, Volume 11, Issue 6, pp 371-382
Date: 07 Aug 2006

Societal LCA Methodology and Case Study (12 pp)

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Abstract

Background, Aim and Scope

Societal assessment is advocated as one of the three pillars in the evaluation of, and movement toward, sustainability. As is the case with the well established LCA, and the emerging LCC, societal life cycle assessment should be developed in such as way as to permit relative product comparisons, rather than absolute analyses. The development of societal life cycle assessment is in its infancy, and important concepts require clarification including the handling of the more than two hundred social indicators. Therefore, any societal life cycle assessment methodology must explain why it is midpoint- or endpoint-based as well as its reasons to be complimentary with, or included within, life cycle assessment. Materials and Methods: A geographically specific midpoint based societal life cycle assessment methodology, which employs labour hours as an intermediate variable in the calculation has been developed and evaluated against an existing LCA comparing two detergents. The methodology is based on using an existing life cycle inventory and, therefore, has identical system boundaries and functional units to LCA. The societal life cycle assessment methodology, much like LCA, passes from inventory, through characterisation factors, to provide an ultimate result. In analogy to economics and cost estimation, societal life cycle assessment combines, into its statistics, both data as well as estimates, some of which are correlated to elements of the LCI. It focuses on the work hours required to meet basic needs.A geographically specific midpoint based societal life cycle assessment methodology, which employs labour hours as an intermediate variable in the calculation has been developed and evaluated against an existing LCA comparing two detergents. The methodology is based on using an existing life cycle inventory and, therefore, has identical system boundaries and functional units to LCA. The societal life cycle assessment methodology, much like LCA, passes from inventory, through characterisation factors, to provide an ultimate result. In analogy to economics and cost estimation, societal life cycle assessment combines, into its statistics, both data as well as estimates, some of which are correlated to elements of the LCI. It focuses on the work hours required to meet basic needs. Results: The societal life cycle assessment of an appended case study indicates that Detergent 2 generates, relative Detergent 1, approximately 20% less employment in Russia, 35% less in France, and approximately five times more in Canada and South Africa, the latter derived from its higher aluminium content. There is essentially no difference in the employment in the use country (Switzerland) nor in Morocco, where some of the waste disposal was assumed to take place. Discussion: Given that housing is more affordable, in terms of shelter units per labour hour, in South Africa, compared to Europe, it is, therefore, of no surprise that Detergent 2 provides a societal benefit in terms of housing. Detergent 2 does, however, result in dematerialization, in that its environmental impact is lower (LCI). Therefore, as less resources are employed and labour required, in extraction, production and transport, the societal benefits in health care, education and necessities, a grouped variable, are lower for Detergent 2. This is despite the employment shift away from Europe and to less 'developed' regions. Conclusions: The assessment of societal impacts involves several hundred specific indicators. Therefore, aggregation is, if not impossible, at least heavily value laden and, therefore, not recommended. The impact of a societal action, derived from a product purchase or otherwise, is also highly local. Given this, societal life cycle assessment, carried through to the midpoints, and based on an existing LCI, has been developed as a methodology. The results, for an existing LCA-detergent case, illustrate that societal life cycle assessment provides a means to investigate how policy and policy makers can be linked to sustainable development. The sensitivity analyses also clarify the decisions in regards to product improvement. Recommendations and Perspectives: The goal of societal life cycle assessment is not to make decisions, but rather to point out tradeoffs to decision- or policy-makers. This case, and the methodology that it is based on, permit such a comparison. Substituting Detergent 2 for Detergent 1 reduces resource use at the expense of an increase in atmospheric and terrestrial emissions. Access to housing is improved, though at the expense of education, health care and necessities. As a recommendation, one would look at the fact that the majority of indicators are superior for Detergent 2 relative to Detergent 1and seek to improve the aqueous emissions in Detergent 2 via a change in the formulation. An energy or fossil fuel substitution at the site of production could also improve the societal benefits in terms of education and health care. While societal life cycle assessment remains in its infancy, a methodology does exist. The field can, therefore, be viewed in a similar way to LCA in the early 1990s, with a need to validate, consolidate and, ultimately, built toward a standard. The contribution is aimed at contributing to such a discussion and therefore proposes that a societal life cycle assessment be LCI-derived, geographically specific, based on mid-points, and use employment as an intermediate variable.