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LCA and the Circular Economy, Part 2: A Look at Reader Comments from Around the World

A few months ago, I shared some thoughts on Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and its relationship to the concept of the circular economy, with a particular focus on LCA’s potential for assessing the environmental impacts of recycling and other end-of-life actions.

fire in trash can

A few months ago, I shared some thoughts on Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and its relationship to the concept of the circular economy, with a particular focus on LCA’s potential for assessing the environmental impacts of recycling and other end-of-life actions.

We posted the article on LinkedIn and were gratified to see a spirited discussion of LCA’s value and limitations, with thoughtful perspectives from people representing different sectors of the sustainability community in diverse parts of the world. A number of interesting points emerged, and it seems worthwhile to take another look at the subject.

One fundamental issue is system-level visibility into what actually happens when a product (“Product V,” made with virgin materials) is recycled into a new “Product R,” made with recycled materials. What is Product R? Is it equivalent to Product V? How would it be made in the absence of recycled materials? And how can we get more clarity on the critical question of whether recycling a particular product in a particular way is a good idea or not?

As Michele Galatoa, a policy officer for the European Commission in Brussels put it, “most often you don’t know what will be the true EoL of Product V and, if recycled, what kind of Product R will be produced. You can only produce scenarios but the uncertainty behind cannot be eliminated.”

Bryce Hedditch of Australian shutter supplier Sonnenschutz replied, “True…but recovered materials based on value, capacity and capability has changed little in 30 years. Geography of EOL can be challenging for multinationals too, often need to do some serious homework going into a new market. Often overlooked.”

This exchange gets at one of the grand challenges of our field – the need to create new lines of visibility beyond the traditional “make it and sell it” model and incorporate the resulting findings into our thinking.

But not having detailed knowledge of something is no excuse for not modeling it. We know that some percentage of a product is landfilled, some incinerated, some recycled, and as we’re learning to our dismay, some percentage leaks into the environment. It’s not hard to do four scenarios—one for each of these fates (although the last one is harder to do at present) to understand what the impact will be under each condition. Is our product always better? Is it better only if it’s recycled? Providing this information to our customers makes us better stewards and helps them be better stewards as well.

Consultant and business coach Benoît Guyot weighed in from France with a pointer to an alternative LCA method, Strategic Lifecycle Analysis (SLCA), from The Natural Step NGO. “Combined with Templates for Sustainable Product Development (TSPD),” said Guyot, “it is a good foundation to reflect on the function behind the product... and find new ways to address a problem/satisfy some needs.”

SLCA is an interesting tool similar to Life Cycle Thinking, but it’s important to recognize that LCA results are often counter-intuitive. That means that both SLCA and Life Cycle Thinking can lead us down the wrong path if we’re not careful. Sharing insights instead of carbon numbers is one way to help those who don’t do LCA better understand how their decisions affect the world around us. It’s also a way of handling the problematic uncertainly of exactly what percent of a product is recycled at end-of-life.

The importance of proper study design was noted byLeila Schein, partner at Zoom Sustentable in Argentina, who commented, “IMHO, LCA Is the right mindset to develop a quantitative framework” for assessment. She pointed out that LCA doesn’t provide the big idea but can “guide you through the small decisions to make it as efficient as possible in terms of resources AND its environmental burdens.”

Those “small decisions” are especially relevant because the types of questions we’re posing often do not have fixed answers, and our thinking needs to be agile. The range of possible fates mentioned above will vary by time and place, with different percentages of a product’s recycled material going back to performing the same function it did in the past, being downcycled to some other function, or incinerated or landfilled.

Because these are all possible with the very same product under different market conditions, we need analytical frameworks that help us consider the impacts in each one of these fates. It’s the only way to better understand the potential benefits as well as the risks.

Ultimately, the best driver of better end-of-life options is corporate product stewardship when the brands actually take responsibility for their products at end of life. A great example of this is the collaboration of printer and ink cartridge manufacturers with the Staples office supply chain, which allows consumers to bring back used cartridges for incorporation into a fully managed cycle.

While there’s clearly more work to be done in this area, it’s tremendously exciting to see the knowledge and thoughtfulness that’s being brought to bear on the subject. I offer my gratitude to everyone who reads and comments on these articles, and would close by offering a new question for consideration: how can we as a community identify and promulgate best practices?

This type of effort is central to EarthShift Global’s mission, and we look forward to continuing the conversation and contributing to the process however we can.