Product Lifecycle Sustainability
We've introduced our range of organic spices in their new SpicePuck containers to help home-chefs to become even better chefs, while also positively impacting the environment. We are posting a series of blogs discussing the environmental impact of our products.
Today’s story is about product lifecycle sustainability ….
When I worked for a sustainability oriented startup about 10 years ago, we had just began discussing the impact of products. Not only during their "use phase", but I also learned what happens with “stuff” after we dispose of it. For many things, the answer is simple, as in recycling of glass, paper, etc., composting of organic materials, or depositing in landfill. But how do we deal with not so pleasant things, like batteries, used engine oil, tires, paint, contaminated soil, medical waste, and of course, nuclear waste.
Looking back at the "early" days of understanding human impact on the environment, most research focused on impact of power plants, factories, freeways, dams, and buildings, etc. Since then, understanding of human impact on the environment began to include not just buildings and structure but also cars, consumer products, electronics, and other items that we use on a daily basis. Initially, the environmental impact assessment was limited to the impact during use with very limited consideration for recycling. Most assessments of consumer products paid only limited, if any, attention to the production/manufacturing phase or the details of the post life and recycling phase.
If the product life cycle sustainability is assessed across all three phases of the lifecycle, many products that are considered green during their use have significant issues during the production or during recycling (www.lifecycleinitiative.org). For example, Lithium-ion batteries are widely used, from smartphones to electric cars. The manufacturing/mining phase of lithium is fraught with environmental and social issues in places like Bolivia (great article in a recent National Geographic). There is also growing concern about the post-life recycling of Lithium-ion batteries. We can also add in the older style lead or cadmium batteries which also create a toxic waste problem.
A fair amount of research has also been conducted, not just for complete products but for individual materials (for example, stainless steel’s life cycle costs – www.bssa.org.uk). For example, aluminum requires a very high amount of energy during production which often was/is provided by coal-fired power plants, which are typically fairly damaging to the environment.
For example, if we compare the sustainability of stainless steel and aluminum across the whole life cycle, steel is higher than aluminum. Stainless steel uses significantly less energy during the manufacturing phase and can be completely recycled after use without any loss in its properties. However, during the use phase, aluminum has an advantage due to its lighter weight (lower transportation impact).
The environmental impact of transportation has garnered more interest lately, especially in the CPG and FMCG (food) space. For example, even the greenest salad and the best hot-house tomatoes, that may have been grown largely using solar energy, have enormous impact if they are flown from The Netherlands to California. The “buy local” or “farm to table” ideas really help over and beyond their farming, freshness, and community benefits by improving the agricultural product’s lifecycle sustainability. Please no more water from Fiji or France.