What Is an Environmental Life Cycle Assessment and How Can It Help Mitigate the Construction Industry's Effects on the Environment

Climate change and other environmental concerns are taking over the news headlines and for a good reason. What happens to the planet affects us all.

Energy, manufacturing, transportation, and consumer products often take the spotlight, even though the construction industry is also a significant source of air, water, and land contamination. Each stage of a construction project, from excavation, manufacturing, on-site construction, maintenance to renovation and demolition, creates an environmental footprint.

Forward-looking countries, companies, and agencies are taking note and addressing the matter. It all starts with an Environmental Life Cycle Assessment (LCA or E-LCA), a method for assessing environmental impacts associated with all the stages of the life cycle of a project, product, process, organization, or even an entire region.

We asked Rob Sianchuk, a Vancouver based, Environmental Life Cycle Assessment Researcher with over ten years of industry experience, to help us shed some light on the topic and how LCA reports can help the construction industry.

When it comes to the construction industry, what are the top environmental concerns that an LCA report can highlight and help mitigate?

The international LCA standards for doing LCA on construction products and projects mandate a number of environmental impacts be mitigated. Categories include global warming (i.e., climate change), ozone depletion, eutrophication (i.e., algae growth), acidification (i.e., acid rain formation), and photochemical oxidant creation (i.e., smog formation).

In North America, the default impact assessment method to estimate these impacts is called TRACI. It is developed by the US EPA, which contains many non-mandatory categories for estimating impacts on human health and depletion of resources for those looking to go beyond the basic requirements.

While the current priority of the construction sector is to mitigate their contribution to global warming impacts, deciding which impact categories to consider in an LCA study depends on it's intended application. For instance, if you're doing an LCA study to meet Envision, Climate Lens, and the City of Vancouver Rezoning Permitting requirements, you'll only need to consider global warming impacts. In contrast, if you're doing an LCA to earn LEED points, you'll need to consider all the mandated impact categories.

How does recycling currently fit into an LCA?

On a construction project or in the manufacturing of a construction product, the burden of the impacts of recycling, i.e., all required transportation and processing technologies, are allocated to the end-of-life stage of the project or product. In an LCA study, we can compare the options for recycling, alongside other end-of-life options like landfilling, incineration, reuse, etc. to determine the lowest impact approach and plan accordingly.

What tips do you have for small construction companies that might not have the budget to prioritize environmental concerns?

Doing LCA doesn't have to be expensive. When I worked with a waste management company in Ottawa, we hired a second-year co-op student from the University of Ottawa who both worked in the business and helped conduct an LCA study. I would recommend reaching out to co-op programs in engineering and environmental science departments at your universities and colleges and aim to get started with a screening LCA study that highlights the environmental hotspots in the business that can be improved upon. I'd also recommend reaching out to the clients of the business to raise awareness of your use of LCA, as this may not only help promote the business, but they may also find the LCA study results useful for their own LCA study. Fill removal and fill placement are a big part of almost every construction project.

Do you have any suggestions on how the industry can add fill material to its assessment standards and encourage construction companies to use recycling or a fill exchange system?

In addition to the relative magnitude of the impact of a product on the construction project, the availability of data and ease of estimating quantities makes a big difference for inclusion in an LCA study on a construction project. If organizations providing fill products were able to provide a receipt for their fill that included the environmental impacts (i.e., mandatory categories mentioned above), it would go a long way to promoting the discussion of including fill when estimating environmental impacts of a construction project. It could also be used to inform expanding the discussion of impacts to be mitigated on construction projects to other non-mandatory impact categories (i.e., as you mention land use related impacts to farmland, water systems, and residential neighborhoods).

The other opportunity is to establish product category rules (i.e., common rules for doing LCA on functionally similar products), and publishing environmental product declarations (EPDs). For instance, LEED does provide recognition for the use of EPDs on construction projects.

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Contact Rob Sianchuk at https://robsianchukconsulting.ca/
to learn more about Environmental Life Cycle Assessments and how to use them at your organization.

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