Life Cycle Assessment—an Insulation Products Perspective

October 1, 2012

“Science is 1 percent
inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”

Despite the fact that the
above quote was recorded by Albert Einstein prior to the conception of the idea
of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), it provides a perfect lead-in to this article.

The evolution of a social media-driven society has expanded a
demand for the “dumb it down” approach to explaining everything. For product
manufacturers, this is especially evident in the overabundance of
single-attribute certification programs and rating systems criteria popping up,
as well as recent attention given to the alarmist hazard-based approach. Each
of these is meant to serve the purpose of providing a convenient, yet narrowly-focused
definition of “green.” Environmental science, though, involves comprehensive
consideration of complex interactions of physical, chemical, and biological
processes. As a result, rendering judgments based on limited perspective (such
as a specific quality and/or life cycle stage of a product), opens the door to
increasing probability of unintended consequences from the broader viewpoint of
sustainability.

LCA is a technique developed for the purpose of understanding
and addressing the environmental impacts of products, processes, or services.
It involves quantifying and interpreting the energy and material resource
inputs, along with the environmental consequences of outputs, throughout a
product’s life cycle from raw material extraction to end of life
(cradle-to-grave). LCA is a science-based and holistic analytical method that
includes the
compilation of the consumption of energy and raw materials, as well as the
releases to air, water, and land. 

As a result of recognition of its rigor and thoroughness,
along with the development of international standards that have improved its
utility, LCA has emerged as an essential tool in the evaluation of environmental
impacts associated with products. This recognition is particularly evident in
the building and industrial construction community where designers are
increasingly interested in the life cycle profile of the products and
assemblies that are being incorporated in specifications. As a result, it is
critical that the manufacturer, specifier, and user of insulation products grow
familiar with the LCA concept.

The purpose of this discussion is to provide overview
information regarding the key aspects of the LCA concept. The basic framework
for conducting an LCA study and a description of the established mechanisms for
effectively delivering the results, both internally and externally, are
included. The reader will find that the focus of much of the information is
building envelope thermal insulation, where substantial efforts have been
devoted in recent years to the credible representation of sustainability
through the LCA tool. It can be noted that a close connection can be
established between these efforts and initiatives to define the life cycle
profile of mechanical insulation products.

Development of the LCA Technique

Most are surprised that
the LCA concept has been discussed and applied for several decades. It has been
widely accepted for many years to provide a holistic perspective of
environmental impacts and, therefore, facilitate product development and
innovation, as well as comparisons of product systems that fulfill the same
function. However, with its foundation on detail and completeness come
challenges in its application. These include data collection consistency,
assumption development, and data availability limitations to all stages of the
life cycle by the LCA practitioner, just to name a few.    

Technical committees of the International Organization for
Standardization (ISO) have prepared and updated documents for membership
approval for the purpose of standardizing aspects of the LCA technique. These
aspects include everything from establishing principles to delivering results
in a reliable and comparable fashion. This evolving and continuous maintenance
process is intended to address the challenges discussed above and establish
requirements that achieve global alignment with the application of the
technique while providing flexibility to focus on critical regional and product
system-related environmental impact issues.

Conducting an LCA Study

The
ISO standards internationally recognized for the purpose of conducting an LCA
are ISO 14040 1 and ISO 140442. The former establishes
the principles and framework of the LCA study, while the latter establishes its
requirements and guidelines. These standards state that “LCA addresses the
environmental aspects and potential environmental impacts?” and that an LCA
study is an iterative process involving four phases, as depicted in Figure 1
(ISO 14040) and described below.

1. Goal and scope definition

An LCA project begins with
the development of a concise statement of the objective for conducting the
study. This includes its intended use as well as who would be the target
audience for communicating the results. If the study is meant to be part of a
comparative assertion that will be disclosed to the public, the standard states
that the disclosure of such purpose shall be included in the definition of the
goal.

The value achieved through the execution of a credible LCA
lies in its characteristics of transparency, rigor, and thoroughness.
Therefore, an explicitly defined scope that describes the breadth and detail
required in order to adequately address the defined goal is critical. In
addition to providing the user of the results with a crucial understanding of
the context, the scoping serves as a blueprint for conducting the study. Key
aspects of the scope are the establishment of the functional unit and the
system boundary (see the glossary inset). It is useful to describe the product
system with a flow diagram illustrating each of the unit processes within the
system boundary and their relationships with one another. Examples of details
that are to be included in the definition of the scope are the study’s types
and sources of data, assumptions used, and limitations.

