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Satisfying a Treehugger: a Brief Guide to LCA

Imagine you need a birthday gift with an environmental message. What should you get? Avoid plastic, surely. What if it was bioplastic? A bunch of flowers? What if it took a gas-guzzling 6-hour flight from Kenya, would that cancel out? What about some raspberry-inscented heart-shaped soaps wrapped in 100% recycled paper? Oops, palm oil alert – orangutans die because of deforestation and increasing demand for palm oil.

How do you know which options are good or bad if they all embody at least one unique vice in their life cycle? In technical terms, would you be willing to choose a product that contains ozone-damaging chemicals over an alternative that contributes to smog creation? Is coughing to death better than skin cancer?

Enter science. Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a technique that analyses all the life cycle steps of a given product or service, including extraction and processing of raw materials, manufacturing, distribution, usage, maintenance and end-of-life management (recycling, landfilling, incineration etc.) from a broad environmental perspective, encompassing various categories of environmental impact. The impact assessment uses normalised scales to put smog on a par with toxicity, for example. Sounds like problem solved?

The main problem with LCAs is that there simply aren’t enough of them because they are extremely information-intensive and time-consuming to produce. Ideally, all elements and chemicals a product contains must be traced to their sources and the associated environmental impacts assessed in all categories. Of course, many studies omit minor details to save time and often assess impact in only one category. Here’s a list of the eight most commonly used categories of impact:

        abiotic depletion – consumption of mineral resources

        climate change – emissions of greenhouse gases

        stratospheric depletion – harmful impact on the ozone layer

        human toxicity – chemical hazards to human health

        ecotoxicity – chemical hazards to wildlife and habitat

        photo-oxidant formation – smog, ground-level ozone creation

        acidification – harmful changes in the pH of the environment

        eutrophication – nutrient enrichment in bodies of water

Each product has its own unique impact footprint – some contribute only in the production phase, others place the burden on the consumer.

Let’s look at a popular debate as an example:

Electric car (EV) vs ordinary car

Some people say that EVs are good because they don’t burn fossil fuels, others oppose by saying that battery production is highly hazardous. A recent LCA study by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology revealed that the production of an entire EV is twice as heavy on climate change as manufacturing the usual gas-guzzler, but after driving 150 000 electric kilometres with average European electricity (renewables and fossil fuels mixed) you will have generated, in total life cycle emissions, 20% to 24% less greenhouse gas compared to the gasoline-car. If your EV only used green electricity, the benefit would be 50%. For a gasoline-powered car, around three quarters of the life cycle global warming potential will be generated by you driving to and fro. However, EVs score significantly worse in other categories such as human and ecological ecotoxicity.

All in all, EVs and internal combustion cars even out if all categories are addressed. They are both bad for the environment, but in different ways and in different categories – they have different impact footprints. To prevent climate change – opt for electric. To preserve the environment – walk.

But there are people who think increased consumption of products can actually be beneficial to the environment if the products are designed cleverly enough.

Beneficial, not sustainable production

At the EcoPrint Show in Berlin in September 2012, professor Michael Braungart, a pioneer of cradle-to-cradle design, expressed his grief over global industry aspirations of becoming fully sustainable.

„Sustaining a marriage,“ in his words, „is only the minimum people can do to avoid divorce – and no one wants to sustain such a marriage, right?“ Thus, the relationship between consumers and their environmental impact should not aim to become sustainable but to provide added benefit to the environment. Consume more and thus help the environment more? Sounds like a perpetuum mobile, which, in a way, it is. It means that the concept of „waste“ doesn’t exist. Products should be produced in a way that all end- and by-products can and will be utilised as nutrients for any other life cycle. One might argue that carbon dioxide emitted during your weekend flight to Milan for an apperetivo will function as nutrients for plants, but since the uptake of the gas is significantly lower than production, it functions as waste.

It’s easier to demonstrate professor Braungart’s principle with paper, which mainly consists of biomass, which in turn contains carbon from carbon dioxide in the air. So, paper is, essentially, a container of CO2. But carbon dioxide is emitted in various steps of its production, from logging to transportation to fibre separation and paper manufacturing so wouldn’t this negate the positive effect of carbon sequestration? You will be surprised, but not always!

Many paper manufacturers have started using renewable energy to power their mills, so much so, that according to the life cycle assessment study made at Kroonpress, we found many paper brands that contain more carbon in them than is released as CO2 during the whole life cycle production process, printing and transport included. Most European pulp originates from well-managed environmentally certified forests, which has resulted in that Europe’s forest reserves are growing year by year. Professor Braungart’s words have come to life – by storing or recycling a specific brand* of paper products, you are in fact sequestering more carbon than is being emitted from it’s entire production phase.

As for what to get your treehugger as a birthday gift, give her a subscription to a magazine with an A+ rating. This way she will actually be countering climate change, not just limiting it.

*To find out which paper brands provide this asset, register to the application.

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