Life Cycle Thinking: Key Issues and Indispensable Tools
Posted in Research by Kate Archdeacon on March 12th, 2010
Source: Core 77
From the article by Lloyd Hicks
You might guess that the carbon footprint from a carton of orange juice is largely due to packaging, transportation and disposal, but the findings from a recent PepsiCo study may surprise you. When the entire life cycle of orange juice was included, growing the oranges turned out to contribute the most to the carbon footprint—mainly due to the production and application of nitrogen based fertilizers. It’s important for designers to recognize the impact made in every phase of a product’s life cycle. In this case, shifting agricultural practices may result in the most significant emission reductions, but designers are far from powerless to make improvements. The same study states that packaging and distribution represented 37% of the carbon footprint. With that in mind, how could a designer accurately test new scenarios to create an orange juice distribution strategy that has fewer impacts on the environment? How would he or she know if a plastic bottle is better than a gable-top carton or not? How do concentrated juice products size up?
Every stage in the product’s life cycle has potential impacts on the environment; Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) gives designers the ability to make informed decisions to reduce those impacts. These types of questions are challenging because of the complexity of real world factors; the formulation of appropriate answers requires powerful analyses, databases and tools. Fortunately, within the last year, applying life cycle thinking has come within the reach of any designer. We now have the tools to help us assess the life cycle environmental impacts of our designs before they are produced and to improve upon products that already exist. This gives us insight into the orange juice delivery problem, at least for a start.
In brief, LCA is a way to quantify the human and environmental impacts of products from raw material extraction, manufacturing, transportation, use, maintenance, recycling and end-of-life. Every stage in the product’s life cycle has potential impacts on the environment; LCA gives designers the ability to make informed decisions to reduce those impacts. For an in-depth background on LCA, the United Nations Environment Program’s Life Cycle Initiative provides a training kit. As LCA continues to evolve, so too do its key issues. To gain a better understanding of these, I interviewed consultants in the life cycle field and asked them to share stories from their work. The resulting case studies follow; after that, I’ll introduce several tools designers can use to systematically assess the environmental impacts of their products.