Circular diagram showing the life cycle stages of consumer products

The Hidden Environmental Impacts of the Products We Use

By Evan Sproul, 2018-2019 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering

This blog post is having an impact on our environment. The impact is a direct result of extracting and transforming resources that are needed to get my written words to your eyes. If you are viewing these words on a computer or phone, you can probably visualize a few obvious resources like plastic, metal, and electricity. Somewhat less obvious are the resources required further upstream such as the water and chemicals used to manufacture a computer processor. As you sit and really think about what it takes to make this simple blog post happen, the list of resources and corresponding environmental impacts becomes surprisingly long.

If you’re anything like me, making this mental list is accompanied by a slight sense of guilt and possibly an urge to turn off your device. If you do follow this urge, rest assured that I find this to be an acceptable outcome of my writing. However, it is important to realize that turning off this device will not represent a significant contribution to reducing its environmental impact. In fact, a recent study found that 85-95% of a phone’s carbon footprint comes from production. That means that once you’ve bought a phone, you have very little control over its impact on climate change.

Recognizing these truths about our consumption isn’t always easy. The details of the products we consume are often buried within a complex supply chain. Furthermore, the products are often marketed with a seamless appearance to allow for convenient worry-free consumption. The result is an unclear connection between our decisions as consumers and our impact on the environment. Therefore, we may be inclined to put our faith into the engineers designing products and hope that they make smart decisions to reduce our impact. Unfortunately, my experience as an engineer has taught me that this hope is far from reality.

The truth is that there is a small fraction of engineers who specialize in environmentally focused engineering. To their credit, these engineers work diligently to help understand and reduce the environmental impact of human behavior. However, their efforts are often directly counteracted by other engineering disciplines, managerial practices, and economic incentives which largely neglect consideration of environmental impact. That means that most engineers are trained to spend minimal time thinking about how our designs impact the environment.

Recognizing this shortcoming has led certain groups in industry, academia, and government to invest in a different way of engineering products. The resulting mentality is referred to as life cycle thinking. Life cycle thinking is a systematic method to understand the environmental impact of making, using, and disposing of a product. At the core of this method is detailed accounting that tracks the materials and energy used across each stage of a product’s life cycle. This accounting leverages the existing skill set of engineers but expands their scope to include environmental impact.

Circular diagram showing the life cycle stages of consumer products
Life cycle stages of consumer products. Image from:

Examples of life cycle thinking have been around for decades. These range from the initial efforts of Coca-Cola in 1969, to a recent analysis by Cotton Incorporated. In addition, academia and government have utilized life cycle thinking to better understand the impacts of agriculture, energy production, and building design. In spite of these examples, implementation of life cycle methods has been slow to spread across much of industry. Often, the financial return on investment for life cycle methods is unclear. As a result, companies don’t prioritize these items and instead remain focused on standard measures of performance like the speed or cost of production.

Although slow to spread across industry, the use of life cycle thinking is an encouraging notion. Even more encouraging is the thought of combining this mentality with related concepts such as integrated design. Integrated design seeks to optimize entire systems by designing all of the system’s components simultaneously. For example, an integrated building has heating, cooling, lighting, and windows that are all designed to work together and maximize efficiency. Recent arguments have asserted that these efficiency gains may be far larger than previously expected. Similarly, it is also likely that the corresponding reductions in life cycle environmental impact may be consistently underestimated. As a result, shifting to these more holistic approaches could represent a tremendous opportunity for engineers.

As consumers, these opportunities often remain hidden behind the curtains of industry. We can’t tell if methods like life cycle thinking and integrated design were used to optimize a product. So what can we do to help ensure that these methods aren’t ignored? My first suggestion is to simply pay attention to the information that is available. For example, many airlines now include an estimate of CO2 emissions when you reserve a flight. While this doesn’t represent the full life cycle of a plane, it does give some insight into the (rather large) environmental impact of air travel. My second suggestion is doing a quick google search that includes the term “life cycle assessment” and a brand name of your choice. I did this for New Belgium, Specialized Bicycles, and Toyota, all of which returned interesting results. Granted, this sort of simple search doesn’t mean that a company does or doesn’t use life cycle thinking, but it at least gives you some confidence that certain brands have it on their radar.

Lastly, I recommend we all simply take a moment to think about the life of our products before and after they are in our possession. Then think about how many products we own and how big that cumulative impact might be. While this may lead us back toward that initial feeling of guilt, I instead recommend that we stay optimistic and use this perspective to recalibrate what we think we need versus what we want. Through this effort we are taking life cycle thinking out of the engineering realm and pulling it into our own personal life. In doing so, I truly believe we can all reduce our consumption and our environmental impact.

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