Thursday, April 12, 2012


Quality management at source reduces rework and 
environmental impact. Manufacturing is however only 
one aspect of a complex product life cycle.
The products produced by industrial organisations have a marked impact on their environmental footprints. Understanding these impacts requires review of the life cycle of each product, from the time it is conceived until the time it is ultimately disposed of. Ideally, life cycle considerations should be at the heart of organisational decision-making, since it is through designing products to be sustainable that the biggest gains can be made rather than through optimising existing processes. In this post I will explore this thinking further and illustrate, with examples, the impacts of products on sustainability.

The individual stages of the physical life cycle of a product are as follows:

  • Sourcing of raw materials
  • Manufacturing
  • Distribution
  • Use/consumption
  • Disposal
Before this physical life cycle can be effected, the product concerned has to be designed and developed. This is arguably the most crucial phase for any product, since decisions made here flow through to every phase of the physical life cycle. There are also of course strategic decisions to be made as to which types of products to produce, with these decisions having not only environmental impacts, but also social and economic ones. Industries such as the tobacco industry and even the cellular telephone industry, where radiation impacts are a matter of much discourse, are cases in point. While these complex issues are not the subject of this post, the point is that organisations need to take a life-cycle view of product matters if they intend to take sustainability issues seriously. Let’s explore the different elements of the product life cycle to better assess how each impacts on an organisation’s environmental footprint.

Sourcing/Extraction of Raw Materials
Every raw material has its own environmental footprint, encompassing impacts on air, land and water. It is possible to estimate these impacts, but given the various pathways through which an individual material can be sourced, it should be understood that impacts are not definitive. For example, coal sourced from an underground mine will require more resources for its extraction than coal sourced from an open-cast mine. Published sources of information on factors such as embedded carbon for example should therefore be read in this context.
It is nevertheless possible to consider order of magnitude differences between materials, and to make decisions based on these in terms of limiting their impact. Such information is however not the only criterion in choosing materials and the following considerations are also important:
  •  What is the cost of the material (total cost of ownership, not just  the purchase price)?
  • Is the material renewable?
  •  If not, how scarce is the material?
  •  Is the material recyclable?
  • Is the material biodegradable?
  •  How hazardous is the material?
  • What are the social impacts of using this material – for example, are there significant health impacts    for workers in the source industry or for consumers?
  • Each material itself has a life cycle, which typically includes some processing – what are the impacts of this life cycle for individual materials?
  • What downstream impacts does the material have – for example, some materials result in lower in-process yields than others by virtue of their inherent characteristics?

In some instances it is not possible to substitute one material with another without compromising the product, and in such cases manufacturers should explore comparisons between different producers, or using materials in proportions which minimise their impact wherever possible.

The manufacturing phase of the product life cycle has the potential for significant impact, simply because it is generally energy-intensive, can produce a significant amount of waste and can be hazardous, both for employees and local communities. It is however by no means guaranteed that this is where the biggest impacts are. For example, some agro-processors use much more water during cultivation of crops than during their processing. 

On the whole however, manufacturing is very important due to the diverse nature of the environmental impacts concerned, which include:
  • Consumption of energy through various energy carriers, including electricity, coal, gas, oil and other fossil fuels;
  • Consumption of a wide variety of materials, each with their own footprints – these obviously need to be utilised as efficiently as possible;
  • Consumption of water – this water may be returned to the environment as vapour or as a liquid discharge, but in some cases may be permanently removed from the water cycle e.g. water bound in the ash dams of coal-fired power stations;
  • Pollution of water resources – where treatment of water takes place, there is generally a hazardous waste stream which requires safe disposal, and hence continues to impose risk;
  • Pollution of the air – hazardous pollutants from manufacturing activities can cause immediate health risks, but can also enter the food chain through deposition on land and water;
  • Pollution of land – land pollution can result in the destruction of otherwise useful land areas and pose serious risks to human and animal health. Where the land concerns interacts with the aquatic environment, or where pollutants are volatile, the pollution can be dispersed widely;
  • Risks to consumers – use of critical materials, contamination during manufacturing or manufacturing defects can injure consumers or pose serious health risks;
  • Occupational health risks – these vary by industry, but exist in just about all industrial environments. The range of hazardous materials employees and local communities can be exposed to, even in seemingly benign industries, is staggering.

Driving sustainability on industrial sites requires strategic decision-making as well as superior operational competencies. While the product concerned plays a huge role in the environmental footprint of the site on which it is manufactured, there are generally a number of process options available to achieve the same end. For example, choosing chlorine dioxide bleaching over elemental chlorine bleaching has a marked impact on the amount of persistent organic pollutants (such as dioxins, furans and polychlorinated biphenyls) produced by the pulp and paper industry.

