The importance of life cycle thinking for sustainability

The main objectives of sustainable living choices are to minimize the depletion of resources (energy, water, raw materials) and prevent adverse impacts to human health and the environment, while maintaining and enhancing the quality of life for existing and future generations.

Typical approaches to promoting environmentally preferable products usually make a big deal of one or a few isolated attributes, or broad generalizations that don’t always lead to the best choice, despite the appealing but often misleading marketing hype and claims.

A focus on the life cycle of a product or service involves looking at the environmental, economic and social impacts of upstream processes such as extraction and transportation of raw materials, manufacturing, and so on, the end-use and the possible disposal or reuse options at the end of its useful life. The known and unintended consequences of short term actions as well as competing impacts over the full lifespan of the product or service need to be better understood. We need some assurance that addressing one environmental problem doesn’t just end up giving birth to another unexpected problem elsewhere, in some other form.

Some examples to think about:

  • bio-based, rapidly renewable materials (e.g., bamboo) are not necessarily more environmentally friendly; increased fertilizer and watering requirements, and transportation distances need to be considered
  • the US administration’s policy to promote biofuels, such as ethanol from corn has already led to widespread disastrous consequences, including using up prime agricultural land that has contributed to soaring food prices
  • recycling is not automatically a good choice, depending on the material, transportation distances to recycling facilities, and whether the process may actually be more intensive than using virgin materials (e.g. burning newsprint for its fuel value may be the better option)
  • plastic Christmas trees don’t look like such a green option when you consider the resources and emissions associated with their production and the fact that they stick around in our landfills for a very, very long time, and compare them with the environmental impacts of harvesting rapidly renewable “real” Christmas trees from a farm where they are being grown like corn for this specific purpose
  • so-called “clean” technologies may not be so clean (yet) when you look at the overall environmental impacts in terms of the resource consumption, high capital cost and infrastructure investments involved in making them available (e.g. hydrogen fuel cells)

A systematic analysis and understanding of life cycle trade-offs and benefits is usually a highly complex and data-intensive undertaking that’s beyond the capability of the lay person. There are very few “one size fits all” solutions.

At the end of the day, we should all strive to make more informed choices by increasing our general awareness and understanding of the trade-offs between alternatives so that we’re less likely to get fooled into thinking our choices are sustainable, while the reality may be exactly the opposite.

If you have some eye-opening examples of the trade-offs between product and technology choices, object violently to an idea presented here or just have some questions that you’d like to explore further— please join the conversation!

6 thoughts on “The importance of life cycle thinking for sustainability”

  1. Thanks for the note. Isn’t it amazing how fast biofuels have been proven to be a *much* worse solution than just using less fuel?
    Drives me crazy.

  2. Wonderful Jabeen, I like where this is going! You are very right by noting that not all “green” things are as green as they are purported to be.

    Keep up the good work!

    Johan

  3. Jabeen,

    I like your rational, objective approach to sustainable living.

    The example of the evil consequences of diverting corn from food markets to ethanol production, shows just how easily the politics of subsidizing farm production can overule rationality. It’s bad enough that U.S. tapayers are forced to subsidize U.S. corn farmers. Worse still that cheap taxpayer-subsidized corn, being underpriced, does not send the correct signals to commodity markets, and gets diverted to producing fuel methanol or getting burned in specially-designed corn-burning home heating furnaces.

    There is an interesting new technology — Algae Vertical Bioreactor — http://www.valcent.net — for producing biodiesel fuel by growing algae, in a closed-water-cycle contained-process reactor, that recycles the water used, and so requires neither vast areas of (e.g. corn-growing) cropland nor huge amounts of crop irrigation water. I will email a scan of an article to you.

    * * *

    An good example of a much-hyped “green” technology of dubious merit, is the hybrid car. The extra cost and added weight for all the extra technology is substantial — electric motor, batteries, electric generator, power cables, mechanical couplings and control systems. All this extra weight means extra fuel consumption.

    The entire justification for hybrid car technology is regenerative braking — when slowing the vehicle, instead of dumping the kinetic energy of vehicle motion as heat through the brakes, transform it into electric current and store it in the on-board battery, for use later to power the car. Seems like a good idea. Except that a much better idea is simply to use sophisticated traffic management technology to eliminate most of the vehicle braking in the first place.

    As you know, I am developing traffic management technology — Expressway Traffic Optimization (ETO) — that demolishes the business case for the hybrid car on ETO-equipped expressways, by eliminating most vehicle braking there.

    Hope your blog catches fire!

    Steve

  4. Wow, enlightening. So simple to see how our new ‘solutions’ to going green are not as great as they are cracked up to be.

    Fantastic job at bringing up the possible negative effects our new answers may have.

  5. Great Blog!

    I think you have really nailed the importance of weighing the environmental impacts of many of our choices, too-often clouded by the ‘perceived’ benefits marketed to us on a daily basis.

    …hmmm -think about all of those little, plastic water bottles – many containing water that’s really just been ‘briefly osmosed or ozonated’ and not even been anywhere near a natural spring in the Okanagan!

    My question du-jour though, is what gives with those little spirally Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs (CFL’s)? Yes, they use less energy, but they also give off WAY less light than the Edison originals, are not aeshtetically appealing in the slightest as far as home-decor goes… AND apparently are a mercury-laden environmental nightmare once broken. Yikes! Pease can you shed further ‘light’ on the matter ‘O Sustainable Guru’? I currently have both in use at home and want to make the best, pro-sustainable choice.

    (this is what I have found on the subject):
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compact_fluorescent_lamp#Environmental_issues

    Thanks for the highly relevant and earthly-conscious information – I will definitely link to this site on my new “Go Green” real estate website to provide info. for my clients!

    Jeanette

  6. ps. There are now government rebates available to homeowners interested in ‘greening-up’ their homes. Let me know if you would like more info. on these programmes, or want to link to the info. through your site.

    Jeanette (www.MyUltimatePlace.com)

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