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Life Cycle Assessments: Trends, Challenges and Opportunities

Contributor III
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Life cycle assessment has become an important tool for companies to understand the environmental impact of their products, processes, or even whole company footprint from beginning to end. LCA’s measure the total flow of mass and energy (among other things) for a given unit starting with the extraction of raw materials, on to the manufacturing processes, then to consumer use and ending with how a product is disposed of or reclaimed into a new cycle.

I interviewed GlaxoSmithKline’s Dr. Concepción Jiménez-González, on her and co-author Dr. Michael R. Overcash's recent paper “The evolution of life cycle assessment in the pharmaceutical and chemical applications – a perspecti...” published in Green Chemistry. Jiménez-González notes that there is an increasing interest over the past few years in using LCA techniques to evaluate greener approaches in the pharmaceutical industry. She points out that the ‘greenness’ of a product ultimately relates to its overall environmental footprint, and LCAs are the best way to measure that. “The more holistic and systemic an LCA is, the better the picture of the ‘greenness’ of the process or chemistry is,” says Jiménez-González.

Given an LCA’s potentially expansive scope, one of the most important aspects of a successful analysis is defining the specific objectives and goals of the study. For example, you might want to compare two pathways to synthesis of a pharmaceutical ingredient and determine which method has the lowest overall environmental impact. Or you may want to analyze all the inputs and outputs of a current process to determine where the greatest need for improvement lays. Depending on your goal, data collection parameters can be set correctly.

Along the same lines, care must be taken when using LCAs to benchmark amongst different types of products or comparing one study to the next. “When comparing products or services, the boundaries need to be the same and the assumptions need to be congruent,” say Jiménez-González. Without this, LCA’s may tell you a lot about what you are measuring, but not a lot about other choices.

Another factor in life cycle assessments is how to collect all the required data. Most companies do not operate at all levels of the supply chain, and therefore getting data from earlier or later in the supply chain requires a degree of transparency. “LCAs are driving some inter-company collaboration,” says Jiménez-González. One example of this is the efforts of the ACS GCI Pharmaceutical Roundtable to engage their suppliers in calculating Process Mass Intensity data.

At the same time, intra-company collaboration is also a big part of LCAs. “When someone inside a company is conducting an LCA, the group needs to engage with different departments within the enterprise, such as procurement, engineering, commercial, finance amongst others,” says Jiménez-González. Another aspect of collaboration has arisen in “companies who do not have a well-developed internal LCA program tend to have collaborations with universities and external research centers to ensure the integrity of the LCAs.”

Historically, LCAs were limited in scope but the trend has been moving towards incorporating more and more complex systems into the analysis. Meanwhile an ISO standard has been developed which defines methodologies and approaches for analysis. As a result of these trends, conducting an LCA can be very data intensive and very time consuming to complete. This has led some to use databases such as Ecoinvent that  provides quality-checked life cycle inventory and assessment information which can be plugged into your calculation.

Out of this approach are emerging streamlined tools that make use of these easy-access metrics to get quick estimated results. The benefit of this approach is the ability to make relatively quick assessments, but the tradeoff is that the results may come with larger margins of error since the data isn’t specific to the actual suppliers you work with. An example of a streamlined tool is one the ACS GCI Pharmaceutical Roundtable is developing. The tool, currently in beta, is based on their Process Mass Intensity Calculator and incorporates LCA data from Ecoinvent.

Regardless of which approach a company takes, collecting quality data is one of the big challenges for LCAs. Jiménez-González has identified some community needs related to data availability:

  • Increase the geographical resolution of LCA databases
  • Improve consistency and transparency of the LCA methodologies and data
  • Continue to develop streamlined tools
  • Include data quality indicators in reports
  • Update existing data, particularly industry averages used in LCA software and streamlined tools
  • Incorporate continuous peer reviews

The other great challenge, and the point of all of this analysis, is to effectively interpret LCA results so that they can be used to make intelligent business decisions. Again Jiménez-González has some common-sense suggestions for practitioners:

  • Put more emphasis to the goal of the study to avoid superfluous results
  • Incorporate LCA metrics in smaller steps depending on the level of maturity of the organization
  • Translate the LCA results into actionable steps at the shop-floor level
  • Make it easy for non-experts to use and apply LCA insights

Life cycle assessments are here to stay, and more and more companies are finding it valuable to look at LCA data when evaluating products and processes. Taken in context with other data points, decision-makers can better understand the impacts of choices and tradeoffs between different approaches.

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