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What is Life Cycle Analysis?

When you buy and use a product, how do you know if it's good or bad? In a general sense, if it is useful, works well, and fulfils its purpose without costing you too much, you can say that the product's good. But now that caring about the environment is becoming important, judging whether something is 'good' or 'bad' goes beyond its usefulness.

Let's assume you have a choice between two products, both of which do the same thing. But, if one of the manufacturers is concerned about the environment and is more careful to control the harmful effects to the environment of producing his product, would you buy from him or the other company?

If you were a businessperson and bought shares in companies, you would care if a company's products were safe for the environment. Because if you didn't, chances are that sooner or later the company might fall foul of environmental regulations and be forced to shut down, or have to pay huge fines. If they are doing a good environmental job, they could even advertise and use their environment-friendliness as a selling point.

But how would you know? What kinds of things distinguish an environment-friendly product from a non-friendly one?

Another way to look at this question is to ask yourself: if the product or company is NOT environment-friendly right now, what would you have to do to make it more environment-friendly?

Think about it.

  • Take any product you use regularly, including things like packaged foods, and see if you can figure out whether it is 'good' or 'bad' for the environment.
  • What sources of information would you use?

Generally, you are dependent on three sources of information: the government, the company itself, and environmental NGOs. All three usually use a system of research called a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA). This is a system whereby everything that goes into making a particular product, or is needed to make it, is listed, along with the quantities used. All this is then totalled up in an inventory. This procedure is also known as 'Cradle to Grave' analysis, comparing a man-made product to the lifetime of a living organism, from birth to death. Both names highlight two facts: the first, that a product goes through various stages starting from conception to disposal, and each stage of the product's life cycle can impact on the environment in different ways; the second, that most products have different material components, or 'inputs', each of which, in turn, has its own life cycle along with the life cycle of the product as a whole.

Overall, the basic questions a LCA asks is how much raw material, including those needed for energy, is required to make and use the product. And how much waste does the product generate?

  • Before we go any deeper into this, list all the stuff that goes into making a cell phone, a TV set, or a soft drink.

Let's look at the TV set. Some of the things on your list could be glass for the screen, plastics for the casing, copper for electrical wires, silicon in the chips, rubber in the non-slip stand, carbon in the remote control's batteries, and various other metals. All of these, except the plastic, are mined, and this 'birth' of the material, mining, is often an extremely environmentally damaging process. The plastics are made from petroleum, which has its own well-known environmental problems.

Most of the parts of the TV will not be mined or made by the TV manufacturer but by other basic mining and manufacturing businesses that sell their products to other companies, which, in turn, create components like TV screens or power adapters or circuit boards, which they will then sell to the TV manufacturer. All of these need to be included in the LCA.

In the case of soft drinks, they usually come in plastic or glass bottles that have to be included in the product's 'impact'.

What happens to the TV set or a soft drinks bottle when you finish with it? Do you just throw it away? Or can the material in it be re-used? Is this the 'grave' part of the cycle, or the end?

In this way, every stage in the manufacturing and selling process is calculated. Inspecting some of these stages helps control and reduce a product's environmental impact.

  • Can you think of some of the necessary manufacturing stages for something you would buy?

The design stage: Though this seems like a harmless stage where all the work is done on paper, it is the stage that decides what materials will be used. Hence, it can dramatically change the environmental impact of the final product. For example, the designer could decide to make the product out of cheaper material which needs to be replaced often, causing the product to have a short lifespan, and creating much more waste than if the product had been durable and long-lasting. Also, planning to make a new product out of recycled material helps reduce the amount of raw material needed from mining or cutting down trees.

Processing stage: Once the manufacturing materials are extracted they are processed into a form that can be used. For example, tree wood has to undergo several different processes before we are able to use it as paper or cardboard. Plastics and metals, once they are made or created out of raw materials, need to be rolled into useable sheets or wires of various thicknesses.

Manufacturing stage: Factories use up lots of energy to create their products, and they produce pollution from their waste products. Often, a product can be made using different technologies, some of which may be less harmful to the environment.

Use stage. The way a product is to be used obviously impacts on the environment. Is it energy-efficient? Does it give off dangerous waste gases? Is its use harmful to animals? Does it last long enough so that you don't have to constantly buy a new one? Is it recyclable when you finish with it, or will it just pile up in a garbage dump? Will its disposal cause dangerous materials, like heavy metals, to leak into the environment? All these questions about the product's use point to the main reason why LCAs are done. They are done not just to give us an idea of what goes into the making of things, but how we can reduce the environmental impact of the product.  

Two steps in the life cycle that should not be forgotten are transportation and packaging:

  • Look at something you have recently bought and compare the size of the product and the packaging it came in.
  • Find out where the product came from and how far it had to travel to get to your home.

The boxes and bags that all the stuff we buy comes in, as well as the safety padding that we take for granted, are all harmful to the environment. Not just because of what they are made of, also because there is so much of it!

How does the product get from where it was made to the shop? The closer a product is made to where it is used, the better it is for the environment. This is often a big problem with packaged or imported foods. They may be very environment-friendly where they are grown, but when they are carried halfway around the world from the farm to the kitchen, by ship, truck or train, they use up significant amounts of energy.

So, a LCA is done to identify and quantify all the environmental factors involved in making and using a product: the energy and raw materials used, and the emissions and waste generated. This way we can compare the environmental 'burden' of a product, a company, even a sector, which in turn helps us identify areas where improvements can be made. This is why more and more businesses today are incorporating life cycle analysis into their management and business strategy.

--Manoj Nadkarni
InfoChange News & Features, October 2006

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