A Products Life Cycle, And Why It’s So Important.
When we look at the life cycle of a product, there is so much more too it than just the make and sell stages. The life cycle of a product spans very wide, and depending on the type of product, the area of greatest environmental detriment changes. Every product has varying concerns, no matter how sustainably its been produced, and the more aware we are of what those issues are, the better equipped we are to making more conscious decisions about our purchases.
As we currently participate in a very linear consumption model, there are a lot of issues at play. Because of this linear model, we feel somewhat excused from the disposal of items, because the products haven’t been created with any circularity in mind. When products are made in a linear production method, it becomes difficult and almost an inconvenience to recycle them into a product of the same value. Often items can be down-cycled, but this lessons the value, and is merely a ‘stop off’ for the product on its inevitable way to landfill.
‘Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the way we think things’, a book written by William McDonough and Micheal Braungart is a transformative dialogue on the importance of bringing circularity into our production. They believe that every product or system should be a beginning and end of another, and that “everything is a resource for something else”, creating a never ending loop of recycling and regenerative design. (1)
As this circular model of production and consumption is still a while off, it’s good to know how the different stages of a products life cycle weighs up, so that when you’re buying a product you have a slight idea of the impacts they may have. Product lifecycle categories, when looked at through the model of Life Cycle Assessments (LCA, a technique used to assess the environmental impacts of a product) can help us break down and evaluate the steps. (2).
A product life cycle (when following a cradle to gate model, i.e make, take, dispose as opposed to cradle to cradle, a more circular product design) can be loosely divided into six sections:
- Raw Material Extraction: This section includes fossil fuel extraction, cotton farming, mining for minerals, etc. These are the resources we need to create our products. Concerns in this stage include soil erosion, deforestation, land use, animal abuse/mistreatment, pesticide and fertilise use, water use, GHG emissions, biodiversity and habitat loss, toxic chemicals used, community impacts, eutrophication.
- Manufacturing and Processing: This is where we process the virgin materials into things like yarn, metal, leather etc. and create the products themselves, including trims. Concerns at this stage of production include energy use, human rights abuses, chemicals, water use and pollution, waste, GHG emissions.
- Distribution/packaging: This stage includes warehouses for storage, packaging of products, and retail. Concerns associated with these are waste, emissions, water, energy.
- Transportation: This is where the product is delivered around the world to stockists and customers. Concerns at this stage are fuel use, pollution and emissions from all the different modes of transport (sea, air, rail, track).
- Use & Retail: This is where we receive our products, and use them in our lives. Some stay with us for a while (think large appliances, furniture, vehicles) and some pieces are gone quickly (food, skincare, single use items). Some concerns at this stage are water and energy use for cleaning and operating, pollution (microfibre pollution in the case of clothing for example), waste.
- End of Life/disposal: When disposing of items at their end of life, there are many steps we can take by either recycling, sending them to landfill, repurposing them, incineration etc. Concerns at this stage are the methods of disposal, and if they are the correct ones. Pollution is obviously a big issue, chemicals, GHG emissions, ocean pollution and biodiversity loss, Micro fibre pollution, air pollution from incineration.
See the graph below for an example:
(Figure 1: Cradle to grave/open loop life cycle. Figure 2: Cradle to cradle/closed loop life cycle).
As you can probably tell from these different stages of a products life cycle, they are highly complex and variable. There are many steps in between, and externalities along the way that make it hard to really assess the impact. What we do know with a lot of products is that the extraction process (the first stage) is the stage in which the most environmental interference and GHG production comes from.
It has been reported that between 65%-70% of a products impact is created at the very first stage, extraction. It has a long life before it even gets to you “What most people see in their garbage cans is just the tip of a material iceberg; the product itself contains on average only 5 percent of the raw materials involved in the process of making and delivering it.” (3)
When we buy second hand items, the reason why they are regarded with such high ethical values is because we’re essentially removing a stage of the products life cycle (extraction/production).
With recycling, the same thing goes. “Remelting something is much less energy intensive than mining and refining it. A similar logic applies for plastics and container glass. In some cases (for example, for aluminium), the recycled material can have an environmental footprint more than 10 times smaller than the virgin material.” (4)
Though, there are a few more set backs with recycling that we need to look out for, for example the energy that the recycling plant uses, transportation of the recycled materials, and the value of the recycled product (upcycled, recycled, downcycled). Keeping the life cycle of the product in mind will help us make informed decisions on whether the product lives up to its ethical recycled claims, or whether it’s a greenwash.
“The creative use of downcycled materials for new products can be misguided, despite good intentions. For example, people may feel they are making an ecologically sound choice by buying and wearing clothing made of fibers from recycled plastic bottles. But the fibers from plastic bottles contain toxins such as antimony, catalytic residues, ultraviolet stabilizers, plasticizers, and antioxidants, which were never designed to lie next to human skin. Using downcycled paper as insulation is another current trend. But additional chemicals (such as fungicides to prevent mildew) must be added to make downcycled paper suitable for insulation, intensifying the problems already caused by toxic inks and other contaminants. The insulation might then off-gas formaldehyde and other chemicals into the home.” (5)
What “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the way we think things” touches on is that we need to be focusing on creating products with their end of life in mind, and creating them to be easily recycled. This process, for it to be less toxic and more accessible, needs to be designed into the product.
Until a closed loop/circular/cradle to cradle system is incoporated into everything we do, we will need to continue focusing on what is accessible to us; buying second hand, recycling the best that we can and keeping the life cycle of a product in mind when we are buying things.
Questions to ask yourself when buying new things:
- What is this product made out of (extraction process)?
- Where was this product made/where is it coming from? (Production, transportation, retail).
- During the use phase, are there any things that need to be looked out or? (Microfibres, upkeep, maintenance, washing, repair ability, energy use, water use etc).
- When I’m finished using this product, how can I dispose of it? (Is it home compostable, commercially compostable, recyclable, resale-able).
Things we can do to recycle and start implementing circular habits in our day-to-day lives:
- Reuse items we have bought (i.e jars, takeaway/plastic containers, paper bags, the blank side of paper, packaging).
- Buy second hand (this can be utilised in all categories of life; furniture, clothing, homewares, electronics).
- Extending the lie cycle of things we have (Repairing, re-upholstering, altering clothing to fit you better).
- Cradle to Cradle
- Cradle to Cradle
- Cradle to Cradle