Using LCAs for Sustainability

Sustainability and sustainable development have become the buzzwords of the age.  Volumes have been written in an attempt to define them, yet they remain part of an elusive concept so that each individual can put upon them their own construct.  One of the most elegant summaries of sustainable development is due to Donella Meadows who wrote:

Development and sustainability are age old problems; now they have come together on a global scale and in an urgent time frame.  The world economy is doubling roughly every twenty years.  The world population is doubling every forty to fifty years.  The planet that supplies the materials and energy necessary for the functioning of the population and economy is not growing at all.  That means whatever planetary resource was one-fourth-used a generation ago is half-used today.  Whatever waste sink was half full a generation ago is full today.  What was full a generation ago is overfull today.
Each successive doubling of the human system causes new stresses and raises new questions, or rather brings two old questions together with new urgency.  Question one (the development question) is how can we provide sufficiency, security, good lives to all people?  The second (the sustainability question) is how can we live within the rules and boundaries of the biophysical environment?  With the economy globally linked, the ocean fisheries depleting, the atmosphere changing in composition, open spaces filling in, and much of the human population still living in poverty, these two questions now come together with urgency.  How can we and our children live good lives without eroding the health and productivity of the physical planet --- and therefore the possibility for future generations to lead good lives?

The United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro 1992 also came to the conclusion that:

Indicators of sustainable development need to be developed to provide solid bases for decision making at all levels…

In this context, life cycle inventories are an attempt to provide some of the data needed to establish physical indicators.  Such inventories give information of the use of resources and the level of pollution generated in specific human activities.  Meadows also identifies some potential problems associated with indicators.

Despite these limitations, inventory data are probably the best information we have for describing the physical behavior of some systems.  But we must always be aware of the limitations of this information.

Meadows, D. Indicators and information systems for sustainable development.  The Sustainability Institute, Vermont, USA. (1998).

One example of sustainable development is in the use of a calcium carbonate mineral to replace a portion of polyethylene resin used in bags and films with enhanced functionality.

Replacing a portion of the plastics with a natural mineral like calcium carbonate can make a more environmentally friendly bag by reducing carbon emissions as well as reducing the amount of energy required to make the bag,
- Holly Hansen, VP Technical Services at Heritage Plastics.

Boustead has used LCA’s in many sustainable development systems.