Because of the controversies that have arisen over life-cycle assessments, there is a budding effort to find a consensus on the methodology of these environmental-impact studies. The Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, a professional organization in Washington, D.C., sponsored a conference in Vermont last August on the subject, which was attended by representatives of government, industry, public interest groups, and universities.
The workshop developed a three-component model for these studies:
1. An inventory of materials and energy used, and environmental releases (air, water, solid waste) from all stages of the product life.
2. An analysis of potential environmental effects related to the inventory in the first phase. Environmentalists criticize many current studies for failing to make this risk assessment, while industry sources say there is no consensus on how to define risks.
3. An analysis of the changes needed to bring about environmental improvements for the product or process under study. Few studies delve into this third phase.
Experts from all parties agree on the complexity of these assessments.
``The usefulness of their conclusions is often close to zero,'' says John Young, a research associate at the Worldwatch Institute. ``These things don't generally reduce very well to numbers.''
Despite the challenges, ``this is a tool with incredible potential for pollution prevention,'' says Christine Ervin of the Conservation Foundation, who attended the August workshop.
Organizations that conduct life-cycle studies include the Tellus Institute in Boston, Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, and Franklin Associates in Kansas City, Kan.