Product Life-Cycle Assessment: Closing the Loop

product-life-cycle-assessmentIf you’re interested in green and environmental issues you may have heard the phrase ‘life-cycle assessment’ in relation to a particular product. It can be difficult to ascertain exactly what this life-cycle assessment involves – so we’re hoping to shed some light on the process, the different types of assessment that take place and explain what’s involved with each step.

A look at the bigger picture

Essentially, a product life-cycle assessment takes an overall view of that item’s impact on the environment – and in doing so, offers a true picture of how green that product really is. The aim is for consumers, manufacturers and policy makers to be given a true environmental picture of any product.

Although it’s an example that divides the opinion of environmentalists around the world, the Toyota Prius provides an interesting picture of why the product life-cycle assessment is required in a world driven by a company’s desire to be seen as green. The Prius is an electric-hybrid car which Toyota claims delivers an impressive 60 miles per gallon of fuel – a statistic that puts it as a firm environmental favourite.

However, there are claims that the construction methods used to create the batteries that power the Prius are hugely detrimental to the environment – with some sources saying the manufacturing plant impacts the environment so greatly that by the time a Prius is driven from the showroom – it’s already had the environmental impact it would take any other car 1,000 gallons of fuel to match.

What’s the verdict?

So, is the Prius good or bad? That’s not for us to decide – and we’re not suggesting one way or another, we’re simply using this as an illustration of how complex any environmental consideration can be in a product with such an intensive manufacturing process and prolonged lifespan. At the other end of the calculation you’d have to consider how long the Prius will run for – and whether that balances a supposedly negative building method.

Ingredients of product life-cycle assessment

The assessment is ordinarily broken down into different stages:

Extraction and processing of raw materials

This is a full understanding of the journey from source to point of manufacture that the building blocks of any product take. For example, in the manufacture of a table you would begin by looking at the trees that provide the wood, the logging process that takes them from forest to timber yard and the impact of the machinery used throughout that process.

You would repeat this process for every raw material that goes into the table’s manufacture.

Manufacturing

Next comes the manufacturing itself – if machinery or any industrial process is used to piece our table together then resources used in that process must be considered when we look at the overall impact of the product on the environment.

Packaging

The packaging that a product is delivered in is effectively another product in itself. Although unlikely in our table example, it’s not uncommon for extravagant packaging to represent 10-20% of a product’s recommended retail price. Curtis Packaging, an award-winning UK based sustainable packaging company suggest manufacturers pay careful consideration to the impact of packaging on a product’s overall green credentials – from raw materials to the point of disposal, the packing that adorns your product can have serious environmental considerations.

Marketing

At first glance you could be forgiven for thinking marketing a product comes with no environmental impact – but you’d be wrong. From the printing of advertising materials – to the sales team’s 20,000 annual miles in company vehicles – there can be a lot of resource put into any marketing process. However, measurement is no mean feat – companies can find it difficult to differentiate between their overall carbon footprint and that associated with any one product.

Product use, re-use and maintenance

This is where the impact of a product moves from the manufacturer and into the hands of the consumer. What does typical use look like? How long is a product being used for? Does one person’s use vary compared to another’s? For our example table, the answers could be fairly simple – on the other hand, there’s a huge amount of variation when you look at a broad range of car drivers.

Packaging that adorns your product can have serious environmental impact.

Packaging that adorns your product can have serious environmental impact.

For any product that requires maintenance, the LCA just became much more complex (again!) – just as packaging represented an entirely separate product that requires its own assessment – a similar process is required when a car receives a tank of fuel, a top up of coolant, brake fluid, spark plugs, brake pads… hopefully you get the picture (hint – it’s complex and sprawling!)

However difficult it might be to anticipate, it’s an environmental imperative that big industry is aware of the impact they have – even when their product has left their hands.

Recycling, disposal and waste at the end of the product’s life

From pizza boxes to old cars, it’s easy to think of their job as being done when they’re waved off to a recycling bin or breaker’s yard – but environmentally this could just be the beginning of their impact.

In terms of recycling – the effort and impact of the process must be outweighed by the benefit of the salvaged material, it’s often in life-cycle assessments that decisions are made around what is worth recycling – and what should be destined for landfill. If landfill is the ultimate resting place for any product, what does the deterioration process look like and what does that mean to the environment in the short, medium and long-term?

