Life Cycle Analysis: Part 2

Note: This post was written by SEI staff, Aida Sefic Williams.

Last week, I described what life cycle analyses are and briefly touched on how they can be used by companies in Life Cycle Analysis: Part 1. This post (along a few more that will follow) will be a part of a blog mini-series about life cycle analyses. I want to educate our readers about the general concepts of LCAs. Without further ado, here comes part 2:

Life cycle analyses are a way for manufacturers or outside analysts to examine the full life cycle of a process, beginning with material extraction and ending with disposal by means of landfilling, recycling, reusing, etc. While this seems like a good idea, it is important to point out why this practice is logical and almost necessary in today’s market. We are currently in a consumerist market that is constantly looking for new gadgets to keep us occupied and entertained. A cell phone, for example, is considered old and almost obsolete after only a year. In the one year that I have had my beloved Blackberry, there have been numerous improvements to Blackberries, and hundreds of newer, cooler, more fun touch-screen phones, which make me want to ditch my “old” phone and get the new phone. This mentality is prevalent in today’s times through constant advertising campaigns¬†targeted toward the “tech-savy” youngsters and also the new trend of “older folks” who have also become increasingly knowledgeable about technology. (For example, my preacher, mother, and in-laws are now on Facebook.)

Given that we consume electronics at an increasing rate, it is crucial that we (consumers and manufacturers) consider the complete life cycle of our electronic products. Sustainability has been especially ubiquitous in the news recently due to the completion of the G20 summit.¬† At the moment, greenhouse gases and other airborne pollutants are the most prevalent issues. Taking only those things into consideration, it is important that we understand what is emitted into the air during the creation, use, and disposal of a consumer goods. Once we understand what causes these emissions, we can go back to the drawing board and design products that are less damaging to the environment. This same concept is what has been driving your laptop batteries to have a longer life. It seems that with every new model of laptop that comes out, the battery lasts longer and longer. This is important, because a longer battery life means that you do not have to plug in your laptop in to charge as much. Therefore, the power plants do not have to get that energy to you and therefore do not emit airborne chemicals into the air. This has several benefits: it saves you money; it helps save the environment one small step at a time; it helps the manufacturer’s get certificates, awards, and recognition for their sustainability initiatives; that good press then encourages other manufacturers to follow suit, make longer lasting laptop batteries and save the environment and your money more than the previous company. Due to our competitive market, companies continuously push each other in order to get more customers.

A focus on the use phase of a product, like a computer or laptop, has been the standard for most companies; here at the SEI, our goal is to also look at the design and disposal phase of a product. Given LCAs on the complete life cycle of a computer, it is clearly noticeable that the manufacturing phase is responsible for the majority of the energy expenditure. When looking at the amount of toxins released into the air, water, and earth, however, the disposal phase is the main culprit. When a computer is disposed of, mercury, lead, cadmium, and a plethora of other harmful materials may be released into the air, land, and water streams. These results can only be seen quantitatively when completing a life cycle analysis. Once the quantities of harmful chemicals are known, the designers can take those results to their drawing board in order to eliminate the harmful chemicals.

While simply saying that the designers can eliminate the chemicals is easy, the application of that concept is very challenging. Since nothing can be done overnight, an LCA can provide analysts and designers with quantities which would detail exactly which materials cause the most environmental harm. Given that information, the designers can attempt to slowly phase out the chemical by replacing it with another less harmful chemical, which would have the desired effects of the previously used chemicals.

Here is an example: plastics within your computer, such as the RAM and motherboard chips, contain flame retardants (FR). The application of FR is to prevent your computer from igniting while you are using it, something that all consumers can agree is a good thing. The problem is that one of the frequently used chemicals for FRs is bromine, which is harmful for the environment and people’s health, if they are exposed to the chemicals in high concentrations. The bromine would not affect the customer using the computer, but they would negatively affect the illegal worker somewhere in China burning these boards over an open flame in order to extract the smallest amounts of precious metals. Getting rid of the bromine is, of course, the desired effect, but it is a process which takes a lot of time. The bromine was chosen for its flame retardant properties. In order for it to be removed, the designers and engineers have to find another chemical which will have the same flame retardant effects without the environmental or human hazards. It is this process of extensive research and testing (and the associated high costs) which delays the process of redesigning a product.

Although reconsidering current designs is a labor and financially intensive process, it is necessary in order for us to create sustainably responsible products and decrease the environmental and health hazards we see in the life cycle analysis reports.

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