Again, however, Wallin emphasizes her point about the continuum: "We cannot expect to supply the whole world with polyethylene made from sugar cane. Scale is very important and LCA is a good tool for sorting this out. But you need a variety of tools overall."
Too narrow a focus can undermine efforts, she warns. For instance, in Dow's LCA work on coating formulations Wallin finds she has to help the company's customers understand that GHGs are not their sole concern — that the heavily-emphasized carbon footprint only takes account of part of a product lifecycle.
"You have to consider other factors such as durability to get the overall picture. For example, a coating that is more durable is likely to have a much bigger impact on reducing GHGs than an improvement in one step of a manufacturing process for one component of a coating formulation. This sort of collaboration is very important because without it you can lead yourself astray and end up in a very odd place.
"We do think there are a lot of opportunities to refine and enhance the methodologies involved with LCAs. Frankly, it's still a pretty young science, so we can't declare that a particular way is the best way to do it. We do support the ISO LCA standards because of their emphasis on transparency: it is critical to be very clear about how an LCA was conducted and exactly what was involved."
Overall, Dow is using LCA to try to help companies manage uncertainty and avoid unintended consequences by making choices that will stand the test of time — and bring significant cost advantages. For Willin, one of the biggest challenges now is how to get this information to the decision makers, business leaders and customers so they can make better choices.
ENVIRONMENTAL AND BUSINESS BENEFITS
Air Products, Allentown, Pa., has long appreciated LCAs' potential to improve decision-making — as well as their holistic benefits.
"LCA quantifies the major environmental impact of a product or process, helping a company or institution to make decisions based on its results. LCA can help, for instance, a company in the food field. Here it can identify that the major environmental impact could be the first step (production) due to the use of fertilizers, or the transportation (carbon footprint), or the packaging (films, gases or trays used in this process) or the final delivery to the supermarket. Depending on the LCA results, one can decide to use one type of packaging over another, or use food from one producer over another (using or not using fertilizers)," explains Martha J Collins, director, global technology.
LCA plays an important role in the work of the non-profit MATGAS Research Center, Barcelona, Spain (Figure 1), a joint venture of Air Products, the National Research Council of Spain and the Autonomous University of Barcelona. The center is coordinating work on carbon dioxide capture and on using carbon dioxide in applications such as waste treatment and in bio energy. There also are several other projects to convert waste into useful resources.
"This is good for the environment and good for business, but it was important to be sure that any new materials and processes developed would not have a larger environmental impact than those they replaced," notes Lourdes F. Vega, director, R&D for Air Products Spain and director of MATGAS.
So, for example, the center assessed the impact of new materials for carbon dioxide capture to replace amine absorption and of new options for modified atmospheric packaging for food preservation. "In both cases we search for materials with lower environmental impact, lower carbon footprint, or better energy efficiency," she explains.
"We are working with the EU [European Union] on the legal aspects of LCA: how to define the rules applied to LCA. So when we show our results, people will know exactly how they were generated within our own system. We are even giving courses to universities and companies on how to use LCAs," says Vega.