Website Archive

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Life Cycle Assessment

Using a Business Tool to Identify Total Environmental Impacts

Stages of a Product’s Life Cycle

Raw Material

From raw materials…


to products…


to waste recycling…

…life cycle assessment evaluates the environmental impacts of each stage.

Life cycle assessment (LCA) is used by a diverse range of businesses to identify the total environmental impacts of their product or service so that they can gain a competitive advantage by designing their operations to use less energy and resources, and produce less waste.

The Safer Products and Workplaces Program (SPWP) is using LCA to compare the environmental consequences of various hazardous waste management methods. Different ways to collect, treat, and dispose of hazardous waste, as well as prevent its generation, can result in diverse impacts on the environment and human health.  Using LCA, comparison of the impacts and benefits of each method can be made on a “level playing field” because all external costs and life cycle phases are considered.

For more information on life cycle assessment, contact Bob Boughton in the Safer Products and Workplaces Program at (916) 322-3670.

Completed LCA Projects

LCA Tools and Guidance

Environmentally Preferable Purchasing

LCA Links

For more information on LCA, use the following links that will exit the DTSC Web site.

USEPA Life Cycle Assessment Research

American Center for Life Cycle Assessment (Link removed – destination no longer available)

Centre for Design Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT)

International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment (Link removed – destination no longer available)

LCA links by G. Doka (Link removed – destination no longer available)

Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry Life Cycle Assessment (Link removed – destination no longer available)

Completed LCA Projects

Impacts of the Used Oil Management System

Three management methods are employed to manage the 120 million gallons of used oils collected in California each year: re-refining back to lubricating oils, distillation to clean ship fuels and an asphalt product, and combustion as fuel. In 2005, more than 70 million gallons of used oil were marketed as heavy fuel oil without treatment. Some of this was burned in combustion systems with limited pollution controls. The results of an environmental life cycle assessment show that heavy metal air emissions from used oil fuel far exceed emissions from other used oil management methods. In fact the net zinc, copper, cadmium, and lead emissions to air from used oil combustion may be equal to emissions from all of California’s large stationary sources combined (based on EPA-TRI). Because of heavy metal emissions, combustion of used oil as fuel may cause 100 times the environmental impact of used oil re-refining or distillation (see Environmental Assessment of Used Oil Management Methods in Environmental Science and Technology vol. 38, No. 2).

Re-refining used oil conserves natural resources and reduces air pollution.

Treatment by re-refining or distillation results in reduced environmental impact primarily from diversion of used oil as fuel, but also from recycling energy-intensive materials back into commerce. This in turn reduces California’s net global environmental impact and crude oil imports. Increased domestic use of the products such as re-refined motor oil will help to increase the use of existing treatment capacity and foster the development of additional treatment capacity. Source reduction of used oil generation by extended motor oil change intervals could result in significant crude oil resource savings. A recent report completed by the Federal DOE and EPA reviews the benefits of better used oil management.

For more information on this project, use the following links that will exit the DTSC Web site.

Environmental Assessment of Used Oil Management Methods

Response to Comment on “Environmental Assessment of Used Oil Management Methods”

Additional Resources

Shredder Residue Management Alternatives

At their end of useful life, a majority of automobiles and appliances are shredded to recover iron, steel, and non-ferrous metals. The remaining waste consisting of glass, plastics, carpet, and dirt is called shredder residue. About 360,000 tons of shredder residue are generated each year in California.

Currently the residue is treated with chemical fixatives such as portland cement to reduce the leaching of heavy metals and is then disposed in landfills. The large resource cost of treatment chemicals and the loss of the material resource and energy value when landfilling was studied. A recent study comparing three methods for managing shredder residue to landfilling was published in Resources, Conservation and Recycling. Three material recovery methods were evaluated using LCA methodology, and one alternative, using shredder residues as fuel and mineral feedstock for cement manufacture, proved very beneficial.  Results showed that up to 100,000 tons of coal, 100,000 tons of mineral resources, 150,000 tons of landfill capacity, and 50,000 tons of treatment chemicals could be conserved annually. Additionally, the current practice of chemically treating and landfilling shredder waste may have 4 to 10 times higher environmental and human health impacts. One example of potential savings from recovering this material as fuel instead of coal showed that more than 30,000 tons per year of global-warming gasses could be eliminated (which is equivalent to emissions of 7,000 automobiles).

