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.

Waste Management in Food Processing Industry

Food processing industry around the world is making serious efforts to minimize by-products, compost organic waste, recycle processing and packaging materials, and save energy and water. The three R’s of waste management – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle – can help food manufacturers in reducing the amount of waste sent to landfill and reusing waste.

EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy

EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy is an excellent resource to follow for food processors and beverage producers as it provides the guidance to start a program that will provide the most benefits for the environment, society and the food manufacturer.

Notably, landfill is the least favored disposal option for waste generated in food and beverage producers worldwide. There are sustainable, effective and profitable waste management options including:

  • making animal feed,
  • composting to create nutrient-rich fertilizer,
  • anaerobic digestion to produce energy-rich biogas,
  • recycling/reusing waste for utilization by other industries,
  • feeding surplus food to needy people

Waste Management Options

Food manufacturers has a unique problem – excess product usually has a relatively short shelf life while most of the waste is organic in nature. Food waste created during the production process can be turned into animal feed and sold to goat farms, chicken farms etc. As far as WWTP sludge is concerned, top food manufacturers are recycling/reusing it through land application, anaerobic digestion and composting alternatives.

Organic waste at any food processing plant can be composted in a modern in-vessel composting and the resultant fertilizer can be used for in-house landscaping or sold as organic fertilizer as attractive prices.

Another plausible way of managing organic waste at the food manufacturing plant is to biologically degrade it in an anaerobic digester leading to the formation of energy-rich biogas and digestate. Biogas can be used as a heating fuel in the plant itself or converted into electricity by using a CHP unit while digestate can be used as a soil conditioner. Biogas can also be converted into biomethane or bio-CNG for its use as vehicle fuel.

Items such as cardboard, clean plastic, metal and paper are all commodities that can be sold to recyclers Lots of cardboard boxes are used by food manufacturers for supplies which can be broken down into flat pieces and sold to recyclers.

Cardboard boxes can also be reused to temporarily store chip packages before putting them into retail distribution boxes. Packaging can be separated in-house and recovered using “jet shredder” waste technologies which separate film, carton and foodstuffs, all of which can then be recycled separately.

Organizing a Zero-Landfill Program

How do you develop a plan to create a zero-landfill or zero waste program in food and beverage producing company? The best way to begin is to start at a small-level and doing what you can. Perfect those programs and set goals each year to improve. Creation of a core team is an essential step in order to explore different ways to reduce waste, energy and utilities.

Measuring different waste streams and setting a benchmark is the initial step in the zero-landfill program. Once the data has been collected, we should break these numbers down into categories, according to the EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge and identify the potential opportunities.

For example, inorganic materials can be categorized based on their end lives (reuse, recycle or landfill).  The food and beverage industry should perform a waste sort exercise (or dumpster dive) to identify its key streams.

Nestlé USA – A Case Study

In April 2015, Nestlé USA announced all 23 of its facilities were landfill free. As part of its sustainability effort, Nestlé USA is continually looking for new ways to reuse, recycle and recover energy, such as composting, recycling, energy production and the provision of safe products for animal feed, when disposing of manufacturing by-products.

Employees also work to minimize by-products and engage in recycling programs and partnerships with credible waste vendors that dispose of manufacturing by-products in line with Nestlé’s environmental sustainability guidelines and standards. All Nestlé facilities employ ISO 14001-certified environmental management systems to minimize their environmental impact.

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

Guide to Effective Waste Management

waste-mountainThe best way of dealing with waste, both economically and environmentally, is to avoid creating it in the first place. For effective waste management, waste minimization, reuse, recycle and energy recovery are more sustainable than conventional landfill or dumpsite disposal technique.

Waste Minimization

Waste minimization is the process of reducing the amount of waste produced by a person or a society. Waste minimization is about the way in which the products and services we all rely on are designed, made, bought and sold, used, consumed and disposed of.

Waste Reuse

Reuse means using an item more than once. This includes conventional reuse where the item is used again for the same function and new-life reuse where it is used for a new function. For example, concrete  is a type of construction waste which can be recycled and used as a base for roads; inert material may be used as a layer that covers the dumped waste on landfill at the end of the day.

Waste Recycling

Recycling of waste involves reprocessing the particular waste materials so that it can be used as raw materials in another process. This is also known as material recovery. A well-known process for recycling waste is composting, where biodegradable wastes are biologically decomposed leading to the formation of nutrient-rich compost.

Waste-to-Energy

As far as waste-to-energy is concerned, major processes involved are mass-burn incineration, RDF incineration, anaerobic digestion, gasification and pyrolysis. Gasification and pyrolysis involves super-heating of municipal solid waste in an oxygen-controlled environment to avoid combustion. The primary differences among them relate to heat source, oxygen level, and temperature, from as low as about 300°C for pyrolysis to as high as 11 000°C for plasma gasification. The residual gases like carbon dioxide, hydrogen, methane etc are released after a sophisticated gas cleaning mechanism.

MSW incineration produce significant amounts of a waste called bottom ash, of which about 40% must be landfilled. The remaining 60% can be further treated to separate metals, which are sold, from inert materials, which are often used as road base.

The above mentioned techniques are trending in many countries and region. As of 2014, Tokyo (Japan) has nineteen advanced and sophisticated waste incinerator plants making it one of the cleanest cities. From the legislature standpoint, the country has implemented strict emission parameters in incinerator plants and waste transportation.

The European Union also has a similar legislature framework as they too faced similar challenges with regards to waste management. Some of these policies include – maximizing recycling and re-use, reducing landfill, ensuring the guidelines are followed by the member states.

Singapore has also turned to converting household waste into clean fuel, which both reduced the volume going into landfills and produced electricity. Now its four waste-to-energy plants account for almost 3% of the country’s electricity needs, and recycling rates are at an all-time high of 60%. By comparison, the U.S. sent 53% of its solid waste to landfills in 2013, recycled only 34% of waste and converted 13% into electricity, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Trends in Waste Collection

Since the municipal solid waste can be a mixture of all possible wastes and not just ones belonging to the same category and recommended process, recent advances in physical processes, sensors, and actuators used as well as control and autonomy related issues in the area of automated sorting and recycling of source-separated municipal solid waste.

Automated vacuum waste collection systems that are located underground are also actively used in various parts of the world like Abu Dhabi, Barcelona, Leon, Mecca and New York etc. The utilization of the subsurface space can provide the setting for the development of infrastructure which is capable of addressing in a more efficient manner the limitations of existing waste management schemes.

AI-based waste management systems can help in route optimization and waste disposal

This technique also minimizes operational costs, noise and provides more flexibility. There are various new innovations like IoT-enabled garbage cans, electric garbage trucks, waste sorting robots and mechanisms etc are also being developed and deployed at various sites.

Conclusion

Waste management is a huge and ever growing industry that has to be analyzed and updated at every point based on the new emergence of threats and technology. With government educating the normal people and creating awareness among different sector of the society, setting sufficient budgets and assisting companies and facilities for planning, research and waste management processes  can help to relax the issues to an extent if not eradicating it completely. These actions not only help in protecting environment, but also help in employment generation and boosting up the economy.