Operational excellence implies that less waste is produced, and hence, for a given process scheme, organisations with superior competencies will have smaller footprints than those that are wasteful.

Distribution encompasses transport and storage of product, and is another area that can be significantly influenced by product design. For example, a product requiring refrigeration or heating during distribution will have a larger energy footprint than one which does not. Where this is unavoidable, clearly the most efficient ways of doing so should be sought. The transport of product can also be facilitated by designs that promote efficient stacking, thereby ensuring that the mass of product transported per individual load is maximised.

The mode of transport chosen is also important – rail is known to produce lower emissions than road transport, for example. Within individual modes, efficiency differences can make a significant impact, and these are not driven by technology alone. For example, eco-efficient driving techniques can significantly reduce fuel usage, and when married to tracking technology as a management tool, can deliver large cost savings and emission reductions.

Product Use/Consumption
Products should be safe to use and incur limited environmental impacts during their use/consumption. In fact, some products are positive from an environmental perspective, for example renewable energy technologies or waste-water treatment plants, to name a few.

Increasing resource costs are forcing consumers to consider environmental impacts more closely, and are driving efficiencies upwards as consumers seek to reduce energy consumption, water use and material usage. Eco-labelling is another trend that is driving sustainable consumer products, though such labels tend to be fairly narrow in focus, focusing exclusively on energy or water consumption and not pollution potential, for example. 

The table below outlines some of the impacts associated with the use of a selected group of products, for purposes of illustration.

Washing machine
Electricity and water consumption, chemical consumption, pollution of water resources/loading of wastewater treatment plants
Instant coffee
Electricity and water consumption, materials required to facilitate use (sugar and milk), generation of wastewater, water and chemicals required to wash dishes after use, empty container to be disposed of once coffee is finished.
Motor vehicle
Fuel consumption, emissions, contamination of land (oil leaks), life cycle impacts arising from routine maintenance, tyre consumption, oil consumption, water consumption
Blue jeans
Same qualitative impacts as washing machine when washed

Some complex products are comprised of a number of other smaller products, which are used as the overall product is used, and each of which have their own impacts arising from use. Motor vehicles and their components are examples of such products.

What should be clear from the above is that product design plays a major role in the nature and extent of the impacts arising from use. Strategies for limiting these impacts include:
  • Designing products to consume less energy, water and materials, to be inherently safe and to produce as little pollution as possible
  • Educating consumers such that the frequency of resource-hungry and polluting activities is minimised e.g. switching off electrical appliances when they are not in use

Product Disposal
Some products (e.g. food products) are consumed during use. Such products are therefore not disposed of after use, though there may be waste streams arising from their use which require disposal. Examples would be the containers in which the food was packaged. Other products are disposed of in their entirety after use, a prime example being consumer appliances. Disposal has environmental impacts, most of which depend on the materials out of which the product and its packaging are constructed.

In general, the higher the level of recyclability of these materials, the better. Many materials are also biodegradable, though there will be emissions generated during their degradation. In some instances (and particularly in the case of anaerobic biodegradation), these emissions could be captured and used as fuel for activities such as power generation and heating, in which case their impact would be ameliorated.

In the case of critical materials (examples would be materials such as persistent organic pollutants, asbestos, silica, mercury and lead, among others) the human/animal health and environmental impacts are serious and disposal has to be managed carefully. In many cases such materials can be recovered for reuse, while in others, they are being phased out of use e.g. PCB’s in transformers or asbestos in roofing products, in which case safe disposal becomes the more likely option.
What then are the key take-outs from this post?
  • Products have an enormous impact on the environmental footprint of an organisation's activities;
  • Impacts are not necessarily highest in the manufacturing phase;
  • The earlier on in the product life cycle you intervene, the better the opportunity to decrease downstream impacts. The design stage offers the highest leverage for limiting life-cycle impacts;
  • Material choice is crucial, not only because each material has impacts associated with sourcing it, but also because materials influence product life cycle impacts significantly;

There are significant challenges facing organisations that take a life-cycle approach to product management. The issues pointed out in this post do not refer to any of the business challenges against which product-related sustainability challenges need to be balanced. The reality of business is that manufacturers are typically not held accountable for life-cycle impacts, making short-termism a very real threat to sustainability efforts downstream of the distribution phase of the product life cycle. 

It is vital to get actively involved in downstream product management, where there are opportunities for manufacturers to gain direct financial benefits. An example would be the reuse of containers, as practiced by users of steel drums. With the costs of reconditioned drums typically being significantly less than the cost of new drums, life cycle impacts are reduced in tandem with a reduction in input costs. The reconditioning industry also creates jobs. Finding more win-win situations like this one should dominate the thinking of sustainability-focused industrial organisations and those responsible for the policy and regulatory environments.