Crushed auto bodies ready for the shredding process

A follow-up study was initiated with co-funding from USEPA to study separation systems and shredder residue characteristics (the project description can be found here).  The results showed that a fraction constituting about 30 wt% of the total shredder residue with characteristics equivalent to coal could be economically recovered. However, the presence of contaminants lowers the value of SR-derived fuel. Reducing the contamination from components in the shredder feedstocks (e.g., PCB-laden capacitors, lead wheel weights, PVC plastics, and mercury switches) may be the most significant barrier to overcome.  The study, Evaluation of Shredder Residue as Cement Manufacturing Feedstock, has been published in Resources Conservation and Recycling.

For more information on these projects, refer to the following:

Environmental Assessment of Shredder Residue Management

Evaluation of Shredder Residue as Cement Manufacturing Feedstock

Finding Alternatives to Lead Wheel Weights

Life cycle assessment tools were used to evaluate the impacts of alternatives to lead wheel weights currently being used in California. The comparative assessment described in this report evaluates certain impacts associated with lead, steel, and zinc alloy wheel weights to identify regrettable substitutions or burden shifting as a result of the lead wheel weight ban (see for more information). Metal production inventories were used to compare the impacts of the different wheel weight formulations and to understand the processes contributing to adverse impacts. Impacts from weight losses during use were also evaluated to compare the environmental and human health trade-off. Based on the assumptions and considerations outlined in the report, lead or zinc wheel weights lost on the roadway have much higher potential impacts to human health or the environment compared to steel. The substitution of zinc for lead weights poses a burden shift as the losses during use are more harmful to the environment than lead. Considering the assumptions made, the impacts from lead or zinc based wheel weight losses to roadways greatly exceed their manufacturing impacts. Therefore, steel appears to be the preferred alternative for clip-on weights due to its comparatively low toxicity and reasonable manufacturing impacts. The loss rate for adhesive weights (which represent a minor fraction of the current market) is not known but is likely similar across each weight metal type. Nonetheless, the loss rate for zinc adhesive weights would need to be two orders in magnitude lower than that of steel weights for the loss (during use) impacts to become comparable to those of primary metal acquisition and weight manufacturing for steel weights. Lower environmental and human health impacts coupled with the propensity for steel wheel weights to be made from recycled material appears to position steel wheel weights to be the best overall alternative.

Environmentally Preferable Purchasing

Environment + Price + Performance

California’s Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Task Force provides state agencies with information and assistance regarding environmentally preferable purchasing (EPP). EPP is the procurement of goods and services that have a reduced effect on human health and the environment when compared with competing goods and services. This comparison takes into account the “cradle to grave” or “cradle to cradle” life cycle of a product — from the acquisition of raw materials, processing, manufacturing, packaging, distribution, reuse, maintenance, disposal, energy efficiency, product performance, safety, and cost.

The EPP Task Force includes several working groups covering areas such as vehicle fleets, cleaning products, integrated pest management, historic buildings, and releasable classrooms. Technology Development Branch staff supports the State’s EPP efforts by contributing its expertise in pollution prevention and life cycle assessment to the Task Force Working Groups, focusing on automotive and truck fleet management, sustainable building, electronic equipment procurement, and statewide master contracts.

For more information on EPP, use the following links that will exit the DTSC Web site.

USEPA Environmentally Preferable Purchasing

State of Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection Operational Services Division

State of Minnesota Materials Management Division (Link removed – destination no longer available)

King County, Washington Environmental Purchasing Program

Center for a New American Dream

INFORM, Purchasing for Pollution Prevention Green Seal (Link removed – destination no longer available)

California Integrated Waste Management Board Environmentally Preferable Purchasing

Green California (Link removed – destination no longer available)

Green Seal