A note about terminology: Lifecycle approach is a “systematic way of looking at the life of a product, technology, or process” allowing people or companies to measure and reduce costs to our economy and environment (NRTEE). This differs from lifecycle analysis (or assessment), which is “a technique to assess environmental impacts associated with all the stages of a product's life" (good old Wikipedia). Therefore, lifecycle analysis is one of many tools utilized in a lifecycle approach.
My previous blog post on lifecycle approaches (LCA) in Canada highlighted the need for increased leadership from the federal and provincial governments. European governments and the United States are moving ahead with LCA regulations and carbon labeling, and the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) has warned that Canada risks falling behind. In a recent report, the NRTEE stated that while Canada had programs in place during the 1990s, “in the last decade, Canada has not actively pursued the development and implementation of policies and programs based on Life Cycle Approaches in a coordinated manner nor to the same extent of leading countries... Few current federal initiatives clearly state that they use a Life Cycle Approach. Within the GoC, there is no framework that guides decision makers in incorporating Life Cycle Approaches into policy, program design or communications.”
Carbon Tax and Labeling Drive LCA Use
British Columbia is currently the only province with a carbon tax, which came into effect in 2007. While it is still too early to tell if it has been a success, it certainly has led to a greater inclusion of LCA in economic activities. Lifecycle analysis reports exist for the province’s energy supply and Vancouver’s solid waste, while UBC has developed a tool for measuring the environmental impact of a men’s varsity basketball game, a first for North America. The new tool measures the entire lifecycle of game-related greenhouse gasses by providing a breakdown by transportation, food and beverages, operation and infrastructure, team accommodations, and waste.
An important part of LCA adoption is educating the public. Eco-labeling, including carbon labels, has been one way to bring attention to the issue and are important components of a lifecycle approach. For example, I previously discussed the cradle-to-grave impacts of artificial Christmas trees compared to natural trees and how eco-labels could assist in decision-making. While eco-labels such as Environmental Choice, Energy Star and Fair Trade Certified are now fairly recognizable to Canadians, carbon labels are not—likely because Canada has yet to implement any serious national policies for carbon management. The Economist has examined carbon label adoption in detail using prominent examples in Britain and elsewhere. The French government launched a pilot project in 2011 testing new labeling requirements for carbon and water footprints, as well as the product’s impact on biodiversity.
New regulations such as those in Europe could go a long way to improving LCA and increasing transparency. Existing ISO 14040 standards for LCA will be further enhanced by ISO 14067 (to be released in 2014) which will standardize guidelines for product carbon labeling and provide consumers with the information they need to adequately assess products.
Certainly eco-labels would help consumers to consider life cycle approaches. However, without government action, the private sector has been leading the way on LCA adoption and implementation. Some organizations are leading the trend and achieving significant economic and environmental benefits. Companies like Rona, Cascades, the Bank of Canada, Alcoa and Rio Tinto Alcan, Brewers Retail and Steam Whistle Brewing have made strides to incorporate lifecycle analyses of key aspects of business operations.
In November 2011 a new currency series was launched by the Bank of Canada and made headlines for the use of a new polymer material. Interestingly, the Bank initiated a full LCA comparison of the polymer bills to the conventional cotton-based paper bills, compliant with the ISO 14044 standard. Using nine indicators to examine the cradle-to-grave impacts, the new polymer bills “showed improvements ranging from a 29 per cent to a 60 per cent reduction in environmental impact” compared to the conventional bills. The new notes last 2.5 times longer (meaning less quantity needs to be manufactured) and they weigh less, saving on transportation costs. You can learn about the Bank of Canada’s lifecycle approach in this interesting YouTube video.
New Polymer Bills recently released by the Bank of Canada, developed using a life-cycle analysis compared to conventional bills. Source: Bank of Canada
Many of the world’s leading aluminum producers have embraced LCA in aspects of their business since the extraction and processing of virgin aluminum is an expensive and energy-intensive process. Companies such as Alcoa and Rio-Tinto Alcan have made strong commitments to LCA for improving efficiency and environmental performance.
Aluminum is increasingly valuable and luckily a significant percentage is recycled through Ontario Brewers Retail (the Beer Store). Ontario’s beer deposit and return system allows for most alcoholic beverage containers to be recycled and reused multiple times. The Beer Store commissioned an LCA Report in 2010 which identifies key environmental performance indicators such as energy savings and GHG emissions avoided. The Beer Store’s industry-leading programs and industry-standard brown bottle allow it to take in more consumer packaging than it sells.
Breweries are also incorporating LCA into their business model: Toronto’s Steam Whistle Brewing uses bottles with 30% more glass, allowing them to be reused up to 45 times, 3 times more than standard brown bottles. Using a lifecycle approach has helped Steam Whistle identify unique opportunities for reducing waste, recycling, and saving energy.
As companies find value, improved public relations, and cost-savings through reduced waste and energy consumption LCA will become a critical tool in highly competitive industries. It seems that in the near future, based on the success of European examples, LCA will become part of business. Hopefully the federal and provincial governments heed the advice of the NRTEE and learn from British Columbia, moving Canada closer toward sustainability.
In the Current Events blog, Andrew Reeves and Dan Beare discuss a wide array of environmental issues across the country and around the world, from politics and public policy to energy, natural resources, and environmental science.
Dan is an environmental professional currently living in Toronto. He specializes in energy, transportation, and climate change policy, corporate sustainability, and environmental planning and assessments. He recently completed a Masters of Environmental Applied Science and Management at Ryerson University. Dan's posts usually appear bi-weekly on Fridays.
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