Follow the Lifecycle; Crunching the Numbers on Products We Consume

Every product we use has a lifecycle, or duration of environmental impact. According to the State of the World 2012: Transforming Cultures from Consumerism to Sustainability, by the Worldwatch Institute, humans collectively are consuming resources equivalent to 1.5 Earths, or 50 percent more than is sustainable—and that’s before projected

population growth. In short, we’re depleting more resources than the planet can replenish; hence, our personal consumption habits matter.

In an ideal world, all the appliances, furniture and electronics we use and later discard would be “cradle-tocradle,” or C2C, certified, a term popularized by German chemist Michael Braungart and American Architect William McDonough for describing products designed never to become waste. Such innovative products typically are made of both technical components that can be reused and biological components that decompose back into the natural world.

Current examples of products that have obtained C2C certification include gDiapers—biodegradable cloth diaper liners that can be flushed or composted—and Greenweave recycled fabrics. But smart, sustainable design is not yet the norm, so we have to monitor our own consumption and waste habits to try limiting our support of polluting industries and contribution to evergrowing landfills.

Such product assessments are challenging, because it’s not only about what happens after a cell phone, for example, is thrown into a landfill that takes an environmental toll. It also entails the chemicals used, toxins released and fossil fuels burned to manufacture and ship that phone.

To help us sort out the best approaches, The Green Design Institute at Carnegie Mellon University has created the online Economic Input-Output Life Cycle Assessment (EIO-LCA) that crunches the numbers for commonly used products—from household cleaners to mattresses—to provide us with the bigger-picture impact. So, as their website explains, “The effect of producing an automobile would include not only the impacts at the final assembly facility, but also the impact from mining metal ores, making electronic parts, forming windows, etc., that are needed for parts to build the car.”

The chart in the January 2013 print or digital edition of Natual Awakenings North Texas, using the latest available EIO-LCA figures, provides comparisons for some common products—from the most to the least energy-intensive—as well as recycling rates and suggested alternatives for keeping our own resource usage and waste load to a minimum.

Brita Belli is the editor of E-The Environment Magazine.

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