Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) evaluates the environmental burden associated with a product, process, or activity by identifying and quantifying the energy and materials used and wastes released to the environment. The aim is to assess the overall impact on the environment, and to identify and evaluate opportunities to effect improvements.

Assessments can include the entire life cycle from extraction to end use and recycling or final disposal; or can be limited to defined sections such as the manufacture or the raw material, ending at the ‘gate’ of the final product manufacturer.

Life Cycle Assessment
The overall aim of a LCA is to assess the impact of those energy and materials used and releases to the environment, and to identify and evaluate opportunities to effect environmental improvements.

Key components

There are four key components of a LCA:

  1. Goal definition and scoping: identifying the purpose and the expected products of the study, determining the boundaries (what is / is not included) and assumptions based upon the goal definition;
  2. Life-cycle inventory (LCI): identifying and quantifying the energy, raw material inputs and environmental releases associated with each stage of production and use;
  3. Impact analysis: assessing the impacts on human health and the environment associated with energy and raw material inputs and environmental releases quantified by the LCI;
  4. Improvement analysis: evaluating opportunities to reduce energy, material inputs, or environmental impacts at each stage of the product life-cycle

Zircon sand LCA

The Zircon Industry Association completed the first ever global LCA for the use of zircon in the manufacture of ceramic tiles. The report, entitled ‘Life Cycle Assessment of Zircon Sand Production Applied to Ceramic Tiles’, examines the environmental impacts associated with the production of 1kg of zircon sand. This was a ‘cradle-to-gate’ study, covering all production steps from mining (including mineral separation and milling), through to delivery to the ceramic tile manufacturer’s ‘gate’.

The ISO-standard project, which was peer-reviewed at each step by a panel of three independent experts, also demonstrates a significantly lower environmental impact for zircon over a range of environmental indicators compared to alumina when used as an opacifier in ceramic tiles.

The LCA confirms that zircon sand manufacture has a relatively low overall environmental impact, overwhelmingly associated with local electricity consumption linked to upstream mining processes (extraction, separation and drying), much like the mining of other minerals.

The study went on to compare the environmental impacts of using zircon as an opacifier (whitener) in 1kg of porcelain ceramic stoneware tile mix compared with alumina, the main alternative product. It found that tile production using zircon generates significantly lower overall environmental impacts over a range of environmental indicators.

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