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Often, a Lifecycle Assessment (LCA) can be useful to judge the ecological and social impact of a product or procedure.

What tools to produce an LCA are freely available?

Especially of interest would be tools with a shallow learning curve, that allow a casual user (who doesn't write LCAs every day) to asses a product quickly.

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    maybe inappropriate because of list type answer or even googled trivially - but I think it makes sense to have an answer to point to, so it's worth ab non-appropriateness. – mart Mar 11 '13 at 10:57
  • (A wild guess) Read the Fairphone blogs and see what they use. – Jan Doggen Sep 13 '15 at 17:53
  • @JanDoggen Why is the LCA software Fairphone uses relevant here? BTW they used openLCA (free) and the Ecoinvent database (not free). – THelper Mar 8 '17 at 13:58
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One if the issues with LCA is that it's very data intensive, and that generic products/processes can be subject to a lot of uncertainty. These factors merit a need for time investment to generate the data, standardize it, and develop tools for using it. That's why the products are expensive, often have high learning curves, and why people take multiple semester course sequences to learn about LCA.

That being said, some of the raw data is free - the US LCI database is, and can be combined with LCIA tools like ReCiPe in Excel to get 'interpretable' impacts like GHG emissions. That won't fulfill the 'easy' part right away, but some Python or Excel macros would likely make it pretty functional for everyday use.

An alternative might be something like Sustainable Minds, which is not free, but is designed to be very easy to use. It's aimed at designers and iteration, so it might not be ideal.

One sidenote is that assessing the social impacts of products/processes is something that's still very much in basic research.

TL;DR: There's a reason LCA tools cost money, and it's because it requires a lot of time and effort to generate the underlying data. You can either deal with a free but limited subset of the data and invest time, or invest money, perhaps in a simpler tool.

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    I'm not sure this is necessarily true: please see my answer. – Jack Ryan Jan 16 '14 at 13:33
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Please consider using an economic input-output model. Alternative (other-than-process-based) methods of calculating net product impact can provide quick, cost effective, and yet comprehensive life-cycle assessments. A free economic input-output LCA is available via the Green Design Institute at Carnegie Mellon.

Some background:

LCA can currently be performed 2 ways: 1) Process-based or 2) economic input-output based.

Process-based LCA [O]ne needs to identify the inputs, such as pulp, water, and dyes to make the paper, the trees and machinery to make the pulp, and the forestry practices to grow and harvest the trees. Similarly, one needs to include inputs and outputs for packaging the cup for shipment to the store, the trip to the store to purchase the cups, and that result from throwing the cup in the trash and eventually being landfilled or incinerated. Even for a very simple product, this process-based LCA method can quickly spiral into an overwhelming number of inputs and outputs to include. Now, imagine doing this same process-based LCA for a product such as an automobile that has over 20,000 individual parts, or a process such as electricity generation.

Advantages: detailed, process specific; allows for product specific comparison Disadvantages: time-intensive; system boundary is subjective; proprietary

An internet search brings several reputable vendors, but as mentioned, these processes are usually very thorough and rather expensive.

Economic Input-Output: Inputs to the automobile manufacturing industry sector include the outputs from the industry sectors that produce sheet metal, plate glass windshields, tires, carpeting, as well as computers (for designing the cars), electricity (to operate the facilities), etc. In turn, the sheet metal, plate glass windshield tire, etc. industry sectors require inputs for their operations that are outputs of other sectors, and so on. Each of these requirements for goods or services between industry sectors is identified in an EIO model.

Advantages: results are economy-wide, comprehensive assessments; allows for systems-level comparisons; uses public data; reproducible; generally quicker

Disadvantages: product assessments contain aggregate data; process assessments are difficult; must link monetary values with physical units

It's important to note that many of the data sets here are US, but the site also provides links to Canadian, German, and French data.

FYI: Economic Input-Output LCA models are founded on Wassily Leontief's Nobel Prize winning theory.

  • EIO-LCA is indeed fast and cheap and avoids cut-off rules but this comes at a huge cost. Major disadvantages of EIO-LCA are that data is often rather old because IO tables take many years to compile (the most recent EIO-LCA data currently is from 2002), many different data sources are used which leads to methodological inconsistencies and large uncertainties, only the production stage of products and services are considered, and imports are left out. Therefor EIO-LCA is best used for quick-scans of gradle-to-gate products or macro-level LCAs only. – THelper Jun 26 '15 at 21:04
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Software

The most basic, free tool to create an LCA would simply be a spreadsheet like OpenOffice Calc. However, dedicated LCA software does make things easier for you, but most software is not free. The few good and free LCA software packages I know are:

There are however quite a number of free tools that focus specifically on a particular impact or use case. Some examples are:

The most popular commercial software packages for a full process-based LCA are without a doubt SimaPro and GaBi. They are not free, but

  • SimaPro does offer a free demo version (with limited functionality) of their software
  • GaBi is free for educational purposes (for college students and teachers)

Learning

You mentioned that you are looking for software preferably for "the casual user". Conducting a full process-based LCA however, is not for the casual user no matter which tool you are using. To draw up such an LCA you need to know about things like reference flows, unit processes, cut-off rules, allocation, impact assessment, ISO 14040 guidelines and other LCA conventions. If you don't have at least a basic understanding your LCA will be worthless. To learn about these LCA concepts, I can recommend:

More resources can be found in this site's LCA tag wiki

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I would like to add GaBi to the list. It is a fully suited life cycle assessment program and therefore quite complex. It is free for students (up to Master level) and phd students in non-OECD countries.

http://www.gabi-software.com/international/software/gabi-education/

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If it's for buildings and you are a student, One Click LCA is another option: it allows full Life Cycle Assessment and Life Cycle Costing calculations that are compliant with ISO standards and access to the biggest LCA database of construction materials on the market. You can read more here: www.oneclicklca.com and request a student license here. As a disclaimer, this is the company I work for.

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