Life Cycle Assessment

Pathfinder Innovation Project – Harnessing Smart Web Technology for Sustainable Chemicals

By David E. Meyer, Ph.D.

graphic: a man and woman hold up beakers under the sentence"pathfinder innovation presents: meet the innovatorsHave you ever stopped to think how your smartphone can find a nearby place to eat or reroute you to avoid a traffic jam down the road? It’s because your phone is able to simultaneously locate and retrieve relevant linked open data streams based on what you’ve told it, understand what the data means based on how it is stored, and ultimately help you with your decision. If EPA and other federal data sources were stored in a similar way, a computer could better manage the large amounts of data needed to evaluate the sustainability of chemicals.

four profile pictures of the team members

Pictured: David E. Meyer (top left), Wesley Ingwersen (top right), Michael Gonzalez (bottom left) and Jane Bare (bottom right)

In 2014, our team (pictured left) applied for a Pathfinder Innovation Project (PIP) to study the use of smart web technology and data mining to improve the process of evaluating chemical sustainability. The PIP program encourages EPA scientists to think “outside the box” to solve challenging problems and rewards them with the necessary time and resources to develop their visions into viable solutions. The goal of this work is to develop an automated application to gather and manage necessary life cycle assessment (LCA) data –how a product is produced, used, and handled at the end of its life—to evaluate the environmental sustainability of chemicals.

To do this, we first identified EPA data sources and developed a method to apply the data for use in LCA. We described what the data means through the creation of an LCA ontology. An ontology is a vocabulary that describes data within a conceptual model and enables a computer to understand why and how the data are needed. The resulting method has been peer-reviewed and holds the potential to identify and generate LCA data much faster and cheaper than what has typically been done. The PIP program has supported this work every step of the way based on its importance in advancing the way EPA applies LCA research to other environmental challenges. Private companies that are required to report this kind of data will also benefit from this faster approach by reducing the time they spend processing data requests.

We are now finishing the development of a prototype that automates the discovery and use of EPA data for LCA. Continuing work will focus on expanding the data discovery tool into a full life cycle data modeling system that is capable of automatically gathering data from a variety of sources, harmonizing (or matching) the data to be consistent with existing chemical life cycle models, applying the data to evaluate chemical sustainability, and sharing the data with anyone who needs it in the future.

Read the blog Transforming Science and Technology with Pathfinder Innovation Projects to learn more about the program.


About the Author: David E. Meyer, Ph.D., is a chemical engineer in EPA’s Sustainable Technology Division and Life Cycle Assessment Center of Excellence. David and the LCA team generate data, methods, and tools to support the widespread use of LCA in EPA. The LCA team supports decision makers in various Program and Regional Offices to develop custom LCA approaches for implementing EPA’s policies for sustainability.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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The Science Behind Shopping For the Environment

By Thomas Landreth

Barcode with green tree illustrationLast week EPA announced draft guidelines under consideration to help purchasers across the federal government select the most environmentally-friendly and safe products.  Key components are the development and use of environmental standards and “ecolabels” to help make the environmental performance of products, such as energy output efficiency or the amount of biomaterial used during development, a seamless part of comparison shopping along with unit prices.

The challenge with coming up with such guidelines is that there are different standards for communicating environment performance on labels. When environmental performance claims are based on different standards, comparison of environmental performance information on labels is not possible.

EPA researchers are working to help. They recently co-led an international initiative to develop guidance on Product Category Rules (PCR), which will help organizations develop guidelines for products. Ultimately PCRs will allow comparable analyses of products’ environmental impacts.

The power of PCRs lie with generating a wider consensus on an approach for evaluating environmental impacts. The PCR approach will cover a product’s entire production cycle (Life Cycle Assessment, or LCA) to ensure accurate product comparison.

The Product Category Rule Guidance Development Initiative is a voluntary, international effort with more than 40 participating organizations dedicated to improving this ongoing guidance document.

In the first version published in September, the Guidance for Product Category Rule Development focuses on several key areas, including the general planning process for product rules, identifying what they need to cover, and coordinating a review process and series of ‘best practices’ leading to eventual publication and use.

The European Union has recently launched a Product Environmental Footprint program that will use this guidance to develop the rules for labels for European products. In the US, where these types of labels are not as widespread, there has recently been an increase in demand for standardized environmental information for building products, in part because of the new LEED 4.0 green building standards making credits available for products with these labels.

Cover of the "Guidance for PCR Development"In terms of reliability of information, PCRs are a step forward in making environmental data accessible and applicable, to both scientists and the public, helping us all be better comparison shoppers.

For more information:

About the Author: Thomas Landreth is a student services contractor working with EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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