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Environmental Economics Seminar Series
Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories, 1996
ISBN 0 642 24878 8
Director, Deni Greene Consulting Services
Concern about the environmental impacts of the products and materials we use has led to considerable publicity about the importance of performing Life Cycle Analyses on consumer products. Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) has been promoted as the best way of determining the real impacts of products. Despite the extensive publicity, there is considerable misunderstanding about the process. This paper describes how LCA is done, looks at the potential benefits, describes some of the difficulties involved in performing LCA, including the ways in which it can be misused, and finally identifies the ways in which LCA can be most productively employed.
determination of the environmental impacts of a product resulting from all stages of its production, use and disposal
LCA is used:
A diagram of Life Cycle Analysis is shown in Figure 1.
An LCA of clothes washing machines conducted for the Australian Consumer Association by Deni Greene Consulting Services demonstrates how LCA works in practice. The analysis looked at clothes washers sold in Australia. The models compared were: an Australian-made front loader, an Australian-made top loader, and an imported front loader.
One of the fundamental requirements of LCA is that in a comparison of products, the products must serve the same function. That means, for example, in comparing beverage containers, the comparison must be based on packaging of a specified quantity of the beverage. In comparing standard light globes with compact fluorescent globes, comparison is usually made on the basis of the number of hours of service. If a fluorescent globe is estimated to last for 9000 hours, and standard globes for 750 hours, an LCA can compare the impact of one compact fluorescent with that of 12 standard globes.
The analysis of clothes washer examined three medium-sized (4.5 to 5 kilogram capacity) washers. The basis of the comparison was the average number of washes during the normal lifetime of a washer. In Australia, washers are estimated to last for 14 years. The average household does 250 loads of washing per year. Over the washer's lifetime, total washes then amount to 3500.
The analysis covered the following stages:
The analysis of each stage also covered the energy used in that stage.
Some stages involved a great number of different materials and activities. The analysis of the impact of washer operation, for example, looked at:
Detergent and its packaging
The analysis of the impact of washer disposal covered:
A series of environmental impacts were identified for each stage in the products life cycle. These included:
Identified but not Quantified
One of the complicating factors in an LCA is the large number of different materials used in the manufacture of many products. As an example, the clothes washers studied contained the following materials:
The LCA examined the impacts of extracting, processing and producing all these materials.
A great many different companies and organisations were contacted to gather information on these materials, as well as on inputs to use of clothes washers. Data sources included:
Perhaps not surprisingly, most companies had relatively limited data on the environmental and energy implications of their manufacturing and processing operations. As LCA becomes more common, it seems likely more and better information will be available.
Is water pollution more important than air pollution? Is an air emission of 100 grams of sulphur dioxide more or less significant than emission of 100 grams of nitrogen oxides? These and other similar questions are among the most vexing aspects of an LCA.
Some analyses treat all air emissions as identical, so they just report the quantity of different substances emitted. The user of the analysis has to carry out additional investigation to determine, for example, that one of the substances emitted is highly carcinogenic whereas another is relatively benign.
Another approach reports air (and water) impacts in terms of Units of Polluted Air (or Polluted Water). This approach should give a more meaningful estimate of air pollution or water pollution impact than mere reporting of quantities emitted because it takes account of the variation in the effects of different pollutants. Each air pollutant, for example, is expressed as a proportion of the maximum allowable concentration, using an appropriate environmental protection authority air quality standard.
In Australia, many substances are not currently addressed by standards, so European, often Swiss, standards are used for calculating Units of Polluted Air. It is possible that use of overseas standards may give a somewhat misleading impression about the impact of different pollutants, because they are based on the prevailing situation in the origin country. In the absence of local standards, however, overseas standards are the best tools currently available.
Calculation of Units of Polluted Air is done as follows:
If, for example, a process emits 200 grams of sulphur dioxide:
The allowable concentration of sulphur dioxide is five milligrams per cubic metre of air (or five grams per 1000 cubic metres).
The Units of Polluted Air = 1000 (200/5) = 40,000 cubic metres.
Comparison between different types of environmental impacts is even more troublesome than comparison between different air or different water pollutants. The relative importance of air pollution v. water pollution or the impacts of greenhouse emissions v. use of a non-renewable resource is to some extent a reflection of individual values. Although an objective analyst might say that noise is relatively unimportant (compared, say, to greenhouse emissions) because the impact will totally disappear when the source is removed, the sufferer of noise may be far more concerned about the disruption to current life than about potential impacts on future generations.
Some examples of the results of the LCA of clothes washers is shown in Figures 2-4. The results show that virtually all the environmental impacts of a washer occur during the operating stage. Such a result is common to most products that require inputs of water, energy or other materials during operation. These results contrast with the conventional wisdom of many designers, because they tend to be focused on the manufacturing stage and thus see materials as all-important. Similarly, many consumers are very concerned about waste and recycling so they assume that disposal is the most significant stage.
The results of the analysis indicate that the most substantial reductions in environmental impact can be made by reducing the factors causing impact during operation, ie energy, water and detergent. This is not to say that materials, packaging, and disposal should be ignored; reductions of impact from one stage can often be done in parallel to efforts on other stages.
Figure 5 shows that the consumer or user of a product can have a substantial influence on the environmental impact of the product. It demonstrates that consumers use cold water for clothes washing or heat their water with natural gas will have considerably lower impacts than people who use electric water heaters.
