Cradle-to-Grave in LCA: What is it & How does it work?
Cradle-to-Grave is a model used in the scientific footprint method Life Cycle Assessments (LCA). It assesses the complete environmental footprint of products. From raw material extraction, production, and product use, until the end of its life. This is the standard in our current “linear” (as opposed to circular) economy. How does it work exactly?
Footprinting & LCA
Updated on: August 23rd, 2023
6 min reading time
The term “Cradle to Grave” is completely intertwined with the scientific method Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). LCA is thé scientific method to measure all environmental impacts of a product. Cradle-to-grave is one of several “life cycle models” you can choose in your measurements – and determines the scope of insights you gain from your LCA.
This article covers:
What Cradle-to-grave means
How life cycle models are used in LCA
When to use Cradle-to-grave in LCA
How to collect data for a Cradle-to-grave LCA
Cradle-to-Grave describes a product’s full life journey
Cradle-to-grave is one of the 3 main Life Cycle Models in LCA. The term “Cradle-to-grave” describes the “life journey” of most products in our linear economy. A product is produced, transported, used, and becomes waste at the end of its life. So: a cradle-to-grave LCA assesses the environmental footprint of your product’s full life cycle.
In LCA, the Cradle-to-grave journey consists of five “life cycle stages”. This structures the process of data collection and analysis:
Average life cycle stages of products
Raw Material Extraction, also called the “cradle”
Manufacturing & Processing
Usage & Retail
Waste Disposal, also called the “grave”
The role of Life Cycle Models in LCA
A life cycle model guides which life cycle stages of your product you do- and don’t look at in your measurements – and gain environmental footprint results on. It’s also called choosing the ‘Scope’ of an LCA – or ‘setting the system boundaries’ of an LCA.
Once you choose a life cycle model for your LCA, this means:
You collect data for the stages in the model: inputs of energy & materials. Outputs of emissions into the environment.
The LCA assesses the environmental impacts occurring in each stage of the life cycle in your model. You can find all impact categories in LCA here.
Cradle-to-Grave is not the only life cycle model. The alternatives are:
Cradle-to-gate: assesses a product until it leaves the factory gates – before it is transported to the consumer (Stages 1 & 2).
Cradle-to-grave: includes all 5 life cycle stages in your measurements. This gives you the complete environmental footprint, from start to end. (Stages 1-5)
Cradle-to-cradle: is a variation of Cradle-to-grave, but exchanges the waste stage with a recycling/upcycling process that makes materials or components reusable for another product – essentially “closing the loop”. (Stages 1-5, with 5 being equivalent to another Stage 1)
When to use Cradle-to-Grave in LCA
The more you know about your products’ impacts – the better! Cradle-to-grave (and cradle-to-cradle) is the lifecycle model that shows you the complete environmental footprint of a product.
Having a product’s complete footprint results:
Shows you where all your product’s environmental impacts come from. So you can take the most effective measures to reduce them.
Eliminates the risk that your “improvements” shift burdens from the phases you assessed – to those you don’t look at. E.g. you might choose a different material in your production that releases toxic emissions when incinerated. Without measuring, you won’t know.
Difference: Cradle-to-grave vs Cradle-to-cradle
Both cradle-to-grave and cradle-to-cradle look at the whole lifecycle of a product. But when you waste your product at the end of its life, your LCA model is cradle to grave. And if you recycle/upcycle your product at the end of its life, your LCA model is cradle to cradle.
How to collect data for Cradle-to-Grave LCAs
Find all the data you need to collect for LCA in our guide here.
Collect the data related to the raw materials and production phase of your product (cradle-to-gate model): your energy carriers, utilities, process emissions, production waste, transport, and raw materials (Bill of Materials – BoM).
Collect data on the use phase of your product. This includes the transport to stores, and the average use & maintenance of your product by consumers (e.g. electricity use, maintenance, cleaning, etc.).
Collect data on the end-of-life phase (the ‘Grave’) by answering the following question:
What waste treatment do you use for your product?
This often depends on the waste-disposal systems of the countries your product is sold/wasted in.
Find average rates of waste treatment options (mainly: incineration, landfill, composting, or recycling) in national statistics. And/or request data from the party who executes the waste method for you.
Collect data on:
The exact waste-disposal method and its processes;
The emissions connected to your waste disposal method;
Possible energy recovery in the disposal processes;
Possible recycling processes of (part of) the materials.
Read more about the benefits of energy recovery & recycling in our cradle-to-cradle article.
Measuring Cradle-to-Grave LCAs of products
When you’ve collected the data on your product, you’re ready to calculate your product’s environmental footprint. LCA can be a tricky process. Make your life easier – use an easy LCA tool like Ecochain Mobius, to make your LCA a smooth progress.
I'm Researcher & writer at Ecochain. During my studies in Global Sustainability Science, LCA really captured my interest. It continues to fascinate me in my current Master in Energy Science, where I also conduct LCAs myself. I love researching & writing (and learning more!) about these crucial topics now for Ecochain's Knowledge Blog.