Then, to bring the assessment cycle full circle – any product that can be processed and re-used re-enters the assessment cycle back at the extraction and processing of raw materials stage…

Ultimately, what is the life-cycle assessment done for?

There’s no one reason that a life-cycle assessment is done. For some companies, they’re keen to explain the full back-story of the product. For others, it can be an exercise in understanding the full process and highlighting any areas that can be financially streamlined – it certainly provides a solid baseline from which improvements can be made.

For the most environmentally ethical companies, the life-cycle assessment gives a true picture of the impact they have on the well-being of the planet – and offers a chance to get a full and honest picture of the moves they and their partners can make in creating a product that fulfils the requirements of the environment – as well as those of the customer and shareholders.

The Global Green Economy Index 2016 – Key Findings

green-economyThe 5th edition of the Global Green Economy Index (GGEI) is a data-driven analysis of how 80 countries perform in the global green economy, as well as how expert practitioners rank this performance. Since its launch in 2010, the GGEI has signaled which countries are making progress towards greener economies, and which ones are not. The comparison of national green performance and perceptions of it revealed through the GGEI framework is more important than ever today.

Top Performers

Sweden is again the top performing country in the 2016 GGEI, followed by the other “Nordics” and Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. Amidst these strong results, the GGEI identified areas where these countries can improve their green performance further. These opportunities – focused around innovation, green branding and carbon efficiency – could propel their national green performance forward even more in the future.

Developing countries in Africa and Latin America–including Ethiopia, Zambia, Brazil, and Costa Rica– also perform well in this new GGEI edition, ranking in the top fifteen for performance. While Brazil and Costa Rica receive similarly strong results on our perception survey, Ethiopia and Zambia do not, suggesting a need for better green branding and communications in these two African countries.

Like in 2014, Copenhagen is the top green city, followed by Stockholm, Vancouver, Oslo and Singapore. This new GGEI only collected perception values for green cities as lack of data availability continues to impede our efforts to develop a comprehensive green city performance index. Given the significant role of cities in the global green economy, city-level data development is an urgent priority.

Laggards

No country in Asia ranks well for performance on this new GGEI, with the exception of Cambodia, which was the most improved country as compared to the last edition, rising 22 spots to 20th overall. China, India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea do better on the perception side of the GGEI, but continue to register concerning performance results.

While many European Union (EU) members perform near the top of this GGEI edition, others including the Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland, Romania and Slovakia rank near the bottom. These results are worrisome and suggest uneven national green performance across the EU.

Many of the countries with high annual GDP growth today rank poorly on the GGEI, further highlighting the limits to GDP as a growth indicator. These countries are mostly in Asia (Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines) and Africa (Nigeria, Tanzania).

The top green economy performers worldwide

The top green economy performers worldwide

Countries with a high reliance on fossil fuel extraction and export generally perform poorly on the GGEI, with a few exceptions. Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Russia all perform poorly while Norway and Canada do much better.

Continuing Trends

Rapidly growing economies, China and India continue to show performance weakness on the GGEI Markets & Investment dimension. Given the large investment required to achieve their climate targets, green investment promotion, cleantech innovation, and corporate sustainability should be developed further.

The United States ranks near the top of the GGEI perception survey and it is widely viewed as a vital market for green investment and innovation, yet overall the U.S. continues to have mediocre performance results, ranking 30th of the 80 countries covered. However, the GGEI found that U.S. company-level initiatives to green supply chains and reduce carbon footprints are accelerating.

Despite having a new prime minister, Australia continues to register a poor result on this new GGEI, ranking 55th of the 80 countries covered for performance. While green markets there are showing some strength, the overall carbon intensity of the Australian economy remains extremely high.

Hosting the annual Conference of Parties (COP) can positively impact the host country’s green brand. Yet this short-term image boost does not always translate to improved green performance in the longer-term, as demonstrated by the low GGEI performance results for Poland (COP19), Qatar (COP18) and South Africa (COP17).

The United Kingdom’s GGEI performance continues to lag behind its EU peers, ranking 25th of the 80 countries covered. While the UK does very well on both the perception and performance side of the Markets & Investment dimension, inconsistent policies supporting renewable energy and green growth continue to hurt the UK on other parts of the GGEI.

