Tag: sustainability indicators

Life Cycle Assessment and Sustainability

This is a guest post from Dante Paglia, who is a fourth year computer science undergraduate at Michigan Tech. He can be reached at dfpaglia@mtu.edu

Life cycle assessment, also known as life cycle analysis, is used to assess environmental impacts associated with all stages of a product’s life. The stages include the collection of the raw materials, processing those materials, manufacturing the product, distribution via various transportation techniques, use of the product as well as the repair, disposal and recycling during the products end of life. This kind of assessment is used by companies and product designers to better understand their products impacts, discover where the product can be improved, and work toward implementing those improvements. Below is a visual of the stages of a products life that are looked at during a life cycle analysis.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) [Public domain] image of Life Cycle Thinking, Wikimedia Commons
Photo from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Life_Cycle_Thinking_Product_System.jpg

There are four main phases of a life cycle analysis. The first phase is the goal and scope. This sets the outline of the study and depicts the format of the results as well as who will receive the results of the assessment. The second stage is the life cycle inventory. In this stage the inventory flow of inputs for a product are recorded. Examples of inventory flows include, water, energy, raw materials and waste releases to either land, air or water. In this step, all of the inputs and outputs that are used or created during the products life are recorded. The third stage of a life cycle assessment is the actual impact assessment. The data gathered in the previous step is sorted and assigned impact categories to help weigh the impact the product has on the environment. Lastly, interpretation is done. The information from the results of the analysis must be checked and evaluated. In other words, the results of phases two and three are summarized in the interpretation phase. The completed assessment is then reviewed to understand the impacts of the product and to see where improvements can be made to lessen the overall impact on the environment.

Life cycle analyses are a widely popular tool to increase a company’s sustainability. This is because the analysis usually includes information that fits into all three pillars of sustainability. While the overall goal of the assessment is to review environmental impacts, social and economic impacts are considered as well. You can learn more about the three pillars of sustainability by clicking here.

There are many variants of a life cycle assessment where different stages of a products life are analyzed. The three most common kinds are cradle to gate, cradle to grave, and cradle to cradle. Cradle to gate only looks at a product when it is in the hands of the producer, once it leaves the factory its impacts are no longer considered. Cradle to grave takes it a step further and follows a product from the very beginning all the way until it is disposed of. Lastly, cradle to cradle takes things even further and instead of disposal of the product, it is recycled and reused in the process again. Often a cradle to cradle design leads to the least amount of environmental impact. One example of cradle to cradle is discarded asphalt pavement being reused to create new pavement. Below is a graphic showing another example of cradle to cradle design with steel production. This shows how everything, including the waste bi-products of steel production can be used for something useful or simply recycled back into the steel making process.

Life Cycle Assessment – What is it?

Photo from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mitopencourseware/3247853726

An example of the use of life cycle analysis is the U.S. Department of Energy produced report that shows the energy and environmental benefits of LED lights over incandescent and fluorescent lights. LED lights proved to be more energy efficient and less harmful to the environment to produce as well as transport than both other kinds. This led to a rise in popularity of LED lights hence providing an overall benefit of large energy savings and significantly less environmental harm. The full study can be found by following this link.

Additionally, life cycle assessment is something that many solar panel producing companies are required to do and have planned out prior to receiving funding from the government. Since solar panels include hazardous materials like cadmium and cadmium compounds, it is not only important to make sure that the raw resources are being retrieved in a safe manner but the end of life of the products needs to be taken into account. If a solar panel is to be disposed of for any reason, whether it be because it broke during production or it is no longer being used or is being replaced, companies need to make sure that their product with these hazardous chemicals is properly disposed of. This means it cannot be tossed into landfills but needs to be recycled in a manner where the harmful compounds are disposed of properly or reused for new solar panels. This article on solar panel recycling explains some of the options there are for safe disposal of unwanted or old panels.  A life cycle assessment helps find issues in these stages and brings them to the attention of the product’s producers allowing them to change their ways.

Life cycle assessment is an important concept to be aware of because every company should be doing some variant of a life cycle analysis for their products. Not every company needs to do cradle to cradle analysis, but they should assess their production in some way. By doing so they can discover issues in their production cycle as well as make improvements to make their product better in terms of energy and environmental harm. With this, their product and company as a whole will become more sustainable and attractive to the large number of investors and customers who are paying closer and closer attention to companies sustainability policies. Most importantly in modern day, the end of life portion of production needs to be analyzed and understood so companies can mitigate the environmental impact their product does. The more recycling options that can be found for products the better to reduce the amounts ending up in landfills causing more harm with their pollution than good they provided overall. Without these kinds of analysis, companies would be able to do whatever is the most cost effective in production, which almost never coincides with sustainability and being environmentally friendly.