2. Inventory analysis

The “guts” of the LCA is
the data, and this phase of the process involves its collection and analysis.
The term that describes the data is the life cycle inventory, LCI. After
establishing a flow diagram representing the entire product system, the LCI
analysis involves the compilation of inputs to and outputs from each process
stage of the system boundary. The inputs must include all water and raw
material requirements, as well as the embodied energy of these raw materials
and additional energy associated with completing each individual process stage.
The outputs are all releases to air, land, and water. It should be noted that
transportation requirements between each stage are to be included.

Clearly, insulation supply chains can
involve dozens of specific processes and hundreds of flow inventories.
Therefore, data collection efforts likely will require the cooperation and
project goal understanding of raw material suppliers and perhaps upstream
entities. In addition, regional differences occur as a result of matters such
as energy conversion and material sourcing, which must be considered in the LCI
analysis.
    

3. Impact assessment

The third phase is life
cycle impact assessment, LCIA, where the aim is to evaluate the LCI results to
gain an understanding of the magnitude of the product’s potential life cycle
environmental impacts. In order to achieve meaningful results, the ISO standard
establishes mandatory elements of the LCIA. The first element is the selection
of the classifications of environmental concerns, or impact category(ies); the
representation of each category, category indicator; and the models employed to
establish corresponding characterization factor(s) applied to the LCI analysis
results. This selection process must be consistent with the goal and scope of
the LCA project. The second element is the classification step, or the
assignment of LCI results to specific impact categories; and the third is
characterization, through the calculation and summation of category indicator
results.   

4. Interpretation

In the interpretation
phase, the results of the inventory analysis and impact assessment are
evaluated. Consistent with the defined goal and scope, the findings from these
evaluations are presented in the form of conclusions and recommendations. In
addition, limitations are to be identified and explicitly explained.

The evaluation in this final phase involves utilizing reams
of LCI and LCIA data and raw results with the goal of meaningful conclusions,
limitations, and recommendations, while achieving alignment with the
established goal and scope. This is clearly a daunting task. Not that it makes
it any less daunting, but ISO 14044 provides a framework for crossing this
canyon. This framework begins with identifying issues of significant magnitude
and importance. The evaluation process then moves to a series of assessments
regarding data quality, results consistency, and sensitivity of assumptions.
The credibility of the LCA study rests heavily on the level of due diligence
applied here. As indicated in Figure 1 with the opposing arrows to and from the
interpretation phase and each of the other three phases, this is an iterative
exercise.  When a check discloses a flaw with the results, it is necessary to
go back to the calculations, assumptions, data sources, etc., and make the
necessary changes. At times, it may be determined that an identified gap
requires that the goal and scope definition be modified.

This final phase is the transition from the meticulous detail
and complexity involved in conducting an LCA to the application of its findings
for problem solving and decision-making. The successful LCA study is one that
is credible, transparent, and presented to the targeted audience in an
easy-to-understand fashion. This is particularly important when the intention
of the study includes comparing the LCA profile of the product studied to
competitive products performing the same function.

Final Report and Critical Review

Presenting results and conclusions
thoroughly and accurately to the target audience is a vital aspect of the LCA
concept. Section 5 (Reporting) of ISO 14044 provides explicit guidance on the
context requirements for reporting information from the study. Details shall be
included on all elements of the four phases with the purpose of providing
transparency to the reader regarding the execution of the study. In other
words, to establish the legitimacy of the conclusions in the eyes of the
reader, it is necessary to provide full disclosure of such matters as:

 

– The data and methods utilized and
why

– The assumptions made and why

 

As is the case with all aspects of the
study, the final report shall be structured in a manner consistent with the
goal and scope.

Despite the best intentions, commitment, and painstaking
efforts of the party sanctioning the study and the LCA practitioner executing
it, there still could remain a question in the viewpoint of the target audience
or other affected stakeholders (such as manufacturers of competitive products)
as to its legitimacy. Although not necessarily a means of fully overcoming
these doubts, the critical review process is intended to provide external
expert and unbiased perspective to the means at which the study was conducted.
ISO 14044 states the following:

 

“The critical review process shall
ensure that

– The methods used to carry out the
LCA are consistent with this International Standard,

– The methods used to carry out the
LCA are scientifically and technically valid,

– The data used are appropriate and
reasonable in relation to the goal of the study,

– The interpretations reflect the
limitations identified and the goal of the study, and

– The study report is transparent
and consistent.”

 

Under the ISO standards, a critical review is not a mandatory
requirement unless the study includes comparative assertions and will be
disclosed to the public.

