Date: 10 Mar 2009

Life cycle assessment in the minerals and metals sector: a critical review of selected issues and challenges

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Abstract

Background, aim and scope

The mining sector provides materials that are essential elements in a wide range of goods and services, which create value by meeting human needs. Mining and processing activities are an integral part of most complex material cycles so that the application of life cycle assessment (LCA) to minerals and metals has therefore gained prominence. In the past decade, increased use of LCA in the mineral and metal sector has advanced the scientific knowledge through the development of scientifically valid life cycle inventory databases. Though scientifically valid, LCA still needs to depend on several technical assumptions. In particular, measuring the environmental burden issues related to abiotic resource depletion, land use impacts and open-loop recycling within the LCA are widely debated issues. Also, incorporating spatial and temporal sensitivities in LCA, to make it a consistent scientific tool, is yet to be resolved. This article discusses existing LCA methods and proposed models on different issues in relation to minerals and metals sector.

Main features

A critical review was conducted of existing LCA methods in the minerals and metals sector in relation to allocation issues related to indicators of land use impacts, abiotic resource depletion, allocation in open-loop recycling and the system expansions and accounting of spatial and temporal dimension in LCA practice.

Results

Evolving a holistic view about these contentious issues will be presented with view for future LCA research in the minerals and metals industry. This extensive literature search uncovers many of the issues that require immediate attention from the LCA scientific community.

Discussion

The methodological drawbacks, mainly problems with inconsistencies in LCA results for the same situation under different assumptions and issues related to data quality, are considered to be the shortcomings of current LCA. In the minerals and metals sector, it is important to increase the objectivity of LCA by way of fixing those uncertainties, for example, in the LCA of the minerals and metals sector, whether the land use has to be considered in detail or at a coarse level. In regard to abiotic resource characterisation, the weighting and time scales to be considered become a very critical issue of judgement. And, in the case of open-loop recycling, which model will best satisfy all the stake holders? How the temporal and spatial dimensions should be incorporated into LCA is one of the biggest challenges ahead of all those who are concerned. Addressing these issues shall enable LCA to be used as a policy tool in environmental decision-making. There has been enormous debate with respect to on land use impacts, abiotic resource depletion, open-loop recycling and spatial and temporal dimensions, and these debates remain unresolved. Discussions aimed at bringing consensus amongst all the stake holders involved in LCA (i.e. industry, academia, consulting organisations and government) will be presented and discussed. In addition, a commentary of different points of view on these issues will be presented.

Conclusions

This review shall bring into perspective some of those contentious issues that are widely debated by many researchers. The possible future directions proposed by researchers across the globe shall be presented. Finally, authors conclude with their views on the prospects of LCA for future research endeavours.

Recommendations and outlook

Specific LCA issues of minerals and metals need to be investigated further to gain more understanding. To facilitate the future use of LCA as a policy tool in the minerals and metals sector, it is important to increase the objectivity with more scientific validity. Therefore, it is essential that the issues discussed in this paper are addressed to a great detail.

Responsible editor: Alain Dubreuil