Note: The full report can be accessed here

Waste Minimisation – Role of Public, Private and Community Sector

waste-minisationWhen it comes to waste minimisation and moving material up the waste hierarchy you will find partisan advocates for the roles of the public, private and community sectors. Each will tell you the reasons why their sector’s approach is the best. The private sector will extol their virtues as the only ones capable of efficiently and effectively doing the job.  They rightly note that they are the providers on the front lines who actually recover the vast majority of material, that the private sector approach drives innovation and efficiency, and that if waste minimisation is to be sustainable this must include economic sustainability.

The community sector on the other hand will make a strong case to say that their model, because it commonly encompasses social, environmental, and economic outcomes, is able to leverage value from recovered materials to dig deeper into the waste stream, to optimise recovered material quality, and to maximise employment and local economic benefit.

Before recycling and composting were economically viable prospects, community sector organisations led the way, developing many of the techniques now widely used. They remain the leaders in marginal areas such as furniture reuse, running projects that deliver environmental outcomes while providing wider community benefits such as rehabilitation and training for marginalised groups.

Finally, in the public sector corner, advocates will point out that the profit-driven private sector will only ever recover those materials that are able to generate positive revenues, and so cannot maximise waste minimisation, while social outcomes are strictly a secondary consideration. The community sector, on the other hand, while encompassing non-monetary values and capable of effective action on a local scale, is not set up to deliver these benefits on a larger scale and can sometimes struggle to deliver consistent, professional levels of service.

The public sector can point to government’s role in legislating to promote consistent environmental and social outcomes, while councils are major providers and commissioners of recycling services and instrumental in shaping public perceptions around waste issues. The public sector often leads in directing activity towards non-monetary but otherwise valuable outcomes, and provides the framework and funding for equity of service levels.

So who is right? Each sector has good arguments in its favour, and each has its weaknesses. Does one approach carry the day?  Should we just mix and match according to our personal taste or based on what is convenient?

Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Maybe the issue is not “which approach is better?” but instead “how might the different models help us get to where we ultimately want to go?”

Smells Like Waste Minimisation

So where do we want to go?  What is the waste minimisation end game?

If we think about things from a zero waste perspective, the ideal is that we should move from linear processes of extraction, processing, consumption and disposal, to cyclical processes that mimic nature and that re-integrate materials into economic and natural systems.  This is the nirvana – where nothing is ‘thrown away’ because everything has a further beneficial use.  In other words what we have is not waste but resources.  Or to put it another way – everything has value.

Assuming that we continue to operate in an essentially capitalist system, value has to be translated into economic terms.  Imagine if every single thing that we now discard was worth enough money to motivate its recovery.  We would throw nothing away: why would we if there was money to be made from it?

So in a zero waste nirvana the private sector and the community sector would take care of recovery almost automatically.  There might evolve a community and private sector mix, with each occupying different niches depending on desired local outcomes. There would be no need for the public sector to intervene to promote waste minimisation.  All it would need to do would be to set some ground rules and monitor the industry to ensure a level playing field and appropriate health and safety.

Sectoral Healing

Returning to reality, we are a long way from that zero waste nirvana.  As things stand, a bunch of materials do have economic value, and are widely recycled. Another layer of materials have marginal value, and the remainder have no value in practical terms (or even a negative value in the case of hazardous wastes).

The suggested shift in perspective is most obvious in terms of how we think about the role of the public sector. To bring us closer to our goal, the public sector needs to intervene in the market to support those materials of marginal value so that they join the group that has genuine value.

Kerbside (or curbside) collection of certain materials, such as glass and lower value plastics, is an example of an activity that is in effect subsidised by public money. These subsidies enable the private sector to achieve environmental outcomes that we deem sufficiently worthwhile to fund.

However, the public sector should not just be plugging a gap in the market (as it largely does now), but be working towards largely doing itself out of a job. If we are to progress towards a cyclical economy, the role of the public sector should not be to subsidise marginal materials in perpetuity, but to progressively move them from marginal to genuinely economic, so that they no longer require support.

At the same time new materials would be progressively targeted and brought through so that the range and quantity requiring disposal constantly shrinks.  This suggests a vital role for the public sector that encompasses research, funding for development of new technologies and processes, and setting appropriate policy and price structures (such as through taxes, levies, or product stewardship programmes).

