Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a systems analysis tool that was designed specifically to measure the environmental sustainability of products and services through all components of the value chain. LCA measures the resources used and emissions of particular products. LCA allows companies and other interested parties (including consumers) to make comparisons of their products and services with respect to environmental performance. LCA has primarily been used for three kinds of decisions:

  • Engineering decisions for product/process improvement
  • Policy decisions at the company or governmental level
  • Environmental purchase and sales decisions

 

Traditionally, water use has not been accounted for within this method in any sort of detailed or comprehensive fashion. If measured at all, water use has typically been accounted for strictly as an inventory of a product’s total water withdrawal (rather than consumption) that is neither locally specific nor features any impact assessment. However, given companies’ growing concerns over water scarcity in the last decade, the development of better ways of accounting for water use within LCA has become a priority.

Current water-related LCA practice recognizes the need to understand and specify the geographic location of water use, the sources of the water (e.g., lake/river, groundwater, rainwater) and whether those sources are renewable or non-renewable. There is currently an abundance of research on water scarcity and life cycle impact assessment modeling of the resource, along with the health effects and ecosystem damage associated with water scarcity.

LCA provides information on different types of environmental activities and different impact categories, which those flows can affect. This allows LCA to quantify and compare the multiple types of impacts caused by one type of use or emission, as well as the various resource uses or emissions that contribute to one type of impact.

Application

Life Cycle Assessment

Primary Functions
  • Allows companies to make cross-media environmental assessments that consider water
  • Includes mature science-based methods for assessing waterquality impacts
  • Also includes methods for assessing water use impacts, however there are currently no universally-accepted methods for this
Assessing Water-Related Business Risks
  • Uses science-based impact assessment as the starting point for understanding business risk
  • Operational “hotspots” used for product design improvement, technical improvements
Understanding and Responding to Water Use and Quality Impacts
  • Situates water impacts within a broader understanding of sustainability impacts
  • Characterizes water use data based on relative water stress to quantify impacts
  • Measures individual contaminant loads
  • Does not typically quantify impact to specific local receiving bodies
Conveying Water Information to Stakeholders
  • Results can be difficult to communicate to non-technical audiences
  • In many instances, particularly in North America, is used for internal purposes only
  • Awareness levels in both business and the public vary greatly
  • Used to inform eco-label programs