Fast, affordable and insightful ways to look at product lifecycle impacts

Companies, industries and governments are looking at the impacts climate change will have on their markets and economies. At the heart of their efforts is the question of how to effectively reduce the total life cycle greenhouse gas emissions, or “carbon footprint” of products, supply chains and services. Elsa Olivetti, assistant professor of Materials Science & Engineering in collaboration with the Materials Science Laboratory, both at MIT, developed a methodology to help do just that.

Olivetti knows quantifying a product's energy and carbon footprint is challenging. A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) provides a holistic view of a product’s impacts on ecosystem quality, human health, and resource use. LCAs identify where in the value chain are the largest negative impacts—whether in materials used, production methods, transportation, consumer use or disposal. They are a map directing stakeholders where to focus their mitigation efforts. But LCAs are based on extensive data collection and gathering data for an increasingly complex and dynamic supply chain is variable, expensive, time-consuming and resource intensive. Olivetti, who spends her days improving the environmental and economic sustainability of material flows, recognizes that while LCA is being used more frequently, uncertainty in the results continues to be significant, creating challenges in the credibility of these assessments.  

That is why Olivetti applies a rigorous and practical approach to conducting LCAs. A streamlined LCA methodology minimizes the need for data collection and provides actionable insight to stakeholders. To enable efficient and effective analyses, she and her collaborators focus on the drivers behind a product’s environmental impacts. To strike a balance between comprehensive analysis and detailed supplier data collection, the team first looks at a product through a generalized, high-level lens, and initially compromise on data quality. Broad strokes allow researchers to conduct a complete analysis of all activities within the value chain from “cradle to grave,” using existing data. Concurrently, the team characterizes the uncertainty in their findings, and quantifies them probabilistically using existing lifecycle inventory data. Quantifying the lifecycle stages relative to each other allows them to identify the environmental hot spots—high-impact phases in the lifecycle of a product. LCA practitioners can then focus on collecting specific input data where it is most relevant to do so, thereby triaging the data collection effort.

The methodology leverages published Life Cycle Inventory (LCI) databases, manufacturing data, government or third party studies, and considers the extremes within a product’s manufacturing processes. Then the key drivers of environmental impact are mapped to certain product attributes, such as a notebook screen size or the amount of memory in a smart phone, thereby reducing the data input burden for industry to understand how they propel environmental impacts.

We have used the streamlined approach in our work with electronics companies on the footprint of desktops, tablets, laptops, monitors and TVs. We work with the electrical industry on lamps, ballasts, motors and connectors and have developed tools they use to provide footprint information to their customers.

The result gives stakeholders a reasonable estimate of a product’s environmental impact while it reveals the uncertainty contained within the result. If they understand the drivers of global warming burden within a product, companies can develop and implement greenhouse gas mitigation strategies relatively quickly using a robust streamlined LCA method.

Olivetti and team collaborate with other initiatives, such as the Greenhouse Gas Protocols developed by World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), the International Electrotechnical Commission, the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), and the Carbon Trust. They have also worked with the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR program. The goal in collaborating with these initiatives is to move towards a consistent method of evaluating environmental impact efficiently and effectively, thereby enabling resources to be directed to mitigation efforts.

Photo by Jim Bahn.