to describe these tools more thoroughly in separate sections (5.3 and 5.4). Here, I present LCA in a general way, focus­ing on its procedure and applications. In the following chapter (section 6.4), I return to the presentation of LCA, referring to one of its phases which can be extended with the use of input-output analysis. The descriptions of LCA and eco-design in the current chapter are followed by some remarks on their further applications, that eventually may serve to make production and consumption more sustainable (or environmentally friendly; section 5.5). A summary and conclusions in section 5.6 close this chapter.