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Life Cycle Analysis as a Tool for More Sustainable Design




Understanding how materials, processes, and products impact the environment is the first step towards achieving environmental improvement and a determined move towards sustainability for companies.

What packaging emits less CO₂? Glass bottle, aluminum can, or tetra pack? Which material has less impact for a chair, wood, or aluminum? Wool or jute carpet? These and countless other questions about the environmental impact of products are answered through Life Cycle Assessment, also known by its acronym LCA.


Life Cycle Assessment is the most effective tool for measuring the environmental impacts of products and services and is widely supported by the scientific community for the robustness of its data, reliability, and objectivity. It is used to calculate CO₂ emissions, as well as other types of impacts such as toxicity, health effects, energy intensity, water footprint, etc. To assess environmental impacts, all materials used, energy consumption, and waste generation during each stage of the product's life cycle are accounted for, from raw material extraction to disposal. Thus, it is possible to have a detailed and objective understanding of what happens at each stage. To make informed decisions for a sustainable future, industrial decision-making must be based on objective and scientific results to avoid incorrect actions.


By "life cycle," we mean everything required for us to enjoy an object and what happens when we no longer need it and dispose of it. The idea is to create a precise description of all the stages that occur, from its creation to its end of life (raw material extraction, processing, transportation, packaging, usage, and disposal).



The key to conducting a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is adopting a systemic approach to the product. In other words, categorizing each stage related to the product's life cycle from cradle to grave.





Materials

Image 1. Materials a) Mineral resources: limited and non-renewable. b) Potentially renewable biological resources. c) Energy intensity. d) Toxicity.


This includes the impacts generated during the extraction of raw materials and their transformation into industrial materials or standard parts.





Manufacturing

Image 2. Manufacturing a) Energy. b) Waste. c) Discharges.


Manufacturing processes that take place throughout the entire production and assembly chain, excluding infrastructure and machinery.





Transport

Image 3. Transportation a) Train. b) Airplane. c) Truck. d) Ship.


Transportation from suppliers to the production plant and from there to the storage facility is considered. Transportation to the end user is excluded.






Packaging

Image 4. Packaging a) Secondary / industrial packaging. b) Primary packaging / final container


This phase accounts for the final packaging of the product and the secondary packaging required for the transportation and storage of raw materials.






Use

Image 5. Use a) Passive. b) Energy consumption. c) Short cycle. d) Consumption of consumables.


During the use stage, both consumable components and energy may be required, which often represents the most significant impact load.





End of Life

Image 6. End of Life. Waste sorting plant.


This phase takes into account final treatments when the product becomes waste. These treatments can include recycling, energy recovery, or, in the worst cases, landfill disposal.




Methodologically, it consists of a balance between the inputs of materials, energy, and water, and the outputs of emissions and waste generated in the process of creating, producing, and using any object and its impact on the environment. The gathered information is interpreted into impact categories.



Methodology of work according to LCA. First, the entire set of inputs of materials and energy is accounted for in different stages of the life cycle, along with the outputs of emissions, discharges, and waste. Once the inputs and outputs are inventoried, environmental impacts are modeled according to different impact categories, such as global warming, toxicity, or resource consumption.




Saying something is ecological is not enough; you need to demonstrate it, and LCA is the best tool for that.


LCA in the Design Process


The use of LCA is becoming increasingly normalized in both large multinational companies and small businesses, as well as in cities and regions. In our country, more and more companies are incorporating environmental assessment into their internal processes for decision-making. At OiKo, we have had the pleasure of assisting companies like Marset, a leader in lighting design, Dentaid, the largest company in the oral hygiene sector, or Lékué, a brand specializing in silicone kitchen products, to conduct environmental footprint evaluations through LCA, to name a few examples.



Set of luminaires from the lighting design company Marset.



During the product design phase, LCA allows us to identify the main sources of environmental impact so that we can take direct action to improve the product's sustainability with minimal investment of time, effort, and cost. In this way, creating more sustainable products doesn't have to be more expensive; on the contrary, years of experience have shown that it can actually lead to cost reductions. If eco-design of products is based on life cycle analysis, both costs and environmental impacts can be reduced.



Toothbrush and toothpaste, part of the LCA conducted for the leading oral hygiene company, Dentaid.



Transparency and truthful communication


In Denmark, a leading country in environmental legislation and anti-greenwashing efforts, a regulation has come into effect that prohibits any sustainability claims about a product that are not supported by a validated LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) study. In other words, it's no longer enough to just claim that your product is eco-friendly; you have to prove it. According to the guidelines published earlier this year, all companies must document any advertising slogans related to their product's sustainability with environmental information compiled by independent experts and must make this information easily accessible to the general public. It may seem like a significant step forward, but Denmark is essentially implementing what the European Directive on Unfair Commercial Practices and Misleading Advertising dictates.



Downlight Kombic from the Lamp company. In OiKo Design Office, we have conducted the life cycle analysis required for the Environmental Product Declaration according to ISO 14025.



On the path to sustainable consumption, promoting transparency from manufacturers and providing access to accurate information for consumers is essential. In this regard, the EU is considering the implementation of a traffic light-style labeling system, similar to Nutri-Score, for the environmental aspects of products, evaluating CO₂ emissions, ecosystem impacts, and resource usage. This approach will allow consumers to make informed choices and, in a fair manner, encourage companies to enhance their ecological competitiveness.







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