Environmental consequences of food consumption: A modular life cycle assessment to evaluate product characteristics

Who hasn't been standing once in front of the supermarket shelf and asked herself if the organic carrots from Italy or the cauliflower from her own country is the most ecological choice for the next meal, and then, finally, has decided to buy the delicious asparagus from the USA. The extent of environmental impacts of food consumption depends on various factors. It is not easy for consumers or even for experts to account for these impacts. The goal of this research work was to assist consumers in considering environmental aspects. Separate LCA's were calculated to assess various aspects of the consumers' choices, e.g., the type of agricultural practice, the origin of the product, the use of packaging material, the type of preservation, and the consumption (including home transport, conservation, and preparation). A modular LCA approach was developed to model the impacts of the consumers' decisions. This simplified method allows investigating the ecological tradeoffs among different decision parameters (such as assessing a biological product from the Netherlands vs. greenhouse from Switzerland). Most of the decision parameters might have an influence on the overall impacts of a vegetable product. Greenhouse production and products transported by airplane cause the highest environmental impact. The agricultural production determines the overall environmental impacts of meat products. The total impacts for purchased vegetable or meat products might vary by a factor of nine or seven respectively. It could be shown that the environmental impacts of purchases by different consumer subgroups vary. Different hints for consumers were ranked, according to the variation of average impacts, due to a marginal change of consumption patterns.

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Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment

Author Niels Jungbluth
Institution Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Department of Environmental Sciences Natural - and Social Science Interface
Advisor Prof. R.W. Scholz, Prof. Olivier Jolliet, Dr. Olaf Tietje
Expected graduation 2000