The LCA of clothes washers showed that:
It also revealed the following areas of difficulty:
Owing perhaps to lack of experience, or in some cases to a vested interest in a particular outcome,
LCA is sometimes misused or its results confused. Some of the confusion and/or misuse results from:
Despite the difficulties inherent in LCA, it is still a very promising tool. It can:
The challenge ahead is to develop practical techniques for capturing the benefits of a life cycle analysis while substantially reducing the difficulties and the time and data requirements. A number of companies have designed software packages to automate LCA, but these still present a number of problems. The basis of estimates and assumptions used in developing the software are not necessarily apparent to the user. As many impacts vary considerably between locations, it is critical to know if the assumptions made are relevant to the particular circumstances of an analysis.
Broadbrush life cycle reviews may be sufficient in many cases to identify priorities or key elements in a life cycle. A number of practitioners, primarily in Europe are currently working on ways to improve and simplify LCA. As consumers continue to demand better information on the environmental impacts of the products they use, it is inevitable that improved techniques will be devised for conducting the LCAs that will provide such information.
Manufacturers themselves are likely to make the most meaningful use of LCA. Many of the confusions inherent in consumer-oriented LCA, such as comparison of quite different products and impacts, are less prevalent when LCA is used by manufacturers to evaluate the impact of potential improvements to their products.
Although Europe is currently the most important centre of activity on LCA, it is essential for Australia to develop LCA techniques and data relevant to domestic conditions. Environmental conditions and issues in Australia are quite different from those in Europe. Even products and their use may differ substantially between Europe and Australia. As an example, European LCAs on washers are based on use of washing temperatures of 80 or 90 degrees Celsius, because that is current practice; whereas Australians commonly wash at temperatures of 40 degrees, or in cold water.
In summary, LCA offers considerable promise, but achieving that promise will require substantial effort to be devoted to producing more practical and meaningful techniques. It will also require vigilance to ensure that the results of LCA are not misused or distorted either deliberately or through ignorance.
Issues of consumption are key questions in moving toward sustainability. Every person has a right to a decent quality of life. At present there is a small number of people in rich countries like Australia consuming the vast bulk of the resources produced and a large number of people in poor countries whose food, health care, shelter and educational needs are not being met. At the same time, citizens of the rapidly developing economies are demanding a dramatic improvement in their quality of life. New ways are required to meet human needs while at the same time protecting the ecological systems on which health depends. Analysis of the environmental impacts of products across their life cycles can help to contribute to this effort.
Boyden, S., Common, M., Dovers, S., Madden, E. A. (1991), Comparative Environmental Study of Packaging Alternatives for Liquid-Food Products (or a Storm in a Milk Bottle?) . A study commissioned by the Association of Liquidpaperboard Carton Manufacturers Inc.
Deni Greene Consulting Services (1992), Life Cycle Analysis. A view of the environmental impact of Consumer Products using clothes washing machines as an example. Australian Consumers' Association.
Franklin Associates, Ltd. (1991), Resource and Environmental Profile Analysis of High-Density Polyethylene and Bleached Paperboard Gable Milk Containers, Prepared for the Council for Solid Waste Solutions. February.
Keoleian, G. A and Menerey, D. (1992), Project Summary. Life Cycle Design Guidance Manual: Environmental Requirements and the Product System, Draft Prepared for US EPA by National Pollution Prevention Centre, School of Natural Resources, University of Michigan.
Keoleian, G.A., Menerey, D., and Curran, M.A. (1993), A Life Cycle Approach to Product System Design, Pollution Prevention Review, Summer, pp. 293-306.
Pedersen, B. and Christiansen, K. (1992), A Meta-review on Product Life Assessment, Manuscript in preparation for the Nordic Council of Ministers.
Richardson, B. (1991), Milk Packaging in Australia: A Review, Prepared for Victorian Dairy Industry Authority by Department of Biological Sciences, Deakin University, Geelong.
Jeanette Haycocks: When it comes down to the bottom line, people really don't want washing machines, they want clean clothes. Have you examined other ways of getting clean clothes?
Deni Greene: I have been asked whether we looked at the end service, which is clean clothes, and at different ways of providing it. You could do this, but the problem of all the assumptions would make it a bit difficult, I suspect, to have much faith in any of the results being comparable. If you looked at microwave washing versus dry cleaning versus washing in the river versus washing machines, you are talking about quite different impacts occurring in quite different places. You are also comparing different values - a dirty river might matter to me whereas dirty air matters to you. That is the difficulty in comparing things that are not alike. You could say that one method used less energy than another, or one used less water than another, but whether you would get any sort of meaningful result from that, I do not know.
Hazel Suchard: Did you consider the fact that manufacturers are moving across to concentrates rather than powders? Did you look at the environmental effect of using concentrates instead of powders?
Deni Greene: No. It was a washing machine study, not a comparative detergent study. We could have looked at different detergents, different treatment plants for water, different power stations for energy, and different steel manufacturers for the steel component. The thing about life cycle analysis is that you decide on your scope. I bounded my scope by three washing machines and one kind of detergent. It was a regular old-fashioned washing powder because at that stage that was the only type available for front-loaders.
Hardin Tibbs (Australian Business Network /Global Business Network): Perhaps we could put those two ideas together and see what gives us the cleanest clothes. Is it the chemistry or is it the fundamental action that is being accomplished at the level of the fibres in the textile? Then perhaps we could work back and consider the best way of achieving the result.
Deni Greene: I think you could work back further than that. I suspect that very few of the clothes we wash are actually dirty. Among my circle people seem to wear something different every day. They do not do so because their clothes are dirty; they do so for fashion or other reasons. The question then arises: do we need to wear different clothes every single day? Can we wear clothes until they are dirty? How far back do you take this question?
Hardin Tibbs: You can also do a lot with design. Perhaps we could have a machine that did not use water. I think we could design an electronic machine that had very low water consumption.
Deni Greene: Oh, yes, a microwave machine does not use any at all.