A critical review panel is composed of a minimum of three
members, with one of the members assigned as the chair. It is appropriate for
the party sanctioning the study to select the chair, who will select the panel
members based on the goal and scope. Considering the broad-based analyses
involved in an LCA, it is important to select a panel with a diversity of
pertinent expertise. For instance, in the case of an insulation product LCA, it
is prudent to select at least one panel member with knowledge of the insulation
industry and markets.

The review process involves examination of the data,
methodologies used, and all background information of the study by the panel.
As a result, agreements of non-disclosure of proprietary data and information
between the party sanctioning the study, the LCA practitioner, and the members
of the panel are often executed. Following the panel’s initial examination, the
chair will typically request additional information, clarification, and,
perhaps, initial recommendations for changes. After the panel receives
responses, this process is repeated until panel members are comfortable that
they have fulfilled their purpose. The details of the exchange between the
panel and the LCA sanctioning party and practitioner are to be recorded in the
final report and made publicly available.

Product-Generic LCA

The substantial commitment
of resources required of the manufacturer initiating a full grass roots LCA
program for a portfolio of products can present a rationalization challenge. As
a result, consideration of a collaborative industry effort is prudent. The
potential for synergistic advantages is particularly high for generic products
with similar market property requirements and end-use applications, such as
individual insulation materials.

Typically, such an endeavor would be
initiated and conducted through the trade organization representing the
product(s) involved. Following the establishment of an initial project mission,
the assurance of a universal commitment by the participating product producers,
as well as their raw materials suppliers, is paramount. An important
preliminary action would be initial research on the availability and apparent
quality of updated inventory data for the key raw materials. As with an
individual company-based LCA, it normally makes a great deal of sense to hire
an outside expert to perform the actual study. LCA practitioners have the skill
set to conduct it efficiently and credibly. In addition, it is essential that
there is industry expertise providing project oversight and direction.
Therefore, it is advisable that trade organization staff or a member volunteer
be assigned to manage the project.

Once completed, and critically reviewed if possible, numerous
options for effective utilization are available to the organization and its
producer participants. For instance, an individual producer can use it to
develop its own LCA profile, saving substantial time and money in the process.

The Many Applications of LCA

In examining the mass and
energy flows from a cradle-to-grave standpoint, one has opened a wide array of
possibilities for better understanding, exhibiting, and improving the
environmental aspects of a product(s). LCA is a tool that can be used for both
internal and external purposes. As discussed in the Goal and Scope Definition
phase of Conducting an LCA Study, though, it is essential to start the process
by deciding its “intended use as well as who would be the target audience for
communicating the results.” This section provides a brief description of the
mechanisms for sharing LCA results with various internal functional
organizations and external stakeholders.

The potential utility of an LCA study
for internal purposes requires understanding and engagement by several
functional groups within the organization. When leveraged as a core aspect for
operations and product development functions, the LCA results can play a
valuable role in advancing process improvements and product innovation. Also,
the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA tool provides insight into the
impacts of upstream processes and can contribute to an effective vendor
management program. In providing a foundation for a corporate sustainability
program, the development and maintenance of LCA profiles for a company’s
product portfolio is invaluable, if not essential. Armed with this detailed
knowledge of the environmental aspects of your company’s products and their
processes, reliable benchmarking against similar industries and competitors can
be achieved.

Incorporating
life cycle thinking into internal initiatives can have a positive impact on
market image and position. The use of this science-based, holistic approach to
representing and advancing environmental stewardship can provide positive
reinforcement to customers, stockholders, and the community. In addition, LCA
results play a role in validation of regulatory compliance, such as substance
emissions reporting.

 There are several mechanisms for delivering life cycle
information outside of a company or industry. The most common is marketing
literature, where specific environmental aspects of a product are promoted in
order to highlight its benefits. Special considerations are often involved when
it comes to representing these aspects in either business-to-business or
business-to-consumer communications. Frequently, an organization wishes to make
claims that require a higher level of validation, transparency, and/or consistency
of representation. An example would be any case in which the claim would
include a comparative assertion. As a result, the external representation of
the LCA profile of a product or product system is best served through a
standardized process. Public or commercial databases and Environmental Product
Declarations (EPD), which are described in the next section, are emerging as
delivery mechanisms in the United States.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) manages the
U.S. Life Cycle Inventory Database 3, a publicly available
repository of LCI data that is collected and analyzed through similar methods.
Software tools offered by Athena®, EcoCalculator4, and
Impact Estimator5, are commercial LCA database tools for building
designers. The EcoCalculator provides a quick snapshot of the environmental
footprint for numerous pre-defined residential and commercial assemblies. The
Impact Estimator is a whole building tool for design teams to examine the
environmental impacts of various material and building product system choices.

