Life-Cycle Assessments

Summary——————–Overview——————–Solutions

A product’s environmental life-cycle assessment [LCA] describes the evaluation of its impacts on the environment, from its conception to its disposal. The analysis includes GHG emissions, toxic pollution, resource exploitation, energy consumption – essentially everything that the product altered, directly or indirectly. Even the LCA of the energy consumed by a product is evaluated, to be as accurate as possible.

There are numerous steps to LCAs, and we will present the most important ones here in chronological order. We don’t expect anyone to conduct a full LCA for each product they purchase – but thinking briefly about a product’s life-cycle impacts is crucial for those who aim to lower their footprints through their purchases.

It’s important to note that LCAs can also be applied to products we wouldn’t normally think of as ‘products’. It can trace the impact of our utilities, the digital world, and even infrastructure [e.g. houses, bridges].

The general technique for conducting an LCA consists of asking 3 questions during every step of the process:

  • How much raw material is being used [especially important when the material is rare]?
  • How much energy is needed and how is it sourced [especially important where energy sources are most polluting]?
  • How much waste is created and how is it managed [especially important where poor waste management systems are in place]?
Before

An LCA considers all the impacts that an item is responsible for during production. This means that the impacts for opening new mining sites or new smelting facilities are counted. As are all the impacts due to site operation and maintenance.

Synthesis: Raw Materials and Manufacturing

Before we use a product for the first time, it has already had an impact on the environment. For physical objects, materials are required. Whether it’s mining, logging, or any other form of exploitation of natural resources, there’s one simple rule: things we make come from somewhere. In standard human fashion, we tend to take too much from that somewhere, causing imbalances in ecosystems. We know this can cause biodiversity loss and climate change, but when it’s cheaper to extract everything at once – why be sustainable?

We also know that these materials require energy to be mined. And that this energy needs energy and infrastructure of its own – either to extract fossil fuels and burn them or to produce renewable technologies.

Finally, we know that the materials will be refined and assembled, causing even more damage to the environment. This is particularly true for smelting facilities, which use extremely polluting and energy-intensive processes. A product’s assembly can also take place in multiple regions of the world, resulting in even more energy consumption and emissions due to transportation.

We’ll go over the life-cycle impacts of internet-using products when we get to the High-Tech and the Digital Realm section.

Transport

We’ve already seen how transportation is damaging our environment. We’re all going to have to chip in and individually reduce our dependence on transportation to decrease our emissions at a global scale. This holds true for products we purchase from companies and industries as well. Transportation is present all along a product’s LCA, so we’ll divide its most important steps chronologically.

First, there’s the transportation of the mined mineral or exploited resource to the various refineries [+ transportation of any equipment used]. We should remember that there are loads of different materials in every product, so the LCA considers the transportation of each material into account. Once the material is refined, it must be transported to factories where it will undergo transformation or molding into a part of the product. Then, as described earlier, the different parts of the product often circle the globe to be assembled, to finally end up at a company’s storage facility.

From there, the finished product is dispersed around the world to end up in retail stores. Next, customers can purchase the product and transport it back to where it will be used. For online orders, transportation requirements aren’t very different from regular orders – since the product will still make its way from a storage facility to a shipping address.

Finally, assuming the product doesn’t require transportation during use, we have the disposal transportation. When thrown out, the product is either transported to a landfill or diverted from it – where it finally comes to rest or start anew. 

Here‘s an example of how complex modern products are – and how much they rely on globalization and transportation. While we can’t verify the statistics presented, this 5-minute detour should help you get a better understanding of how complex products require loads of different materials and suppliers, as well as transportation to tie the whole thing together.

With more localized economies, we can skip some of the transportation steps mentioned above.

During

Use or Waste

The product is made and it’s where you want it. Now the product’s impact on the environment will vary by nature. Items that don’t require energy to function, don’t take up land, and don’t create waste have little to no impacts.

However, anything that lights, moves, heats, or cools is likely powered by some source of energy. Some items might be self-sufficient with integrated power sources, like solar lights. Unfortunately, although this can help reduce carbon emissions during use, it also increases pollution and biodiversity loss in other parts of the world during production and disposal.

Other items require an external power supply, like toasters, cars, and phones. These items continue to pollute as they’re being used, since every single one of our energy sources have negative impacts on the environment. Nonetheless, some parts of the world will get away with emitting less while enjoying more energy consumption, due to higher shares of renewables in their energy and electricity mixes.

Unfortunately, our societies rely on overproduction and overconsumption. We produce more than we can buy, and we buy more than we can use. This contributes to incredible amounts of waste being produced for items that haven’t been used much – or at all. These wasted items have already been fabricated, transported – and will still have disposal impacts. It’s bad enough that there’s overexploitation of natural resources for something we use. It’s impossible to justify the impacts caused by products that no one will ever use.

After

Disposal and Transformation

Lastly, once the product has been used as much as possible, [multiple times by multiple people, hopefully] it should find its way to the appropriate waste facility.

For recyclables, the transformation of the material causes emissions due to the amount of energy needed. The amount of energy required to mold the waste into new products varies based on the type of material. However, an LCA also considers any energy savings due to the recycling process [since recycling is typically more energy-efficient than producing from scratch]. This can lead to the product having a ‘less negative’ effect on the environment, all things considered.

For well-managed compostables, the last step can also have benefits for the environment. For anything else, the waste will likely end up polluting in a landfill or in natural ecosystems – depending on the strength of the waste management system.

Conclusion

Everything has an impact. It’s up to governments and companies to communicate those impacts to consumers. Governments will also have to play around with policies to make sure that the most polluting products aren’t manufactured in the first place. For a more sustainable future, we will have to make, use, and waste less.