Similarly, the community sector, because it is able to ‘dig deeper’ into the waste stream, has a unique and ongoing role to play in terms of being able to more effectively address those materials of marginal value as they begin to move up the hierarchy.  The community sector’s unique value is its ability to work at the frontiers.

Meanwhile, the private sector’s resources and creativity will be needed to enable efficient systems to be developed to manage collection, processing and recycling of materials that reach the threshold of economic viability – and to create new, more sustainable products that fit more readily into a waste minimising world.

In the end, then, perhaps the answer is to stop seeing the three models as being in competition. Instead, we should consciously be utilising the unique characteristics of each so that we can evolve our practices towards a future that is more functional and capable of delivering the circular economy that must eventuate if we are to sustain ourselves on this planet.

Note: The article is being republished with the kind permission of our collaborative partner Isonomia. The original article can be viewed at this link

Why You Should Be Investing in Solar Panels

The future is green, and it’s more important to get on board with it than ever before. The past year has seen countless climate-change related natural disasters, from the recent devastating mega-fires in California to frequent hurricanes sweeping the US and the Caribbean.

Solar panels are becoming much more accessible, for homeowners and for businesses. Traditional roof-rack solar panels can now be installed for as little as around $3,000, and are practically a no-brainer due to the energy savings you’ll make over time (you could even totally eliminate your electricity bill). Not to mention that you’ll be doing your part to help the environment in our planet’s time of need.

If you’ve always found chunky solar panels ugly and off-putting, business magnate Elon Musk has a solution. His electric car and solar panel company Tesla has recently unveiled invisible solar roof tiles. The tiles look exactly like normal roof slates, but capture the sun’s energy without drawing attention. These tiles are paving the way to normalizing sustainable, beautiful eco-homes.

To further convince you about seriously considering installing solar panels for your home, check out our list of top reasons why solar panels will benefit your household or business.

Slash Your Energy Bills

After the initial investment of purchasing the panels and installation, the energy produced is all yours. Even if you consume more energy than your panels can produce, you’ll make drastic savings on what you are currently paying by purchasing all your electricity from the grid.

You’ll make even more amazing savings if you live in a sunny state or country – prices in Brisbane, Australia, are particularly low to purchase and install solar panels. And as the city enjoys on average 261 days of sun per year, panels there will produce more than enough energy to power homes all year round.

Energy costs are only set to rise and rise – meaning that by investing in solar panels now, you’ll never feel the strain of your electricity bills going up again. This is an especially smart idea for business owners with fluctuating income, as you can more easily predict your cashflow with fixed energy prices.

Increase the Value of Your Home

If you are open to the possibility of moving to a new house in the future, you will be able to sell your current property at an increased value by equipping it with solar panels. It’s an attractive prospect for buyers if a potential home comes with very small or no electricity bills, so you’ll be making a huge return on your investment in this way, too.

Note: Be wary of ‘renting your roof’ to solar panel companies if you can’t afford to purchase the panels outright. You may want to ‘go green’ in any way you can, but buying panels is by far the most practical way to enjoy the benefits. The lengthy leases that come with rental panel contracts (often 25 years) have been seen to put off mortgage lenders. It’s highly recommended that if you want to benefit from free electricity and help the environment with solar, you should save up first to increase the value of your property – not render it unsellable.

Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

As we said, it’s never been so important to do your bit to save our eco-system. The polar ice caps are melting faster than has ever been recorded, and the earth is suffering terrible effects. As well as hurricanes and fires, we’ve also experienced floods, earthquakes and landslides all over the world this year.

Solar panels are becoming more accessible, for homeowners and businesses

In the large scheme of things, installing solar panels doesn’t seem like it will help much, but if everyone did their part to be more eco-conscious, we could significantly reduce the strain of destructive fossil fuels on the environment. By equipping your property with solar panels, you will save money while making steps to saving the environment – a tough offer to turn down!

Utilizing green energy within your business has even better rewards. Marketing your business as eco-conscious and sustainable is a great way to attract customers and impress existing ones. In recent years, studies into consumer activity have found that sustainability is a big shopping priority, especially among the millennial generation. Corporate solar panels will increase your revenue by expanding your customer base AND saving your business’s energy bills.

So – what are you waiting for? Contact a solar energy company today, who will be more than happy to assist you on your green energy journey.