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Life-cycle assessment has emerged as a valuable decision-support tool for both policy makers and industry in assessing the cradle-to-grave impacts of a product or process. Three forces are driving this evolution. First, government regulations are moving in the direction of "life-cycle accountability;" the notion that a manufacturer is responsible not only for direct production impacts, but also for impacts associated with product inputs, use, transport, and disposal. Second, business is participating in voluntary initiatives which contain LCA and product stewardship components. These include, for example, ISO 14000 and the Chemical Manufacturer Association's Responsible Care Program, both of which seek to foster continuous improvement through better environmental management systems. Third, environmental "preferability" has emerged as a criterion in both consumer markets and government procurement guidelines. Together these developments have placed LCA in a central role as a tool for identifying cradle-to-grave impacts both of products and the materials from which they are made. The "life-cycle" or "cradle-to-grave" impacts include the extraction of raw materials; the processing, manufacturing, and fabrication of the product; the transportation or distribution of the product to the consumer; the use of the product by the consumer; and the disposal or recovery of the product after its useful life. There are four linked components of LCA:

  • Goal definition and scoping : identifying the LCA's purpose and the expected products of the study, and determining the boundaries (what is and is not included in the study) and assumptions based upon the goal definition;
  • Life-cycle inventory : quantifying the energy and raw material inputs and environmental releases associated with each stage of production;
  • Impact analysis: assessing the impacts on human health and the environment associated with energy and raw material inputs and environmental releases quantified by the inventory;
  • Improvement analysis: evaluating opportunities to reduce energy, material inputs, or environmental impacts at each stage of the product life-cycle.
- Tellus Institute

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