Adeline Maijala Helsinki University of technology, edited by Sakari Autio, LUAS
Life cycle of a product / service?
Life Cycle thinking and studies focus normally on everyday products and services we are using eg. clothing, electronics, furniture, food products, hotel services etc. In first sight those do not seem to be so harmful for the environment. BUT when the question is about mass production and mass consumption and we are talking about millions of products in the market, that is the basis of the over consumption of natural resources and energy as well as harmful emissions and waste. What is the "environmental load" of all those products around us? - That is one relevant question for Life Cycle thinking and it can help us to improve our present production and consumption patterns towards environmental sustainability.
The lifespan of a manufactured product begins with the extraction of raw materials and ends when the waste is disposed of. In this context, it makes sense to talk about "Cradle-to-Grave" C to G -studies. Additionally to this kind of thinking mode the present trend is increasingly focusing on "Cradle to Cradle (C to C)" solutions, where the second life of the product and the materials are designed already in the primary phase. - C to C - Life Cycle Thinking will be introduced and discussed a bit later in the text.
From Cradle to Grave Life Cycle of a product - a tealight as an example
In the above example, the life cycle of a tealight is simplified to illustrate this concept. The materials of the tealight are paraffin wax, wick and aluminium; to produce these you need oil, fibre and bauxite, respectively. Tealights are small, used numerously in many homes and environmentally poorly designed candlelights.
Raw materials are either transported directly to the production plant or are processed beforehand. For example, wood is processed in a sawmill before being sent to a furniture factory. At the production plant, raw and partially processed materials go through the production process
and, once they are ready, can be considered to have reached the "gate" stage of the "cradle-to-gate"
process. Sometimes it is reasonable to limit the study considering only what happens before the product leaves the factory, we call the study "cradle-to-gate", where gate refers to the moment when the product leaves the factory production process. This kind of focus makes the study much easier compared to situation where one tries to cover also use, recycling and disposal phases.
Next, the aluminium is shaped, the wick is added and the tealight filled with paraffin
wax. The tealights are then packed ready to be sold.
The products are then transported to the retailer or the consumer, after which they are bought and
The tealights are sent to shops. Consumers buy them, transport them home and then
use them until all the paraffin wax is burnt.
When the product is used up, it reaches the end of its life as a consumer product and is disposed of
by the user. There are several different end-of-life solutions: the user can send the product or part of
it for recycling, to landfill or an incinerator, or reuse it for another purpose. For instance, glass is
usually recycled, mixed waste is sent to landfill or incinerated, and a piece of textile can be used as
a rag. In this model, the end-of-life of a product can be considered as the "grave".
The user will probably discard the wick with other household waste and send
the aluminium for recycling. - But will the consumer put the aluminium for recycling?
Because some of the materials can be reused or recycled, the product's life is seen as a cycle and
not a linear progression from start to finish. This tealight example also illustrates how a product life cycle can vary. If the user recycles aluminium, less bauxite needs to be mined and less energy used in the aluminium factory. This has an impact on the total use of raw materials and energy for the production of the tealight, which means that the total use of materials for the life cycle is smaller than if there is no recycling and "new" aluminium is used for each tealight. However, one of the problems of recycling is that transportation and other processes involved have their own environmental impacts. It is only worth recycling if it costs less to recycle used materials
(in environmental and financial terms) than it does to source new ones.
Life cycle wide environmental improvements of the products are in many times technical improvements of the products or production. In more numerous cases the environmentally positive outcome depends finally about the behaviour of the person who uses the product. - How? Think about these technical and behavioral possibilities through continuing with tealight - example.
The life cycle of a tealight - in a bit more detailed way
In principal, all the processes affected by the life cycle of the products should be included.
For a tealight, the processes in its life cycle are:
- Extraction and processing of raw materials: bauxite, oil, fibre, etc.
- Manufacturing the aluminium sheet, paraffin wax and wick
- Shaping the aluminium sheet, filling it with wax and wick
- Use (burning the candle),
c) End-of-first life:
- Re-using after filling the tealight with paraffin wax at home - This does not sound realistic at all what comes to
- User recycle the aluminium among other metals. Melting the aluminium at a recycling plant - How realistic is this?
- Disposal as household waste
d) Transport in between all these processes.
Furthermore, these processes involve a lot of other processes, such as:
- Production of electricity and other energy types, and extraction of raw materials for this
- Provision of water
- Production of chemicals for rinsing aluminium
- Production of materials for all the suppliers of the mine, aluminium, refinery, fibre producer,
- Production of buildings, machines, trucks, tires, roads, etc. and production of materials for this (e.g. steel) – also for all the suppliers and for building, electricity work, etc. This list can be regressed almost infinitely; the aluminium producer will have suppliers, and each of these suppliers will have suppliers, and so on. Consequently, it is practically impossible to include
all processes, because the data collection work for this would be enormous. This means that an LCA Life Cycle Assessment can never be completely comprehensive, and when interpreting the results of an LCA it is important to bear in mind that the results represent a partial picture. For each process listed above, it is possible to estimate the environmental impact in terms of natural
resources and energy used, as well as waste production and emissions to air, water and soil. For example, during use the candle will emit to air, and its transportation will also emit to air and use
energy and fuel, and so on.
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Life Cycle approach can be utilized also to study different services. Here is introduced a case where the focus is in transportation services. If we consider the environmental impact of the delivery of one tonne of goods by a transportation company, we need to take the following steps into account:
1. The life cycle of the fuel used by the delivery vehicle
- extraction of oil
- transporting the oil to the refinery
- refining the oil
- transporting the fuel to the fuel station
- combustion in the engine
2. Part of the life cycle of the vehicle (if the vehicle transports a million tonnes during its life cycle then, in this example, only a millionth of the total impact is allocated to the one tonne of goods transported)
- extracting raw materials (minerals for metals, oil for plastic, etc.)
- producing vehicle components (metal, plastic, textile for upholstery, etc.)
- assembling the components
- transporting the vehicle to the point of sale
- maintenance of the vehicle (tires, parts, engine oil, etc.)
- end-of-life of the vehicle
3. A very small fraction of the life cycle of the roads used by the vehicle
- extracting raw materials (gravel, oil for asphalt, minerals for the road signs and traffic lights, paint components)
- manufacturing road signs, traffic lights, paint for markings, etc.
- building the road
- maintaining the road
4. A small part of the life cycle of the buildings used by the company to provide this service
- heating of the buildings
- construction of the buildings
- transportation of personnel from home to work
- office equipment (phone, computer, stationery, etc.)
Of course, the buildings and vehicles are used for the total tonnage of goods transported by the company, but they are only built, used and maintained for the purpose of company business. Similarly, all private and commercial vehicles share partial responsibility for the impact on the environment and the state of roads they use.