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Principle 4: Life Cycle Analysis, Embodied Energy and Virtual Water
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Following on yesterday's Principle 3: Cradle to Cradle and Closing the Loop, the fourth principle in our series looks at life cycle analysis (LCA) and understanding the resource use involved in every stage of a product's life, from design through disposal (or reuptake into another manufacturing cycle, as in a "cradle to cradle" scenario).

When we analyze a product's life cycle, two of the important factors are the "embodied (or embedded) energy" and "virtual water," both of which are accounting methodologies for establishing the total energy or water required for a product or service to exist in the world, including raw material extraction, transport of parts, disassembly, and decomposition or recycling. From an environmental perspective, a value cannot be accurately placed on a product or service without considering the cost of all of these in-between and indirect phases.

Greener Miles: Embedded Energy, Life-Cycle Assessments and Greenwashing -- There are many programs and services available today to offset the impact we know we make, such as emissions from driving. But those offsets don't necessarily address the embedded impacts and costs in manufacturing and disposing of vehicles, which is where most of the damage happens. How can we see -- and offset -- the impact of a whole life cycle?

Ecolizer Designwijzer: Life-Cycle Assessment on the Go -- The Ecolizer Designwijzer is a handheld guide for designers and product managers to evaluate and better understand the environmental impact of their decisions. The bulk of the guide consists of 80 cards with several hundred eco-indicators quantifying the environmental impact of the production, use and discarding phases of materials and processes.

Virtual Water Trade and Water Footprints -- By thinking of our water use as a "footprint," the way we do with CO2 and land use, we can get a better picture of how much water we consume not just in drinking, eating, bathing and washing, but in every action we take from day to day.

Industrial Ecologies -- Industrial Ecology proposes a closed-loop industrial process in which systems behave like ecosystems, meaning that they make efficient use of waste and take an inclusive view of the capital involved in the entire manufacturing and production process. One example can be found in the Danish Kalundborg industrial park.

Background Stories: Building Context Connection -- Graphic design can be a useful tool for illustrating life cycles in a simple format that allows consumers to better understand the whole backstory of the products and services they choose to use.

Scoping Out Sustainability -- The UK Design Council produced an informational resource entitled Design & Sustainability: A Scoping Report, which aims to examine the motivating factors and economic behaviors around driving up market demand for sustainable design.

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In addition to embodied energy, and water you also want to look at the embodied toxicity of products that you are using. Over the lifecycle some products are going to have greater utilization of problematic chemicals in the raw material extraction, production, distribution, and obsolesence stages. One of the main type of embodied toxics we would be looking for would be persistent pollutants (examples. PCBs, lead, chromium, mercury) which have a tendency to bioaccumulate as well as other materials that are particularly hazardous.

Posted by: Jakub on 10 May 07

I don't agree with the implications of Jakub's post. For any given life-cycle analysis you need to be very clear what it is you're measuring. Otherwise, the message for consumers will be confused and confusing. Better to have a labelling system similar to nutrients: CO2 produced, water used, toxic chemical X released etc. displayed and calculated separately.

This should also help designers - for example when trying to balance competing issues. Say you want to change a design to reduce CO2 but this increases water usage. What you want as a designer is to be able to calculate a CO2 value and a water value for each and compare/contrast.

A life-cycle analysis system which merges target substanses won't in the long-term be useful.

Posted by: John Kazer on 11 May 07

The CMU Green Design Institute has the EIO-LCA model for the life-cycle assessment by industry sectors ( It gives the impact in co2 equivalent and other emissions.

Using this model, we at SocialWay ( have computed the average co2 equivalent footprint of most common household stuff such as books, electronics, tools, furniture etc. SocialWay is a website that enables people to share stuff - lend, borrow, giveaway. This footprint of everyday things helps a user figure out how much GHG emissions they are saving by sharing an item (lending/borrowing) rather than buying it. SocialWay then shows the co2 emissions saved as the "SocialWay Rootprint" - number of trees that would absorb that co2. This gives a user a tangible, understandable benefit of reusing stuff where a purchase can be avoided.

Posted by: Nita Goyal on 15 May 07



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