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July 27, 2010 / or4green

Life Cycle Assessment & Operations Research: a New Working Group

A life cycle assessment (LCA) generates a number, or a set of numbers representing the environmental impact of a product from raw materials all the way through disposal. Along the way, uncertainty creeps in. For instance suppliers may change frequently, or maybe a supplier operation is opaque and so quantities must be estimated, processes may change (see for example this post and comments), etc. Below is an example LCA of Nika bottled water by ClearCarbon:

Due to the embedded uncertainty, in general, where bar heights are close, comparative conclusions are lacking. But where a bar stands out, a focus for action is clear. Ideally, the numbers the LCA produces (standing for CO2 emissions, usage of energy/water/materials, etc.) are made to be as small as possible through decisions along the way in design, material sourcing, production, logistics, usage/operation, and disposal. This sounds like the kind of thing O.R./O.M. can help with. And that is the aim of a new interdisciplinary working group on “Supply Chain LCA & Carbon Footprinting” organized by Dr. Vered Doctori-Blass of UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. LCA is one of the major tools of the industrial ecology community, and so the new group would bridge the disciplines. Here is the mission statement:

There is a fast-growing demand, from companies and regulatory agencies, for information about life-cycle environmental impacts of products. Consumers also want information that will help them choose products that have less environmental impact, and companies can use this information to find opportunities for reducing environmental impacts. These impacts are quantified many times using LCA studies. In particular, carbon footprint has become the focus of many firms, due to the high profile issue of climate change and the growing demand for carbon disclosure, especially with the upcoming and existing carbon regulations in some states. Although the Industrial Ecology field has been active for some time, information coming out of LCA studies is not immediately suitable for business decision-making. Our objective is to bridge the Industrial Ecology and Operations Management disciplines to work together on carbon and energy footprinting challenges. To that end, we have started creating an informal “carbon footprinting in supply chains” working group, with participating NGOs, industry, and academics from a wide range of institutions in four continents. The aim for this working group is to share examples of business-relevant LCA studies, collaborate on research projects, organize workshops, and help inform ongoing efforts to develop standards for product-level carbon footprinting.The working group is currently managed with a small fund from the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

There is currently a LinkedIn group and a web site, soon to be updated, but definitely a good place to start.

Upcoming workshops/conferences include:

  1. June 6, 2011 – workshop at UCLA or UC-Berkeley – this event will take place one day before the ISIE (International Society for Industrial Ecology) 2011 Conference
  2. One day mini-conference on carbon footprinting just before the 2011 POMS (Production and Operations Management Society) conference, date to be determined. Check here.

For more information about the working group, contact Dr. Doctori-Blass at vered.doctori-blass AT

Much LCA and carbon footprint software exists (see the cemsus site for instance). And some offerings do have some form of optimization or decision analysis features. The well known simaPro LCA software has Monte Carlo uncertainty analysis to address the uncertainty in inputs and/or process parameters. And ILOG has a carbon footprint extension to its software that allows one to calculate CO2 emissions associated with supply chain activities, and then constrain CO2, among other related features. (Michael Trick wrote about this a while back.) See also this post for a brief discussion about carbon footprint software.

On the research side, there has been some work in applying O.R. to LCA. LCA has been around for at least 30 years, and O.R. is even older. The O.R. methods usually include multi-criteria decision making. Here are some examples:

How to benefit from decision analysis in environmental life cycle assessment
by Pauli Miettinen, Raimo P. Hämäläinen
in European Journal of Operational Research, 279 – 294 (October 1997)

Decision Analysis Frameworks for Life-Cycle Impact Assessment
by Jyri Seppälä, Lauren Basson, and Gregory A. Norris
in Journal of Industrial Ecology, Volume 5 Issue 4, Pages 45 – 68, Published Online: 8 Feb 2008

Developing a decision support tool for life-cycle cost assessments
by Keith A. Weitz, Joyce K. Smith, John L. Warren
in Environmental Quality Management, Volume 4 Issue 1, Pages 23 – 36, Published Online: 3 Aug 2006

Linear programming as a tool in life cycle assessment
by Adisa Azapagic and Roland Clift
in The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, Volume 3, Number 6 / November, 1998,
305-316. Clift is the current president of the ISIE. I had the good fortune of meeting him recently.

This post has a few papers on green supply chains.

The Supply Chain LCA & Carbon Footprinting Working Group web site has a list of papers as well, focused more from the O.M. side.

Did you make it this far? If you are going to do an LCA, may as well be about something you enjoy. Beer?


  1. Sabi / Jul 28 2010 8:07 pm

    Great article! I have been passively researching ways to apply OR to LCA for the past few months myself, but I haven’t read those technical publications yet.

  2. or4green / Jul 29 2010 8:30 pm

    Sabi – thanks, glad you liked it!

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