Next week the 9th annual Life Cycle Analysis Conference will be held in Boston, MA. This year’s conference promises to be the biggest and best one yet. The conference will be packed with incredibly bright industrial ecologists from all over the world. These are the people working on the cutting edge of science to simplify the process of understanding the true impacts our business and consumer decisions have on our planet.
Last year’s LCA conference was a fantastic experience. It completely altered my perception of what I thought was sustainable and revealed interesting hidden impacts of products when you consider them from a life cycle perspective. The results showed that while packaging materials are important, it was far more important to focus on what was INSIDE the packaging. The focus should be reducing impact in that area where possible. (I hear WalMart may be building a new scorecard thanks to this one.)
There was another great study on a plastic bag tax in Ireland. The tax was hailed a success because it decreased the number of plastic bags used to carry goods home from stores by 90%. However, if you look a little deeper at the full life cycle of plastic bag use over time, you can see that once the tax went into effect, there was actually an increase in the quantity of plastic purchased throughout the country! This unintended consequence came about because policy makers didn’t have an adequate understanding of the USE phase in the life cycle of plastic bags. When consumers returned from their shopping excursions they didn’t throw the bags out immediately. They were reusing them to clean up after pets or to line small trash bins. After the tax, people then had to buy plastic bags for trash bins and pet waste that were made with a thicker plastic and therefore increased the total amount of plastic consumed by weight.
As you can see, the LCA conference is not just for “supergeeks” (a term I use with the utmost affection), but it is also filled with valuable information that illustrates how LCA will increasingly play a critical role in helping policy makers, businesses and consumers make truly informed decisions.
Next week I’ll be focusing on getting to the bottom of the following issues: the state of LCI database and tool development, the integration of social LCA, what WalMart is doing with LCA now, and identifying jobs in this field and how one prepares for them. If you have anything else you want me to look into, let me know and I’ll corner Greg Norris and the other rocket scientists in the room.
Shana Gillis is a sustainability consultant in Oakland CA. She is passionate about all areas of sustainability, and is particularly interested in life cycle analysis and sustainable urban agriculture. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from The Presidio Graduate School and an undergraduate degree in Operations Research and Industrial Engineering from Cornell University.