Life-cycle analyses surge ahead

Four new "cradle-to-grave" studies are expected to add substantially to the growing environmental information bank for products and improve the methodologies used to determine their impacts. The goal of the studies is to provide a firmer basis for both industry and regulators to improve the environmental performance of products.

Two of the life-cycle analysis (LCA) studies have been initiated by the plastics industry. A third is being funded by the European Commission. And the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) has also got in on the LCA act as part of its new programme of work on environmental standards.

The move by the plastics industry is aimed in part at helping producers and users improve their environmental performance by reducing waste and emissions. But its main objective is to influence the European Commission and national governments when drafting environmental rules. The industry is particularly concerned that plastics recycling may be promoted ahead of thermal recovery in packaging recovery legislation.

One of the industry's studies will aim to quantify the environmental impacts caused by the production of the main polymers from oil to plastic granule. The research is being sponsored by the European Centre for Plastics and the Environment (PWMI), which says that a "scarcity of accurate information" prompted the project.

An industry task force will gather the information and a team of LCA experts, chaired by Dr Ian Boustead of the Open University, will define the methodology and conduct the analysis. Interpretation of the data inventory, due to be completed by the end of 1992, will be left to governments and representatives of environmental and consumer groups, the PWMI says.

Meanwhile, the UK Packaging & Industrial Films Association (PIFA) is compiling a database of environmental impacts associated with the production, use and disposal of plastic films. PIFA is asking its members, retailers and waste management organisations for information on emissions and uses. It expects to publish its first report in the autumn.

The European Commission's study, which has just been put out to tender, will aim to bring together LCA experience and data on packaging. The one-year project will involve the "collection, description, evaluation and comparison of the contents, criteria and techniques applied and conclusions reached with regard to existing life-cycle analysis of packaging."

Specifically, the successful tenderer will review existing packaging LCAs, and use a structured framework to conduct an LCA comparing reusable and non-reusable systems for either food or non-food packaging.

The second LCA review is being conducted by the ISO's new Strategic Advisory Group on the Environment (SAGE) (see pp 20-21 ). A sub-group will review existing LCA programmes and recommend how the ISO should set about harmonising LCA methodologies.

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