Recently, the LCA concept is frequently
utilized to rationalize public policy in the sustainability arena, and
LCA-based threshold criteria are more commonly cited in defining policy
provisions. This is particularly evident in emerging green building standards
and codes, as well as sustainability product certification and green rating
systems, namely Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).
Information on specific green building policy is provided later in this article.

Environmental Product Declaration

An important aspect of
environmental management is labels and declarations. These tools communicate
one or more characteristics of a product in terms of its environmental impacts.
A producer may utilize these tools in order to influence purchasers to make
decisions in favor of the company’s product. Therefore, they are intended to
expand demand for product through continuous improvement from an environmental
impact perspective. To ensure their usefulness, the information provided
through these tools must be accurate and verifiable. To facilitate development
of representative labels and declarations, ISO established a series of
standards starting with general principles in ISO 14020 6 and
including ISO 14025 7, establishing the procedures for EPDs. Also
relevant to this discussion is the market segment-specific standard, ISO 21930 8.
This standard supplements ISO 14025 by providing additional framework for
developing EPDs for building products.

The standards define an EPD as:

“Providing quantified environmental
data using predetermined parameters and, where relevant, additional
environmental information”

and state its purpose to be:

“Present quantified environmental
information on the life cycle of a product to enable comparisons between
products fulfilling the same function”

An EPD is based on LCA/LCI information, and the
“predetermined parameters” are set forth in ISO 14040 and ISO 14044. In other
words, EPDs present information from ISO-compliant LCA studies in such a way as
to provide the reader with a meaningful comparison of products that serve the
same purpose. To this end, ISO 14025-compliant, certified EPDs are founded on
transparent methodology and validated data, along with consistency in
presentation of results.  

There are core elements of the procedural requirements of ISO
14025 and ISO 21930 that are important to note and understand. The first is the
selection of the program operator: the individual or organization contracted to
conduct various components of the EPD. The level of involvement by the program
operator in taking the project from a validated LCA study to the registration
and publication of the EPD is a matter of contractual agreement with the
client. However, the standards are explicit regarding the components that the
program operator must perform to achieve compliance.

Another element is the establishment of a functional unit.
The product system for the EPD being developed performs a primary function. The
functional unit is the amount of the product needed to perform a specified
level of that function. Of course, the function for insulation is resistance to
transfer of heat, so the functional unit is the amount required to provide a
certain R-value. This unit is the subject on which all the information in the
EPD is based and serves a convenient means of comparing products. A special
element for building products introduced through ISO 21930 is reference service
life. As the name suggests, this is the expected life span for the product
under in-use conditions. If the reference service life of a product is less
than the design life of the building, the number of replacements necessary over
the building life must be identified. This exhibits the importance of
durability of a product or assembly in the life cycle profile.

One last core element of EPDs to discuss here is that of
product category rules (PCR). In addition to the broad-based guidelines and
requirements presented in ISO 14025 and ISO 21930, there is a need to establish
a set of additional “rules” that are unique or customized to relevant aspects
of the “product category” before the EPD can be developed. A product category
is a group of products that serve equal functions, such as mechanical
insulations or building envelope thermal insulations. In such case that an
appropriate PCR is not available, effort must be made to involve a broad range
of stakeholders in the establishment of a harmonious, consensus-based, and
openly available ISO 14025-compliant document. An example would be the Building
Envelope Thermal Insulation Product Category Rules, developed by the Insulation
Coalition and verified and registered by UL Environment as the Program Operator
9.

Use-Phase Benefits

In conventional LCA
studies for durable building products, environmental encumbrances associated
with aspects such as required maintenance are evaluated during the relatively
long Use-Phase portion of the life cycle. This is where thermal insulation
performs its function of providing occupant comfort while limiting a building’s
(or an industrial process’) impact on the environment through conserving
operational energy. As a result, developing a perspective of the Use-Phase
benefits of installing insulation or using additional insulation in an assembly
or system is critical in achieving a comprehensive understanding of the life
cycle impacts during the early design and decision-making stage.

