Choosing Sustainably From Cradle to Grave
Author: Sean O'Malley
One question I keep getting asked as part of my technical role for Planet Ark is, "How do I know what is better for the environment?" My answer is not always clear-cut and often contains the phrase "it depends". Everything we do, use or consume has some form of environmental impact. How we behave can also change our impact on the environment. One thing that is clear is the need to continually reduce our impact by using products (or services) that are better for the environment. But how do we really know what is better? Enter Life Cycle Assessment (or LCA).
What is Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)?
The technique of LCA allows a holistic approach to evaluating the environmental impact of a product or service. By measuring the environmental impact of each component of the product across all stages of its life from cradle to grave, we are able to assess it on a range of measures to see its overall impact. We can then compare it to other products using the same criteria.
This system can help avoid greenwash, can identify hotspots for reducing impacts or saving money, and also allows informed decision making, avoiding reducing one variable at the expense of another.
The Ins and Outs
Included in the LCA can be any or all of the following stages of a product's life cycle:
raw material extraction, refinement, product manufacture, distribution (transport), retail, consumption or use and disposal or recycling. Across these stages of a product's life a range of impacts can be examined, including: greenhouse gas emissions, ozone depletion, water consumption, non renewable resource depletion (fossil fuels), chemical impacts on human health and impacts on ecosystem services of land and water. Interesting, right?
Basically LCA looks at every part of a product's life and gives producers, manufacturers, regulators and consumers a clear picture of a its impact. Like most things though, LCA has its limitations, for example, LCA is only starting to include reference to social or ethical aspects of production so the processes aren't well established yet.
The technique requires a level of expertise and within Australia the leading membership organisation for this type of work is The Australian Life Cycle Assessment Society (ALCAS). Along with a range of experts across the world a vast range of data and information has been collected that helps in improving (the sustainability of) many aspects of our daily life.
LCAs and You
You'd probably be surprised by the number of products that have undergone LCA. Here we look at two products that have undergone LCA - lighting and wood.
The incandescent light bulb with its hot filament was the standard form of home lighting for more than a century. In 2008, Planet Ark worked with Philips to promote the compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL) for its energy saving properties. Now even this innovation is being replaced by LED lighting systems that are even more energy efficient. The improvements in technology have produced a bulb that lasts a lot longer and uses a lot less energy and therefore produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions. The LCA tells us that even though it takes more technology and resources to make the new LED bulbs the improved efficiency considerably outweigh these changes.
So, start switching to LEDs when your old bulbs give out, especially if you use halogen down lights! You can check out the Philips LCA report for more information on this.
LCAs have been used to demonstrate the benefits of using wood in construction. They show that wood is renewable, stores carbon and has a lower impact than other building materials like concrete and steel across a variety of applications. The Forte building in Melbourne is a great example of these benefits in action. There are new technologies advancing the way we use timber to reduce the environmental impact in construction on both a big and a small scale. To help you with your next project we've put together some top timber tips.
LCA is widely used to assist in decision-making but In the meantime, we can all take positive actions that help lower our individual and collective impact. So turn out the lights when you're not in the room, switch off appliances, don't boil a full kettle unless you have to, walk to the local shops, use multi use shopping bags, reuse/recycle... You know the drill! These are simple actions that on a large scale have significant benefits.