Building the Tools of the Trade, 1990–2000

Life-Cycle Assessment

Life-cycle assessment (LCA) is the methodology that seeks to identify the environmental impacts of a product or process at each stage of its life cycle. Analytical efforts to quantify emissions and resource loss on a life-cycle basis date from the 1970s (e.g., Bousted 1972; Hunt and Welch 1972), but LCA's rapid growth and its close relationship with industrial ecology began about 1990, especially in Sweden (Steen and Ryding, 1992), and it first became codified in a 1993 handbook (Heijungs et al. 1992). Klöpffer (2006) has reviewed the key role of the Society for Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) in the early development of LCA. In Europe, a spur for the development of a standard methodology came from the adoption of LCA as the basis for product labeling (Clift et al. 1994). While the need for further development of the methodology was widely recognized (e.g., Field et al. 1993), adoption of LCA as an industrial ecology tool became increasingly widespread, both in industry and government (Harsch et al. 1996; Matsuno et al. 1998; Itsubo et al. 2000).

A lively community of methodology developers and practitioners emerged, and LCA benefited from database development, standards setting, and creation of software. However, some potential users (especially in industry) found the methodology too complex and contested to be workable on a routine basis. This led many to work with the LCA consulting industry that sprang up to respond to a demonstrated need and the increasing availability of LCA software. An alternative approach was to “streamline” LCA (e.g., Graedel et al. 1995; Weitz et al. 1995; Hoffman 1997; Christiansen 1997), and streamlined LCA (SLCA) has since been used in various forms throughout industry. As a consequence of these initiatives, LCA and SLCA activities in industry are much more significant than might be inferred by an outside observer.

In 2002, a new LCA guide addressed in detail many of the issues that had caused concern in the past (Guinée 2002). However, unresolved problems remained, as pointed out by Reap et al. (2008a, b). LCA remains today in the interesting position of being viewed as still in development as an academic tool but widely employed in industry. It will doubtlessly continue to undergo further development, as it continues to provide important perspectives on industrial product and process design activities.

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