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Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) Overview

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a "cradle-to-grave" approach for assessing industrial systems. "Cradle-to-grave" begins with the gathering of raw materials from the earth to create the product and ends at the point when all materials are returned to the earth.1

The goal of life cycle assessment (LCA) is to:

  • Quantify or otherwise characterize all the inputs and outputs over a product’s life span
  • Specify the potential environmental impacts of these material flows
  • Consider alternative approaches that change those impacts for the better.
Flowchart showing a life cycle system boundary. The inputs are energy, water, and raw materials. These lead to the system boundary, which includes raw material acquisition; manufacturing, processing, and formulation; distribution and transportation; use, reuse, maintenance; recycle; and waste management. The outputs are useable products, water effluents, airborne emissions, solid wastes, and other environmental releases. Figure 1: Inputs and outputs over a product’s life cycle2
The Sustainable Facilities Tool allows you to compare materials with regard to environmental criteria and life cycle costs in the Explore Section.

It is important to take into consideration the entire life cycle of materials, systems, and the whole building when making purchasing decisions. Only through LCA can the larger environmental image be quantified and compared over their life cycle to find alternatives that benefit humans and society alike.

For more information regarding LCA, continue reading one of the following topics:

Benefits of LCA
Identify the whole environmental impact picture Go beyond just the product “use” phase
Quantify environmental effects such as overall energy consumption or air emissions Recognize inefficient or significant changes in the life cycle phases
Compare alternatives “apples to apples” Reduce overall environmental impact and costs (as in an economic input-output LCAnon government site opens in new window)

Challenges to LCA
Defining LCA boundaries and scope Where do I want to draw the line? What attributes am I interested in comparing against one another? How far down the chain do I want to identify and quantify these material flows, and is that data even available?
Data availability Is data available to quantify material inputs and outputs at all stages of my defined scope? Is this data from a direct source (e.x., manufacturer)?
Quantifying environmental impacts How can these material flows be quantified into environmental categories (e.g., global warming)?
Weighting impacts across stakeholders What environmental category are we most concerned about (e.x., acidification, global warming, energy use) and how does it compare to other environmental attributes?

1 US EPA. "Life Cycle Assessment: Principles and Practice," May 2006opens in new window 2 DOE LBL | Life-Cycle Analysisopens in new window

Related Topics


Assessments are essential tools for linking science and decision making. They survey, integrate, and synthesize science, within and between scientific disciplines and across sectors and regions.

Source: USGCRP: Assess the U.S. Climate - What are assessments?

Embodied Energy

A measure of the energy used to harvest, manufacture, process, bring to market, and dispose of a product. In Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of building materials, embodied energy helps identify the true energy cost of an item. This accounting method attempts to quantify the fossil fuels, nuclear energy, and other forms of energy that are involved over the material's life.


Emissions are the discharge of a substance. In the building’s context, emissions usually refer to greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere (e.g., the release of carbon dioxide during fuel combustion).

Life Cycle Approach

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) Overview

Life Cycle Cost Assessment (LCCA)

Materials and resources all have environmental, social and economic impacts beyond their use in a project. Impacts occur during harvest or extraction of raw materials, manufacturing, packaging, transporting, installing, use, and end-of-life disposal, reuse, or recycling. These “cradle to cradle” impacts should be considered when purchasing materials. The formal study of this process is known as Environmental Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).

Similarly, Life Cycle Cost Assessment examines the costs and savings throughout the life cycle of a building material. For example, energy efficient equipment and appliances can be more expensive when initially purchased but will save energy (and money) throughout the life of the project. Therefore, it may make sense to invest in more efficient equipment that costs more up front but saves money and energy over time.

The Sustainable Facilities Tool allows you to compare life cycle costs for materials, as well as other environmental criteria, by following the green dots and clicking "compare materials" in Explore Sustainable Workspaces.

Also, check out information on LCA at the Whole Building Design Guide:
WBDG | Life Cycle Cost Analysis (LCCA)


Glass, plastic, aluminum, cardboard and paper (including glossy magazines, envelopes with plastic windows and sticky notes) can all be easily recycled.  Depending on the waste hauler, recycling bins can include commingled waste (i.e. all materials are collected in one bin) or they may require separated waste (i.e. one bin for paper, one bin for plastics, etc).  By recycling products, materials are sent back to the marketplace rather than to the landfill. 

EPA | Recycling Basics

Reuse (Waste)

Similar to recycling, reuse refers to finding new uses for items instead of sending them to landfills.  Can furniture be reused in another department of the company? Can electronics be donated to charity? Even using an empty soda bottle to make a hummingbird feeder is a way to reuse items instead of trashing them.


EPA | WasteWise

Solid Waste

Waste comprises all materials that flow from a building to final disposal.  Examples include paper, grass trimmings, food scraps, and plastics.  Responsible stewardship tries to divert as much waste as possible from the landfill.  This can mean recycling paper, mulching or composting grass trimmings, and reusing large items, such as furniture.

EPA | Learn about Waste

Source Reduction

Source reduction reduces the volume or toxicity of waste generated. Source reduction occurs before materials have been identified as “waste”. For example, building management can designate reuse centers for office supplies and other reusable goods. Another example of source reduction is implementing a paper reduction campaign through double sided and electronic printing.

Sustainable Purchasing

Purchasing managers should create purchasing plans and programs that give preference to items containing recycled content, certified wood, and rapidly renewable materials, as well as items that are energy efficient, non-toxic, durable and locally manufactured, harvested and / or extracted.  Further, purchasing managers should prioritize vendors who promote source reduction through reusable or minimal packaging of products.

EPA | Greener Products

Department of Energy | Guiding Principles

Virgin Materials

Virgin materials are natural resources that are extracted in their raw form that are traditionally used in industrial or manufacturing processes.  Examples of virgin materials are timber, plastic resin derived from petroleum refining process, and mined/processed metals.


Did You Know?

40% of U.S. architects, engineers, contractors, building owners and building consultants report that the majority of building work was green in 2012. It is expected that 53% of these U.S. firms will be engaged in mostly green building work by 2015. 44% of all nonresidential building project starts were green in 2012 as well, up from 2% in 2005. Green buildings hold strong appeal for both commercial and institutional (including government) owners.

Source: McGraw Hill Construction (2013). 2013 World Green Building Trends SmartMarket Report.

Case Study

Adaptable Workplace Laboratory

Flexibility Before

This case study provides an in-depth look at using flexible interiors to design for adaptability

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