Monday, January 31, 2011

Let's Life Cycle Analyze Everything

Consumer products already undergo some testing, generally to meet governmental regulations or a recognized set of standards.  This testing is done to ensure that the product attains a level of quality and does not pose an unacceptable risk of injuring the user.  But there is a risk from these products that is being overlooked: the environmental risk.

Some companies perform life cycle analyses of their products, attempting to quantify all environmental impacts of a product from cradle to grave.  A life cycle analysis examines, among other things, the environmental impact of the following phases in a product's life:

  • Extraction and transport of materials used to make the product
  • Manufacture and transport of the product
  • Use of the product, including maintenance, repair, and storage
  • Disposal of the product by consumer
  • Destruction of the product through landfilling, incineration, or recycling
Life cycle analysis can reveal surprising facts about how a product impacts the environment.  Unfortunately, life cycle analysis is not widespread among industry, and the companies that practice it usually do not do so on a regular basis.

As the American economy recovers and our manufacturing sector is hopefully renewed, it would make sense to adopt industry-wide life cycle analysis practices now--not to wait until we're "ready."  If all products were to undergo life cycle analysis, the vast amount of information, processed by our vast computing power, can reveal areas of improvement that can be addressed in methods more easy and efficient than traditional methods of environmental remediation such as emissions reduction.  The life cycle analysis data can be made available to the public and can lead to a new, product-level movement in environmental stewardship.

As consumers, we all buy stuff, keep it in our house, and dispose of it in our environment.  It would be useful to know how everything, from our ballpoint pens to our plasma TVs, affect the environment from cradle to grave.

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