The ELSA-PACT chair is the first ever industrial chair dedicated to Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) in Europe. Initiated by the French National Research Institute of Science and Technology for Environment and Agriculture (IRSTEA), the chair supports businesses by proposing sustainable assessment methods of products and services based on the Life Cycle approach. This method is distinguished by its standardised (1) and multi-impact approach that offers a comprehensive vision of the environmental performance of a product or service. An explanation of this method with Philippe Roux from the IRSTEA.
Could you introduce yourself?
Philippe Roux: I am a research engineer at the IRSTEA and the co-founder of the pluri-disciplinary ELSA (Environmental Lifecycle and Sustainability Assessment) research unit that brings together five research and higher education institutions based in the south of France. I have been working on LCA for more than 10 years, with a sharp focus on water in recent years.
What is Life Cycle Assessment?
Philippe Roux: It is an internationally recognised scientific method that uses up to 18 indicators to determine the environmental impact of goods or services throughout their life cycle. Examples of these indicators include ecotoxicity, global warming or the depletion of resources. They can be classified in three categories: impacts on ecosystems, human health and natural resources. They are quantified by taking stock of all the consumed natural resources, the quantity of waste produced and the pollutant emissions into water, the air and the soil, from the extraction of the raw materials used to make the product or service, to end-of-life disposal.
The advantage of LCA is that it is comprehensive, in terms of the consideration of every step of a system, and the quantification of all the potential impacts. In this way, LCA can identify any transfers of pollution. For example, looking for a solution to combat global warming must not be done to the detriment of the quality of aquatic ecosystems, or the consumption of natural resources. In LCA jargon, we call this a “cradle to grave” assessment of impacts that enables us to identify fake good solutions and to initiate a genuine eco-design process.
There is also a so-called “social” LCA, which is an emerging discipline inspired by conventional LCA, that looks into the social impacts of an activity (i.e., a life cycle) on populations and workers, just like the environmental LCA examines impacts on the environment.
Understanding Life Cycle Thinking:
How do you go about performing an LCA?
Philippe Roux: An LCA has four phases. First, together with the party commissioning the assessment, we define the goal, the scope of the study, and the service provided for which we want to quantify the environmental footprint. For example, we can work on the comparison between the environmental footprints of two different technologies that are used to treat effluents from inhabitants. Once this step has been completed, we draw up a complete inventory of the resources consumed and the pollutants emitted in every step of the life cycle of all the technologies involved.
This inventory is then interpreted by software that produces a multi-criteria environmental footprint, including up to 18 impact categories. We finish off by analysing this data in accordance with the goal of the assessment, and we draw our conclusions in order to make a choice between two technologies, or to launch an eco-design process to improve the weakest dimensions of those technologies.
What are the applications of an environmental LCA?
Philippe Roux: LCA is increasingly being used as a support tool for decisions affecting industrial strategy or public policy. For example, LCA is already widely used for consumer products (labelling, eco-labels, green purchases, etc.) and in green chemicals (eco-design, environmental benchmarking, etc.). It is also broadly used by environmental agencies like the ADEME or the Biodiversity Agency, in order to assess the efficiency of biofuels, for example. The main idea is to use a consensual tool based on science to perform diagnostics that enable us to take “the best decisions for the environment”.
LCA and public decision support – Application to the case of water:
In concrete terms, how can this approach be applied to service activities in the environment?
Philippe Roux: As we have just seen, LCA is already used in the environmental assessment of numerous products. Quite logically, it is also being used in the sphere of conventional waste and, more recently, in sanitation, in order to compare different management methods, or to eco-design new processes. In the LCA of services, all the technical systems that contribute to the delivery of the services throughout their lifetime are identified.
LCA is also well adapted to the circular economy or the functional economy. By way of example, if we produce biogas from the sludge from a wastewater treatment plant, the LCA quantifies not only the environmental impacts that are necessary for the system to function, but also the impacts that are avoided (i.e., the quantity of gas replaced by the biogas we have produced). The development of the circular economy is an attempt to move away from a linear “cradle to grave” economic logic, towards a “cradle to cradle” approach, where the waste from one activity becomes the raw material of another. The development of “regional LCAs” is a very effective means of benefitting from the numerous environmental benefits of the approach, without forgetting the impacts associated with its own operation.
LCA as a tool contributing to your company’s performance:
What does your partnership with SUEZ in the ELSA-PACT industrial chair entail?
Philippe Roux: SUEZ is a founding member of the chair. Today, our partnership mainly involves working with the teams at two research centres of the Group: the CIRSEE near Paris, and the LyRE in Bordeaux.
One of the main focal points at the moment is the improvement of the LCA methods relating to water. For example, for the “water quality” aspect (pollution), the LCA indicators are very advanced, but we are trying to better quantify and incorporate the benefits of eliminating certain chemical micropollutants found in wastewater. Regarding the quantitative aspects (how to use less water), the Chair is doing some important methodological work to better assess the effects of depriving ecosystems and resources of water.
The partnership is also an opportunity to improve SUEZ’s employees’ knowledge of the LCA methodology through training and seminars. We are also developing simplified software that will allow SUEZ’s engineers and technicians to incorporate the LCA method in their everyday work, for example, to add an environmental dimension to their offers.
(1) ISO 14044
For more information, you can consult the LCA's guide for entrepreneurs.