One tool that can provide appropriate environmental understanding is life cycle assessment A variety of names have been used to describe this field of study. The terms eco-balance, eco-profile, cradle-to-grave analysis, life-cycle inventory, life-cycle analysis, and life-cycle assessment (LCA) are some of the more commonly used names all essentially illustrating the same type of work.
The missing link in understanding the actual rather than the perceived environmental benefits from specific actions is a rigorous quantitative analysis for the systems of concern. Since the environmental benefits that accrue to any industrial system have to do with either the reduction of resources necessary to run the system (i.e. raw materials and energy), or the reduction of pollution created by the system (i.e. air emissions, water effluents, and solid wastes), common sense tells us that there should be some way to measure all these parameters to see if proposed changes in the system actually provide the benefits sought. Imagine making changes to a million dollar piece of equipment based on a common assumption that it will improve the quality of your product. No manager would ever take this risk. In the environmental arena, changes based on assumptions are made every day. The perception is that making changes for environmental benefit does not add to the bottom line. Instead, the environment is typically regarded as a cost center. As a result, quantitative analyses are regarded as too costly to justify.
Companies are now using analytical methods that help them link environmental benefit with economic well-being. Life cycle analysis, standardized in the ISO 14040 series, is a quantitative analysis that measures energy use, raw materials consumption, air emissions, water effluents, and solid wastes along the entire life cycle of a production system from the initial extraction of natural resources to the final disposal of wastes. Thus, LCA methods allow the user to see where environmental burdens are high, and if proposed solutions provide real reductions. At a very minimum, this type of analysis can help reduce financial waste by stopping the implementation of environmental programs that do not provide the benefits expected. For the cost of the life cycle study, companies can see whether spending millions of dollars on environmental campaigns (from production and distribution changes to public relations and marketing) borne out of common perceptions actually benefit the environment and the company.
A representative Boustead Consulting report is “LCA for Three Types of Grocery Bags: Recyclable Plastic; Compostable & Biodegradable Plastic; and Recycled & Recyclable Paper”. This report illustrates a public controversy and at issue are environmental problems, societal problems and political problems.
The Boustead results of LCA calculations are presented as a set of eight tables each describing some aspect of the behavior of the systems examined. In all cases, the tables refer to the gross or cumulative totals when all operations are traced back to the extraction of raw materials from the earth. The format and meaning of these results tables are described below.
Increasingly there is a demand to have the results of LCI/LCA analyses broken down into a number of categories, identifying the type of operation that gives rise to them. The five categories that have been identified are:
Although identifying these categories is relatively straightforward, assigning individual data to them can give rise to some problems. For example, transport is used to deliver coal from the coal mine to the power station where it is used to generate electricity. The problem, therefore, that arises is whether this transport operation should be treated as a separate transport operation or whether it should be treated as a part of the inputs and outputs of electricity generation; i.e. fuel production. Furthermore, steel is used to construct the vehicle used to transport coal to the power station. Should the inputs and outputs associated with steel production be assigned as process requirements, or transport requirements or fuel production requirements?
There is no simple, unambiguous way of deciding between the different assignment options and so a protocol has been defined and followed in all of the calculations.
Biomass refers to the inputs and outputs associated with the use of biological materials such as wood. The reason for isolating this as a separate category is that such materials absorb carbon dioxide while growing and, given the current interest in CO2 as a greenhouse gas, there is good reason to hold this parameter separate from the other emissions. Thus biomass CO2, whether as a negative quantity during tree or plant growth or as a positive quantity if the wood products are eventually burned, is always identified as such. Similarly, biomass fuels are kept as a category separate from other fuels.
Transport operations are easily identified and so the direct energy consumption of transport and its associated emissions are always separated. Thus, in the above example concerning the delivery of coal to a power station, the transport element would be separately identified and would not be included as part of the fuel production data. Similarly, any material inputs to transport operations are also treated as part of the transport operation. Thus the burdens associated with the production of the steel used in vehicle construction would be treated as part of the transport operation.
Fuel production operations are defined as those processing operations which result in the delivery of fuel, or energy, to a final consumer whether domestic or industrial. For such operations all inputs, with the sole exception of transport, are included as part of the fuel production function. So, for example, the burdens associated with the production of the coal used in a power station, any steel used in power station construction, etc., would all be assigned to fuel production.
Fuel use is defined as the use of energy delivered by the fuel producing industries. Thus fuel used to generate steam at a production plant and electricity used in electrolysis would be treated as fuel use operations. Only fuel used in transport is kept separate.
