Primary versus secundary data in an LCA

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When conducting a Levenscyclusanalyse (LCA), an overview of input data is needed, also known as the life cycle inventory. When considering a product footprint, think of data such as energy consumption during production, the raw materials used, or the waste streams generated.

Much of this information, such as the quantity of purchased raw materials, is already available within your financial or purchasing department. However, it may be that a purchased raw material has already been processed by another company. To determine the exact impact of your used materials, you need to contact your supplier for the necessary primary data. Additionally, secundary data from databases can be used.

In this article, you will learn more about the different types of data in an LCA.

Primary data 

For accurate LCA calculations, it is important to use as much primary data as possible. Primary data refers to process- and location-specific information collected directly. This includes:

  • Raw material consumption: Information about the quantity and type of raw materials used in the production of a product, obtained directly from suppliers or manufacturers.
  • Energy consumption: Data on energy consumption during all stages of the product life cycle, including extraction, production, transport, use, and waste disposal.
  • Emissions: Specific measurements of emissions to air, water, and soil caused by production processes, such as CO2 emissions, and water and soil pollutants like PFAS.
  • Waste production: Information about the quantity and type of waste generated during the various product life stages.
  • Transport: Data on transport distances, modes of transport, and fuel consumption for transportation.
  • Water usage: Measurements of water usage during production processes, including direct and indirect water usage in the supply chain.
  • Land use: Information about the land use necessary for the production of raw materials, such as agricultural land for crops or forest areas for wood.
  • Chemical composition: Detailed information about the chemical composition of materials and products, including potential harmful substances or components.

While it is often possible to collect primary data within your own company, it is rarely feasible to collect everything in a primary manner, especially when relying on suppliers for this information. So to perform a complete footprint calculation, we use industry averages, also known as secondary data.

Secundary data 

Secondary data refers to information collected and analyzed by third parties and then made available. Datasets containing secondary data are also called LCI databases. One of the main LCI databases we use at Greenhouse Sustainability is EcoInvent. This database contains existing environmental data on various chains and products, eliminating the need to request primary data from your supplier.

Data usage: a balance

Making an LCA becomes more accessible and easier through the use of secondary data. This allows you to get a good overview of the hotspots in your environmental footprint. However, excessive use of secondary data can reduce the accuracy of your LCA. Secondary data are often based on averages and generalizations, which can lead to a less detailed understanding of the impact of a specific product or process. Moreover, this general data makes it difficult to take specific steps in greening your own production or the underlying chain. Therefore, a balanced approach, using both primary and secondary data, is the most effective way to conduct an LCA.

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