Product Life Cycle Assessment: Don’t bite off more than you can chew!

By Giles Matthews.

A life cycle assessment (LCA) is a reporting method that quantifies the environmental impact of a particular product.  An LCA considers the product’s impact in terms of its:

  • Resource recovery
  • Manufacture
  • Distribution & Sale
  • Installation
  • Use
  • End of Life

There are so many variations and intricacies that are individual to every product; head spinning is often a side effect of the field in general.

Product LCA is beginning to become a standard specification requirement of product development, particularly in development offices of multinational corporations[1].  Companies selling into the EU are required to adhere to the following guidelines:

  • RoHS (Reduction of Hazardous Substances)
  • REACH (Registration, Evaluation, and Authorisation and Restriction of Chemical substances)
  • WEEE (Waste Electrical & Electronic Equipment)

However ISO 14040 Environmental Management Standard is where the LCA is conceived, the international standard describes the process for reporting the environmental impact of any given product.

The whole assessment relies on impact data being available for any given material, process and countries’ power grid, as well that data being able to be extrapolated by complex equations to suit your particular product.  The LCA process is made easier by computer programmes[2] which use up to date data (source: Ecoinvent web link: http://www.ecoinvent.ch/) and steps the process of reporting.

The whole process is extremely tedious and time consuming when all you’d rather do is get going with the job of designing products.  So why do it at all? If it is not already required by regulation it will soon be required by the market, so a smart business would get well ahead of the curve and start reviewing their Environmental Management credentials.

What are the first steps for a company that currently develops products:

  • Perhaps you don’t know whether or not your products are within scope of environmental reporting?
    • It is a good plan to know where the boundaries are as possible infringement can be costly.
  • Review your product range and assess whether it is efficient to produce LCA documentation. TIP: Perhaps focus your efforts on the biggest seller – any cost/benefit will have a bigger reward.
  • Your Product Development & Management Teams probably aren’t ready for LCA’s, they’re knowledge, experience and skills are best used in developing the next model.
    • Regulatory compliance is complex and weighty…  don’t induce your business into a bureaucratic equivalent of a clotted artery.
    • Outsource it…  The complexity and paper work is best handled by those that have access to the data and experience to assess your products objectively.
  • Benchmarking (in this case) is advised – I am not one to admit that benchmarking is a good idea but in this case you need to know what you don’t know…
    • Get ready to learn about how much you don’t know about your product and your process!
    • It can be quite confronting to learn just how much of an impact a few micrograms of a semi-precious material can impact the environment.
    • Remember the LCA includes the power consumed by a product in its use, during standby and different function loads.
    • Don’t miss out on some crucial stages like installation:  Some large scale products require significant resources to be installed whether it’s the foundations for the footing or the electricity used during installation. It all counts.
  • Tell the world! Once you’ve reviewed your existing or new product you should let your customers and potential customers know about it[3].
    • There is great value created by LCA when shared internally, it creates knowledge and awareness of the areas of success and failure of a product.
    • Releasing your reports publicly turns this value into a return for your business; it can create new business, improve existing and improve trust and confidence in your brand.
  • Remember the next product model should be better than the last, reviewing the retrospective impact is only useful if you intend to improve your Environmental performance.

So if it is a philosophical choice or avoiding a regulatory headache the process of LCA is well worth the effort.

In future articles I will explore methods for improving the environmental impact of your product and the ways to manage it in your business.

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