Sustainability Skills Seminar: Lifecyle Assessment

by |March 4, 2013

Photo Credit: Andy Wanning, M.S. in Sustainability Management Alum

On Saturday, February 23, Christoph Meinrenken, Associate Research Scientist with the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy led a seminar on Product Lifecycle Assessment and Carbon Footprinting. This seminar is part of the Sustainability Skills Series available to students in the M.S. in Sustainability Management, M.P.A. in Environmental Science and Policy, M.A. in Climate and Society, Certificate in Sustainability Analytics, and Sustainable Development Undergraduate programs.

This seminar provided students with an introduction to Lifecycle Assessment (LCA) and the scope of and challenges to using it within a decision-making process. This seminar was divided into five distinct sessions. It began with a lecture by Meinkrenken, introducing attendees to lifecycle assessment as a holistic undertaking of the identification of environmental impacts through the entire lifecycle of a product. The next session was a lively, interactive case study discussion, moderated by six student volunteers. The case studies focused companies currently utilizing LCA to assess and promote the environmental sustainability of their products. Martin Garcia Urtiaga, a student moderator, enjoyed “the opportunity to understand the challenges and complexities around LCA, and apply them on a practice exercise.” The discussion ranged from how the companies in question derived the scope for their product’s LCA to the marketing efforts they employed to educate their consumers.

The afternoon kicked off with a guest lecture by Beth Sauerhaft, Ph.D., Director of Global Environmental Sustainability at PepsiCo. Sauerhaft provided attendees with an industry perspective on LCA and the role is plays within PepsiCo.’s decision-making framework. She also engaged in a candid discussion with students about her own path to corporate sustainability practices and professional opportunities. As Meinkrenken noted, “Learning from colleagues in the industry how academic tools such as LCA are used in the real world, what trade-offs companies face, and how these sustainability tools must improve to better serve practitioners is invaluable.”

After spending the earlier sessions learning about the theory of LCA, its benefits, challenges, and limitations, and its industry applications, it was time for students to conduct an LCA of their own. Breaking into 10 small groups, students were tasked with creating a process map and cradle-to-grave footprint for one bag of potato chips. After each group had the opportunity to present its results, Meinrenken led a discussion about their calculation methods and assumptions. The seminar ended with a lecture by Meinrenken about LCA best practices, including lessons learned from his experience as an LCA practitioner.

“With decision-makers required to consider all options before choosing solutions, LCA provides an important tool to help evaluate relative merits,” noted attendee Jason Prince. “The workshop was valuable to students because it encouraged a holistic approach to problem-solving that would be useful for any career.” This and other workshops in the Sustainability Skills Series give students unique access to experts in the field. It also provides them with professional skills they will be sure to utilize throughout their sustainability careers.


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