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The Role of the Representative Product in Product Environmental Footprinting

The Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) approach is a game-changing initiative in LCA, with effects and ramifications that we are only just beginning to understand. Today in PRé’s PEF series: What is a European representative product? And how do these products play a crucial role in the development of specific rules for product environmental footprinting of the various product groups?

Product LCA: LCA in general or a PCR not representative for the product group?

Before the PEF initiative started, LCA has been used in various ways to assess the environmental impact of product life cycles. LCA studies often take all life cycle activities into account because LCA practitioners don’t know the relevant impact drivers ahead of time. Even if they try to identify where to focus data collection efforts by relying on literature about assessments of products from the same product group, they may miss the mark. To try to standardise the way products of the same product group are assessed, the product category rules (PCRs) were developed. They are the first attempt at this kind of standardisation. PCRs are often developed voluntarily by a producer or a limited group of stakeholders, which means the resulting PCR may be representative for that single product — not for other producers or for the entire product group.

Introducing the Representative Product

As a response to the issue of limited applicability, the European Commission introduced an Environmental Footprint (EF) Pilot Phase project to develop PEFCRs (product environmental footprint category rules), or PCRs following the rules of the PEF guide. For PEFCRs, the rule was established that at least 50 percent of the market has to be involved in their development.

To be able to create such a PEFCR, the EF pilot phase introduced the concept of ‘representative product.’ To determine what to include in the PEFCR of a product group, the European Commission required a screening LCA study of the representative product, which enables a better understanding of the environmental impacts within a product group and guarantees a fair comparison between products. The representative product is, in my opinion, the solution we have been looking for.

The European Commission provides two options for defining the representative product: a real product sold on the EU market or a virtual product, which doesn’t exist in reality. This virtual product should be modelled on the average EU market share of all existing technologies and materials of the product group in question. The virtual product approach does carry the risk that technologies with relatively small market shares are overlooked. This is why it is so important to do a sensitivity analysis once the representative product is determined. The key purpose of a sensitivity analysis is to identify the data and assumptions that have the biggest influence on a result. Most EF pilot projects chose the virtual representative product approach, and I am particularly fond of it myself.

The answer to product environmental footprint standardisation

After the representative product has been determined, a PEF screening LCA study is done to form the basis of the PEFCR. The study assesses the representative product and various scenarios to:

  1. Identify environmental hotspots. The PEFCR will include a list of most relevant life cycle stages and processes. Practitioners will know where to focus their data collection efforts and companies will know where to focus their improvement opportunities.
  2. Identify relevant impact categories. The default EF impact assessment method in the EF pilot phase includes a total of 15 impact categories. By identifying a small number of particularly relevant impact themes, companies will find it easier both to interpret LCA results and to act upon those impacts.
  3. Facilitate the comparison between products that fall within the same product group. Until now, comparison between products could only be done within a single study. Thanks to the standardisation made possible by a representative product based on all technologies in the PEF screening study, it becomes much easier to compare products of the same group.
  4. Facilitate the development of benchmarks. The European Commission is testing the development of benchmarks. For these, I believe that the average European product is the right reference to use.

I am really excited about this development and I believe that this is the solution for standardising and simplifying LCA practice while maintaining its high quality. Some pilot projects are keen about this approach and intend to use it going further.

For detailed information on how of a representative product is defined, see the Guidance for the implementation of the EU Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) during the Environmental Footprint (EF) pilot phase.


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