Consumers, whether individuals, businesses, or governments, buy many different kinds of products. When a person or business has an idea for a product to sell, there is a series of steps, or stages, that need to happen in order to actually create that product.
These stages are:
- Extraction: First, manufacturers of the needed ingredients, or raw materials, that go into the product must extract those things from the environment. They may also need to manufacture them with other products that initially came from the environment. Raw materials may include various rocks, chemicals, plants, or other natural resources.
- Manufacturing: The person or business manufacturing the product must then buy these raw materials and combine them into the desired final product. This step often requires various machines and different types of energy that are needed to power the machines and transform the ingredients in useful ways. If the process uses electricity, this often comes directly from the electrical grid where it is generated using a mix of energy sources, such as wind, solar, hydroelectric, nuclear, geothermal, biomass, natural gas, coal, and so on. Electricity can also be generated at the manufacturing site using generators powered by these different energy sources.
- Distribution: Once the products are manufactured and packaged, they have to be distributed to stores or directly to consumers. Most often, products are distributed using semi-trucks, freight trains, cargo ships, and/or cargo planes.
- Use: The life of a product does not stop once it reaches the consumer. Consumers will use products for a certain length of time. Sometimes, the usage of products involves using energy or other materials. For example, dishwashers use soap, water, and energy to wash dishes.
- End-of-life: When consumers are done using products, they will often dispose of them. Products can be recycled, reused by others, composted, broken down for spare parts, repurposed for another use, or put in a landfill.
These steps represent the life cycle of a product, from the extraction of its ingredients all the way to its disposal. Each of these steps involves some level of material and energy usage. Both creating materials and generating energy have impacts on the environment.
In order to find ways to reduce these impacts and learn which products are better for the environment, it is important to map out the life cycles of products, figure out material and energy demands throughout the steps, and calculate associated environmental impacts.
The process for doing this is called life cycle assessment (LCA). LCA results can be useful for product developers, marketers, customers, researchers, policymakers, supply chain managers, and anyone else who is interested in how the manufacturing of a given product affects the environment.
The primary steps for LCA are:
- Goal and Scope: Describe the purpose of the LCA along with what is actually being analyzed and compared.
- Inventory: Gather data related to material and energy usage in the product system(s) under consideration.
- Impact Assessment: Translate the inventory data into environmental impacts.
- Interpretation: Evaluate the results of the impact assessment to arrive at conclusions and make recommendations based on the goal of the study.
Environmental impact categories from production processes that are of interest to those conducting LCAs may include but are not limited to:
- Contribution to climate change
- Land use
- Water use
- Depletion of the ozone layer
- Smog formation
- Ocean acidification
- Harmful algal blooms from excessive nutrients in water systems
- Poisoning of humans
- Poisoning of organisms other than humans
- Ionizing radiation
- Depletion of fossil energy resources
Once calculated, the above impact categories can then be translated into higher-level, more relatable impacts on human health, ecosystems, and general resource availability.
AssessCCUS offers resources to help people understand what goes into life cycle assessments and how to conduct them, with a specific focus on carbon capture, utilization, and storage technologies.