The prediction of energy performance for any given building
design is complicated by countless variables and influencing factors. Therefore,
it can be challenging for an insulation manufacturer to represent Use-Phase
benefits of its products for marketing purposes, such as through an EPD, in a
manner that is found to be credible by the intended audience. It is important
that this representation be established with the same level of rigor and
transparency as the LCA. A state-of-the-art, computer-based simulation program
that has the ability to model the listed criteria of Section G2.2.1 in Appendix
G of ASHRAE 90.1-2010 10 and tested according to ASHRAE Standard 140
11
(such as EnergyPlus 12) could fit the bill. In addition to
choice of location(s)/climate(s), selection of building design and numerous
system specifications are involved in the simulation exercise. With the purpose
of assessing the impact of various amounts of insulation, resource intensity
can be minimized and a level of credibility in the analysis can be appreciated
by the audience through the application of the Department of Energy’s
Commercial Reference Buildings Project 13. Through this project,
extensive market research has been adapted into 16 typical buildings that have
been fully designed and their operation systems specified for 16 U.S. locations
with fully populated EnergyPlus input files. There are three versions of each
input file, providing widespread representation of newly constructed and
existing commercial buildings in this country.

 

Glossary of LCA Terms

 

Category Indicator. A quantifiable representation of an impact category?e.g.,
infrared radioactive forcing for
climate change.

 

Characterization Factor. A factor derived from a characterization model for
expressing a particular environmental intervention in terms of the common unit
of the category indicator (e.g., photochemical ozone creation potential of methanol).

 

Functional Unit. The quantified function provided by the product system(s)
under study, for use as a reference basis in an LCA?e.g., 1,000 hours of light
(adapted from ISO).

 

Impact Category. A class representing environmental issues of concern to which
environmental interventions are assigned?e.g., climate change, loss of
biodiversity.

 

Life Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA). The third phase of an LCA, concerned
with understanding and evaluating the magnitude and significance of the
potential environmental impacts of the product system(s) under study.

 

Life Cycle Inventory (LCI). The second phase of an LCA, in which the relevant
inputs and outputs of the product system(s) under study throughout the life
cycle are, as far as possible, compiled and quantified.

 

Product Category Rules (PCR)*. A set of specific rules, requirements,
and guidelines for developing Type III
environmental declarations for one or more product categories.

 

Program Operator*. Body or bodies that conduct(s) a Type III environmental
declaration program.

 

Reference Service Life**. Service life of a building product that is known or
expected under a particular set?i.e., a reference set?of in-use conditions, and
that may form the basis of estimating the service life under other in-use
conditions.

 

System Boundary. The interface between a product system and the environment
system or other product systems.

 

Source: Handbook on Life
Cycle Assessment. 7th ed. New York: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004.

 

* Denotes source is
ISO-14025 7

** Denotes source is
ISO-21930 8

 

 

References

1International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
2006. ISO 14040:2006 Environmental management ? Life cycle assessment ?
Principles and framework. Geneva, Switzerland.

2International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
2006. ISO 14044:2006 Environmental management ? Life cycle assessment ?
Requirements and guidelines. Geneva, Switzerland.

3National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). U.S. Life
Cycle Inventory Database. www.nrel.gov/lci/.

4Athena Sustainable Materials Institute. EcoCalculator.
www.athenasmi.org/our-software-data/ecocalculator/.

5Athena Sustainable Materials Institute. Impact
Estimator. http://www.athenasmi.org/our-software-data/impact-estimator/

6International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
2000. ISO 14020:2000 Environmental labels and declarations ? General
principles. Geneva, Switzerland.

7International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
2006. ISO 14025:2006 Environmental labels and declarations ? Type III
environmental declarations ? Principles and procedures. Geneva, Switzerland.

8International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
2007. ISO 21930:2007 Sustainability in building construction ? Environmental
declaration of building products. Geneva, Switzerland.

9Underwriters Laboratories Inc., 2011. Building
Envelope Thermal Insulation Product Category Rule Number UL 110116. www.ul.com/global/documents/offerings/businesses/environment/PCRs/ULE_PCR_EnvelopeThermalInsulation.pdf.

10   American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and
Air-Conditioning Engineers, Inc. 2010. ANSI/ASHRAE/IESNA Standard 90.1-2010
Energy Standard for Buildings except Low-Rise Residential Buildings. Atlanta,
GA.

11   American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and
Air-Conditioning Engineers, Inc. 2004. ANSI/ASHRAE Standard 140-2004 Standard
Method of Test for the Evaluation of Building Energy Analysis Computer
Programs. Atlanta, GA.

12   U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency and
Renewable Energy. EnergyPlus. http://apps1.eere.energy.gov/buildings/energyplus/

13   U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency and
Renewable Energy. Commercial Reference Buildings. http://www1.eere.energy.gov/buildings/commercial_initiative/reference_buildings.html.