Goodbye glaciers

The US-IALE conference in Anchorage was short but sweet — great science, wonderful colleagues, and new ideas.

However, as picturesque as the setting was, it was deeply unnerving. This winter was one of the warmest on record for Alaska, and indeed for much of the past winter, Alaska was warmer than much of the eastern US. When I arrived in Anchorage, it was at least 20 degrees (F) warmer than Houghton had been, and the trees were already fully leafed-out and blooming. Several wildfires contributed to a haze around the city that marred views and made our clothes smell like a campfire; the fire season started early and is expected to be a severe one, thanks to warm weather and dry conditions in the forests.

My son and I went on a glacier tour…. truly impressive! The blue hues and striations of black sediment made them far more beautiful than I had imagined. As we watched one of the glaciers calving, I wondered if any of those glaciers would be around for my son to show his children; odds are against it. Many speakers at the conference spoke of the difficulty that our “no analog” future presents us when we try to develop management plans for our ecosystems more than a few decades out. While they were talking about the vast reorganization of species and ecosystems that we are likely to see, I thought about how I might describe things like glaciers and tundra to my grandkids….. I am certain that my words, and even my photos, won’t do them justice.


Loss

Maya Lin, creator of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, D.C., is developing a lovely and moving web memorial to global biodiversity loss. Moving your mouse to click different dots, you can see single stories of species that have already disappeared, or click yourself into a “wormhole” with a story about once-abundant species now drastically reduced (and – too rarely – on their way back from the brink).

I suspect that for most people, staring at the possible loss of majestic species such as Siberian tigers helps to drive the point home. Stories of flocks of billions of passenger pigeons darkening the North American skies for days succinctly captures the destruction that a million guns can do to even the most abundant of species. But for ecologists, it is the smaller, less grandiose species we have studied that pull on our heart strings. I’ve worked on two species close to the edge (the California gnatcatcher and the Cape Sable seaside sparrow), and if and when they disappear it will be forever (as the failed attempts at saving the Dusky seaside sparrow illustrate). For ecologists, the loss of “our” species inspires a unique feeling of failure among us.


Walking is so pedestrian

This recent article in Slate on the amount of walking that Americans do relative to those in other countries could not have been more timely for me (and thanks to Grist.com for bringing it to my attention!). I read it while in Newport, Rhode Island at a professional meeting (the US-International Association for Landscape Ecology, of all things) and it really struck a chord.

Always the cheapskate, I found a hotel that was almost one-third of the price of the hotel where the meeting was held, and it was only about a mile away: an easily walkable distance. I like to build these sorts of walks into my day, especially when I’m at a conference that involves a lot of sitting in dark rooms for hours on end. The morning walk ensures that I am awake for the presentations, and the evening walk allows me to reflect back on what I’ve learned.

However, although the walk looked straightforward and perfectly safe on the web, it was considerably less so in reality. At least a third of it involved walking in a grassy/sandy ditch while cars sped past on a two-lane road (and I was not the only walker using this route), and the rest of the way included narrow sidewalks littered with street signs, fire hydrants, and other impediments (I suppose I should include dog poop here as well). Marked and posted pedestrian crossings across two busy county roads were few and far between.

It seemed odd to me that a tourist-based town was so difficult for pedestrians, especially given that the town was settled far before automobiles were invented (some of the old houses in the historic district dated back to the 1700’s). Most likely, the space once devoted to pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages was given over to automobiles, with not much thought given to their inherent incompatibilities. Walkability is often emphasized in conversations regarding sustainable cities, and now I have a very personal understanding of this issue.


Losing a global carbon sponge

A paper published last week in Nature reviewed a growing body of evidence that suggests that a profound loss of forest cover in the Amazaon would have worrying consequences for the rest of the planet.

In “The Amazon basin in transition“, Davidson et al. describe how the impacts of agricultural expansion and climate events such as El Niño can conspire to destroy even more forest through drought- and fire-induced deforestation. When trees die or burn, they release carbon into the atmosphere. If more trees are destroyed than grow to replace them, more carbon is released than is absorbed; the Amazon sink becomes a source. According to the article, the Amazon rainforst currently sequesters roughly 100 billion tons of carbon, an amount equivalent to the carbon release from a decade’s worth of fossil fuel use.

