Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Paradoxes in Sustainable Product Design

LCA is the commonly used tool in industry to assess products that are already designed and often in production. It highlights areas where the product has a high environmental impact based on categories such as extration of raw materials, processing, transportation, energy in use and end of life.

However is LCA just confirming what the producers want confirmed, allowing manufacturers to carry on with unsustainable practise and a seemingly clean concience because they have consulted LCA software. Also what is the purpose of analysing something when its already in or about to enter production, surely the damage has been done or development time already been wasted.

Consider this plastic would be the preferable material over stainless steel for manufacturing a kettle if LCA is consulted for the following reasons:
  1. Plastic is a better insulator than Stainless Steel so the water would retain heat for longer.

  2. Plastic has a lower density than Stainless Steel meaning that the product would be lighter and therefore use less fuel to transport

  3. Less energy would be used in production due to less operations and a more maleable/mouldable material.

However here are reasons why I consider that a stainless steel kettle would be prefered

  1. Metal is far easier and is therefore more likely to be recycled than plastic. In fact the inherent value of stainless steel will make it very likely that the metal will be recycled to a high quality allowing for reuse in a quality product and with a high percentage of metal return.

  2. A stainless steel kettle generally has a timeless classic style which combined with additional durability would give the product a much longer lifespan that its plastic equivalent. Perhaps even three or more times, when I was a child my family had a classic Russell Hobbs K12 kettle for over 15 years. It was servicable as so had the element and switch replaced once during this period. Therefore if you factor in the consumer attachement to a more aesthetic stainless steel kettle you can compare it to the production of a least two plastic equivalents if not more in its lifetime.

The problem here is that LCA doesn't work on the basis of the lifecycle of the product in durability or the material and so doesn't account for the fact that the steel could be recycled many times with little loss in quality or strength.

So now some reasons why plastics shouldn't be used:

  1. Plastics leach chemicals and small particles into water and over time this will increase encouraged by the heat and UV degradation of the plastic. Leading tio health concerns for the user in the long term.

  2. Fumes produced in the processing of plastics and the injection moulding process are not only harmful to the environment but a severe concern for the workers especially in less developed countries with questionable health and safety measures and no accountability. Workers health could suffer in the long term with severe respiratory and skin complaints
  3. Also why should the water remain hotter for longer its a kettle not a boiler, surely this only encourages unsustainable behaviour, the user should be encouraged to only boil what is needed.

So much for LCA it is in my view significantly flawed, and so you might ask how does this example of the kettle benefit the manufacturer. Well plastic is very cheap, products can be mass produced cheaply, with limited life-cycles, which will ensure the greatest revenue in the long term especially if a customer buys 2 0r 3 plastic kettles for every stainless steel kettle they may have previously bought. The disposable society we live in wasn't built on stainless steel kettles but with advent of thermoplastics in the early 1960's.

One thought to finish this rant what is plastic made from oil we really could do with reducing our dependance on that as yes it is used in the extraction and processing of Iron ore into steel but if this is recycled efficiently it will cut out the extraction stage next time round making for a much more efficiently produced product.

1 comment:

Robyn said...

I studied sustainability throughout my geography degree, but never applied it in this fashion. You make interesting and valid points... if only the majority saw it that way.