ISO 14001 - Life Cycle Assessment

As of September 14, 2014, following the summer-long voting period for the update of the 2004 edition of the standard, the FDIS stage of ISO 14001 has concluded, and the 2015 revision of the standard has been released. ISO 14001:2015 marks several significant changes from its predecessor, due to a greater understanding of environmental management and an urgent need to respond to related issues accordingly. An important addition to the updated standard is the use of life-cycle assessment (LCA).

Life-cycle assessment was addressed in a recent post on the ISO Guide 64, in which it is used for the creation of products. However, the topic warrants further discussion, since it is remarkably important when it comes to proper environmental care. The four stages of the life-cycle are extraction of raw materials, manufacturing, use, and disposal. Each of these has the opportunity for pollution and environmental degradation.

Each stage of the life-cycle requires energy and resources to function. Acknowledgement of this fact is a step forward from past thinking, in which companies and policy makers primarily focused on energy and waste management during production, looking at things like pollution of streams. However, this perspective does not allow for proper environmental stewardship, since it overlooks the different outputs that can occur during a product’s lifetime. For example, creating public policy meant to limit the greenhouse gas emissions during the manufacturing of a product completely disregards the emissions that derive from the machines used to extract the material during the first stage of the product life-cycle. Also, by attempting to clean up waste that comes as a by-product of manufacturing, companies and policymakers glance over the environmental issues resulting from accumulation of discarded products after they are used.

Another important idea from LCA is prevention of burden shifting. Life-cycle thinking requires decision-makers to consider every stage involved with a product. A solution to one stage, while limiting the amount of environmental harm that can come directly from the processes of that stage, should not create new issues for another stage. A life-cycle mindset also involves recycling of anything used throughout the cycle, limiting any negative outputs and externalities. This allows for the life-cycle to repeat itself following the final stage, maintaining a closed system that has limited environmental impact.          

Properly following a sustainable model can lead to economic benefits as well. Some of the outputs used in an unsustainable life-cycle model can be more expensive than if they were completely avoided. Take for example, an electronics organization that does nothing to encourage proper disposal of their products at the end of their lifetimes, leading to large amounts of waste. Instead, the organization could encourage a special recycling program, which would allow resources to be reused, instead of having to expend time and energy to extract more metal. Also, preventing things like air pollution lowers any costs that would be needed to clean the air in the future.

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