Currently forest cover has been reduced to about 80% of its original area; the article suggests that if forest cover approaches 40%, a critical transition from forest to savanna may occur, given feedbacks between tree cover and precipition (see our summary in Science). If this occurs, we might witness what happens with the lost of “the lungs of the planet“.


The Economics of Happiness

Green Film Series Thursday Night
“The Economics of Happiness” will be shown at 7 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 19, in G002 Hesterberg Hall in the Forestry Building. Part of the Green Film Series, the film will be followed by a discussion led by Assistant Professor Daya Muralidharan (School of Business and Economics). The series is free, but a $3 donation is requested.

Save some for the birds

In last week’s Science, a group of researchers pooled data on marine ecosystems around the world to measure the impact of fisheries on marine birds. They found that once fish and krill populations dipped below 30% of their maximum, bird populations began to suffer. Said a different way: if we want penguins, puffins, terns and kittiwakes, we’re going to have to leave them something to eat.

The study reminds me of Peter Vitousek’s famous piece (BioScience 36:368) on “Human Appropriated Net Primary Productivity” in 1986. He estimated that humans use about 40% of all of the biomass produced by plants in a given year; this claim has been supported and refuted about a dozen times since then. Postel et al. have looked at  our appropriation of water as well (estimating that we use over half of the available runoff globally). Since everything needs to eat and drink, it then becomes less surprising that we are witness to such startling losses of biodiversity (well…. perhaps we are more than just “witnessing” it!).

The difference between the “one third for the birds” study and these predecessors is policy relevance: it is probably better to know how much we can take before we do irreparable damage, than to simply know how much we are taking. Let’s see if others can follow suit with biomass, water, and land area.

Happy New Year!


Managed collapse

Contributed by: Audrey Mayer

Ernest Callenbach has an interesting new article in the Solutions journal, entitled “Sustainable Shrinkage: Envisioning a smaller, stronger economy“. He discusses the ways in which we can modify our existing systems to fit within natual resource limits and avoid collapse. These solutions rely heavily on new policies (to encourage different behaviors) and technologies, with considerable assumptions about population growth and reorganization at the local scale. It’s a good (if a bit superficial) read, with many good ideas that will not work at the scale he is envisioning, in my humble opinion.

A substantial part of my research program uses statistical theory to develop indicators for when complex systems (especially human-environment or “socioecological” systems) are about to collapse. In particular, my colleagues and I have tried to apply a statistic called Fisher Information, which is a measure of the predictability of a system over time; the more predictable the system, the higher Fisher Information is. Complex systems tend to have many negative (stabilizing) feedbacks that keep the system’s behavior relatively stable and predictable. As these stabilizing feedbacks deteriorate, the system’s behavior becomes more erratic and hence more difficult to predict. At the peak (or valley?) of collapse, that system could go in one of many typically unpredictable directions. As that system begins to reorganize, new stabilizing feedbacks develop and settle the system into a new operating state, becoming more predictable again. In our work, we have seen a drop in Fisher Information just prior to system collapse, and then Fisher Information increases as these systems reorganize.

The question Callenbach poses is this: can we somehow guide our systems through this collapse and reorganization process with a minimal loss of order? He is not the only one to ask this question. There is a growing literature* which provides ample evidence that large human-environment systems (such as nations or empires) can and do undergo collapse and reorganization regularly…. the current events in the Middle East illustrate this quite well. Typically the reorganization is slow, disorderly, and unpredictable.

My short, pessimistic answer to Callenbach’s question is no: we cannot manage our large, socioecological systems through a collapse and reorganization without substantial disorder. We cannot predict how any new, large system will function, nor when it will function with any predictability. I argue that the self-organizing dynamics at the scale of, say, the United States federal government, are far too large and powerful, and we understand them too poorly, to trust that federal policies and large technological solutions will help us glide to a smarter, more sustainable future. Instead, I think these changes must occur at smaller, more manageable scales: the individual, the family, the local community. At these scales, we can understand and influence the dynamics and feedbacks, and reorganize into functional units. This is not to say that all of Callenbach’s solutions are wishful thinking: creating more durable goods and stronger social ties (and reducing the consumption of cheap products made far away with cheap labor) are solutions that have been advanced from many corners. These are solutions that are more tenable at the small scale…. they will have to propogate up to the larger systems.

*These include books such as Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies“, Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed“, Dmitry Orlov’s humorous “Reinventing collapse: The Soviet example and American prospects“, Chris Martenson’s The Crash Course: The unsustainable future of our economy, energy and environment,” among many others.