When all of the above components of the inputs and outputs have been separated from the total inputs and outputs, the residue is assigned to the process.
The results are presented in two distinct formats. First, the gross or cumulative energy requirements are given as a single table. These energy requirements refer to the total energy consumption when the production processes are traced back through all operations to the extraction of raw materials from the earth. Masses of fuels have all been converted to energy units using the gross calorific values.
Within the table, the overall energy requirements are analyzed into a number of groups. First, there is a breakdown by fuel producing industry. The electricity supply industry is separately identified because, of all fuel supply industries, the electricity industry exhibits the lowest production efficiency. The oil industry is also separately identified, because although oil fuels are consumed in a variety of different forms, they are all derived from a common source, crude oil, and they all exhibit approximately the same production efficiency.
Finally all of the remaining fuels are grouped under the heading of other fuels. This group contains natural gas, biological fuels, coal, and coke. This group also contains entries for any energy recovered as steam or condensate as well as any energy arising from sulfur burning in the production of sulfuric acid.
Each of the fuel producing industry contributions is further sub-divided into fuel production, energy content of fuel (fuel use), transport energy, and feedstock energy.
Energy content of fuel (fuel use) represents the energy that is received by the final operator who consumes energy. Energy content of fuel (fuel use) represents the energy that is received by the final operator who consumes energy. This group also contains any entries that arise as a result of the recovery of energy as steam or condensate because this recovered energy will be used by other processes and so appears as a negative entry (credit) in the energy table.
Feedstock energy represents the energy of the fuel bearing materials that are taken into the system but used as materials rather than fuels. The quantities of hydrocarbon feedstocks that are taken into the system are represented in terms of their gross calorific value because frequently, in the course of processing, some, if not all, of this feedstock is converted to a fuel. It is a simple matter to convert from feedstock energy to mass if the calorific value is known since the energy content of a feedstock is simply the product (calorific value x mass).
Transport energy refers to the energy associated with fuels consumed directly by the transport operations as well as any energy associated with the production of non-fuel bearing materials, such as steel, that are taken into the transport process.
Fuel production energy represents the energy that is used by the fuel producing industries in extracting the primary fuel from the earth, processing it and delivering it to the final consumer. This will also include the energy associated with the production of any non-fuel materials (such as steel) that are taken into the fuel production process.
From a scientific viewpoint we can:
Such LCA data provides a compilation of information from which the user can address specific problems. For example, if interested in addressing specific conservation issues such as the conservation of fossil fuels, the user would examine the mass and energy data for only coal, oil, and natural gas; and ignore the other information. However, if the user would also like to examine the potential impacts the various systems have through global warming, acid rain and municipal solid waste one could now address these issues both individually and cooperatively by examining the specific parameters which are likely to contribute to these specific problems and how they vary individually and collectively with each change to the system. In so doing, the user can strive to achieve the optimum reduction in each parameter because of a better understanding of how these parameters change in association each company’s system as a whole and each other individually.
Life cycle assessment studies not only allow an examination of a number of specific problems, these studies also allow users to determine if there are any serious unintended side effects from proposed improvements in a system. Because there are typically multiple problems in any single system, no single solution is likely to solve all of the problems simultaneously. Also, many potential solutions to any specific problem can cause unintended side effects. As a result, the implementation of any overall environmental policy needs to consider all these aspects to achieve the optimum solution.
It is just as important to remember that even choosing an optimum solution involves some subjectivity and politics as well. Science can only help by providing good quality data from which decisions can be made.
Boustead is able to apply this scientific analysis to assist companies understand their own systems as well as show its customers and its suppliers what can be achieved through the quest for better environmental solutions and validation of actual data. Moreover, the data we generate for companies can be used to provide answers and technical information to stakeholders.
The eco-profile data provides a compilation of information from which the user can address specific problems. For example, if interested in addressing specific conservation issues such as the conservation of fossil fuels, the user would examine the mass and energy data for only coal, oil, and natural gas; and ignore the other information. However, if the user would also like to examine the potential impacts of global warming and acid rain and municipal solid waste one could now address these issues both individually by examining the specific parameters which are likely to contribute to these specific problems. In so doing, the user can strive to achieve the optimum reduction in each parameter because of a better understanding of how these parameters change in association with the system as a whole and each other individually.
Boustead’s typical analysis includes:
The LCA calculations in the report provide a compilation of information from which the user can address specific problems such as the conservation of fossil fuels, global warming, acid rain, and municipal solid waste. In addition, the user is also able to determine what trade-offs exist between systems and to examine the specific parameters which are likely to contribute to these problems.