Friday, November 6, 2009

Getting the Whole Story: Life Cycle Assessment

There's a lot of talk out there about how "green" different products are. However, usually, we have very little of the information we would need to make a smart decision about which product harms the environment the least.

Usually, we only think about the environmental impact of using something. For example, a fluorescent light bulb uses less electricity than an incandescent (regular) lightbulb, so it must be better for the environment right? Actually, the answer is "maybe".

The problem is that we aren't thinking enough about the entire life cycle of a product. What are the environmental impacts of making, using, and disposing of something? Academics who look at this call it life cycle assessment (LCA). LCA examines the impacts of extracting the raw materials, making the product, buying and using the product, disposing of the product, and the impacts of the transportation between each of the steps just listed.

Life cycle assessment raises lots of important environmental questions like:
How far did this product have to travel to get to me?
Can this product be re-used or recycled easily?
How efficiently were raw materials and energy turned into something useful in the factory?
What will this product do in a landfill or a waste incinerator?
Did mining raw materials for this product destroy an ecosystem?
And many more . . .

LCA also raises important questions about economics and social justice:
Did the workers involved in making this product get paid a living wage?
Did the product's workers have safe working conditions and decent working hours?
Was child or slave labor involved?
And many more . . .

We need better information to make better decisions.

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