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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.
    – user2451
    Sep 13 '15 at 17:53
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    @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
  • Re 'Why it costs money': Luckily, in all sorts of domains, there is super much research freely available, despite it equally having taken a lot of effort, and everyone is happy about it. So I'd be careful by using 'it takes a lot of time' to justify that LCA is mostly restricted to pricey products, given much LCA research is funded by public money.
    – FlorianH
    Jul 19 at 13:38
  • openLCA for example bundles a lot of free LCA databases, see my answer below.
    – FlorianH
    Jul 19 at 13:38
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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.

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  • 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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Various places with free LCA info/DBs seem to exist, but among them at least one I'm aware is large-scale and with a lot of free elements - plus relatively convenient:

OpenLCA is a Software combining many free and non-free LCA databases. It might be the offer the most comprehensive bundling of free and non-free database (tbc).

OpenLCA Nexus is its corresponding online tool for convenient Dataset search -> you'll see which free and non-free dataset it contains.

Just create a free account, and search online, or download the tool which is quickly installed and simple to use.

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    Welcome to Sustainable Living! Please note that the rules of this website require you to mention your affiliation with a recommended product.
    – LShaver
    Jul 19 at 13:39
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    Thanks @LShaver, appreciate the comment. I'm actually NOT in anyway affiliated with OpenLCA or any product in the domain! I've just installed it first time this morning and find it nice so far - after a bit of looking what seems to exist all around (and keen to hear if my view seems flawed); sadly so much only at high cost...
    – FlorianH
    Jul 19 at 15:33
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    @LShaver I provided this answer because I think it is much more an answer really to the Poster's question than the (bit sad) accepted answer is - imho!
    – FlorianH
    Jul 19 at 15:38
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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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