Sometimes referred to as a life cycle analysis or a cradle to grave analysis, a life cycle assessment is a strategy for evaluating the impact that a particular product or class of products has on the environment. Typically, the focus is to determine the positive or negative impact those products have on the environment. In order to properly evaluate that impact, the process must begin with the creation of that product and follow it all the way through to its complete consumption.
The beginning of a life cycle assessment begins with considering the raw materials that are used to produce the product under scrutiny. Their origins and the impact of creating those materials is considered, as well as the environmental impact of the resources used in the process used to manufacture the final product. From there, factors such as packaging, transportation, distribution, consumer usage and disposal of any lingering waste material related to the product is accounted for in the overall assessment.
A simple example of how a life cycle assessment functions can be found in the manufacturing of a canned food product. The resources used to produce and prepare the food for the canning process serves as the starting point. From there, the environmental impact of the machinery and utilities used to package the food into a can come under consideration. Next, the impact of warehousing, shipping and delivering the product to a consumer is assessed. As a final step, the impact on the environment that is created when the consumer disposes of the now empty can is evaluated.
Depending on what processes are used to create that can of food, the life cycle assessment may indicate that the methods and resources used had minimal negative impact on the environment. For example, if the food was grown organically, produced in a plant that uses green power sources, and packaged in containers made from recycled materials, the life cycle assessment may indicate that the impact on the environment is actually positive. At the same time, the assessment may also aid in identifying additional changes that would further increase that degree of positive impact, such as making it easy for consumers to recycle those used containers.
While a life cycle assessment is normally described as being an evaluation of products from start to end, there are also limited assessments that are sometimes used to look closely at one phase of the life of a given product. For example, a cradle to gate assessment would focus on the period from creation to shipping the product from the plant, a process that could yield additional insights in how to make use of raw materials more efficiently, or refine the manufacturing process so that is it more environmentally friendly while still keeping the cost of production with a reasonable range.