Life Cycle Assessment Made Simple (ish)

Life Cycle Assessment Made Simple (ish)

The argument to switch to electric vehicles from fossil fuel vehicles as a way to save the planet has me weighing the truth of this concept. When I suggest looking at an electric cars' entire life cycle, inception to landfill, before really jumping on board, I get blank stares in return. 

I’ve had the same reaction when I talk about sustainable apparel, nuclear power, and organic beef; most folks just don’t think about products this way. It’s no wonder we get confused about what’s truly a good alternative to a current option, where are we ever taught to think about these things unless we’re studying economics or sustainability? Never! 

You can make the right decision

One way to assess the impact of a product versus another is called Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). An LCA is a way to calculate something's environmental impact by looking at all the parts and inputs of making and disposing of a product. That entire journey is its life cycle. 

Think of a monarch butterfly…the little egg grows into a caterpillar, who eats a bunch of leaves, then turns into a chrysalis, and then lives its little butterfly life, and eventually, it lays more eggs and it all starts again. That’s the Monarch’s life cycle. We’ve all seen images of this. 

Products have lives too… much more complex mind you, but they come from raw materials that come from the earth (the egg stage), require inputs to bring them together (the eating leaves and chrysalis stage), get used (the butterfly stage), and then get thrown out when no longer of use. Wait… what about the back to the egg stage? Well, that doesn’t happen with products… Most go to the landfill and that’s it. 

What is a Linear Supply Chain?

The pattern of 1. taking something out of the ground, 2. building it into something new, 3. using it for time, and then 4. disposing of it, is called a Linear Supply Chain. The product goes linearly in one direction, from the ground back to the ground. But the issues lie with everything in between. 

If we stick with the butterfly analogy, there might be some butterflies that require the input of five leaves to live their whole lives and some that require 20. This might make you immediately think the second butterfly has more impact, but if the first eats leaves the size of a breadbox, and the other eats leaves the size of a quarter, well, the equation flips. 

This is the key to the electric car versus fossil fuel car conversation. How many units of input does the electric car require over fossil fuel vehicles over their entire use? And the inputs? What’s required for the input’s life? Consider the electric battery, which requires minerals that are very, very hard to mine and dispose of, they must be included in the LCA of electric vehicles and evaluated against the extraction and burning of gasoline. From my reading, it looks like the jury is out about which is actually better (or the less bad), but to be sure, the electric battery is an environmental nightmare in its own right. And before we can go blindly toward buying a new electric car, we must completely understand. 

Shift Your Thinking

Can’t we just get better at using our current fleet? Can’t we make what exists more efficient and extend the life cycle of what’s been made rather than throwing away the old fleet and starting again? An electric conversion packet maybe? Using them for longer? Driving less? 

It’s a huge, daunting task to calculate the LCA’s of everything we use… so no wonder most people don’t think about this... the concentric spiral out of calculating the life of all the stuff to make stuff, to make more stuff, to make more stuff is insane to even begin to fathom. But it’s the key to making smarter choices as a consumer that help us walk (or drive) lighter on the planet and boy do we need that right now. 

I am open to hearing your thoughts…

Do you agree electric cars are worse for the environment than we're lead to believe?  How can we solve the personal transportation problem?


Image provided by:


Scroll to top