Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a quantitative assessment of emissions, resources consumed and the potential impacts on health and the environment that can be attributed to a product over its entire life cycle, from raw material extraction, raw material conversion, manufacture of product, distribution, through to its use and end-of-life processes. This is referred to as the “cradle -to- grave” approach. It is a key process in driving forward environmental improvements, future proofing and avoiding the “shifting of burdens”- solving one problem while creating another, from one stage in the life cycle to another.
The International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) has published a set of standards on LCA (ISO14040 and 14044) that describe the general principles and requirements to undertake LCA and ensure its quality and consistency. An ISO compliant LCA assessment is a multi-level analysis that requires extensive data collection and expertise to model the product’s life cycle, and requires the use of dedicated software tools and databases.
ISO-compliant LCA has 4 phases:
LCA is one of the main tools promoting sustainability and delivering the principles of Life Cycle Thinking. It seeks to identify possible improvements to goods and services in the form of lower environmental impacts and reduced use of resources, across all life cycle stages. There are other life cycle- based approaches that are not considered fully ISO-compliant LCA’s. They are based on “LCA thinking” or “LCA concepts” and have different data collection requirements and quality assurance, resulting in assessments with varying levels of robustness.
LCA for Nanotechnology
In principle, assessing nanotechnology and nanoproducts using LCA provides an opportunity for proactive action in order to prevent or minimise potential adverse effects to human health and the environment over the entire life cycle of the nanoproduct. LCA can add supplementary environmental information to support decisions on the development of the nanoproduct and assess the environmental sustainability performance of nanoproducts in comparison to their conventional equivalents. LCA can answer questions on the environmental performance of nanomaterials such as:
Experts worldwide agree that existing LCA tools are capable of being employed for nanomaterials, as long as assumptions, uncertainties and data gaps are clearly stated (Kloepffer et al., 2007). In principle, assessing nanotechnology or nano-based products using LCA provides an opportunity for proactive action in order to prevent or minimise potential adverse effects to human health and the environment over the entire life cycle of the nano-based product at an early stage (e.g. product development). LCA can guide researchers or businesses as they seek to understand and capitalise on the benefits of a nano-product over a conventional product, and as they seek to avoid potential nanomaterial risks and adverse effects on the environment and human health (Som et al., 2010). However, there are a number of challenges in undertaking LCA of nano-based products such as the lack of inventory input/output data; absence of toxicological tests results; wide process-to-process variation; lack of understanding in certain areas (particularly end-of-life scenarios). This results in high uncertainty of the assessment in relation to toxicity impacts, large scale impacts and end-of-life impacts.
A range of guidance documents and resources are available which provide information to support LCA of nanotechnology and nanoproducts. Key guidance resources for life cycle assessment are summarised below.
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