Life cycle assessments can be helpful tools to use when you're trying to figure out how sustainable products really are. By looking at materials from harvest all the way through disposal they provide tons of information about the product. A full LCA is usually too much work for the typical person, but by using this guide to conduct a mini life cycle assessment you can get useful information about how green a product is.
Even though LCAs are a great way to gauge sustainability, many products haven't had an official life cycle analysis performed on them already (check out the links at the bottom to find lists of already completed LCAs). Here are a few tips to use if you'd like to do your own, it's not the simplest process, but in the long run you'll learn a lot about your products and truly understand how they are made.
Good places to start to find the information:
- The manufacturer. Call the manufacturer and get as much information as they'll give you.
- The installer. Often times they will have access to information you don't.
- Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS). Find these from the manufacturer or in the SIRI MSDS Index.
- Your local waste and recycling centers.
When thinking about the life of a material you need to think inclusively about all of the points in the process.
Questions to Ask
- What raw materials go into the creation of this product?
- How and where are they harvested?
- How is the product manufactured?
- What types of fuels are used to supply the plant?
- Are the employees treated fairly?
- Are there any carcinogens in the product?
- Where does the waste from the manufacturing process go?
- Can the waste be reused?
- How far does the product have to travel?
- How is the product transported to the customer?
- Are the most sustainable transportation methods used?
- What goes into the installation of the material?
- Do you need additional elements like mastic or a vapor barrier? If so, you might need to look into the life cycle of those elements as well.
- How is the material used?
- Is it durable?
- What is the typical lifespan?
- What can be done to extend the lifespan?
- Are there chemicals needed to maintain this product?
- How do you dispose of the product?
- Can it be reused or repurposed?
- Is it recyclable?
- Does the manufacturer take the product back?
While these questions are really just the tip of the iceberg, they will help you understand the nature of the product and help you to decide if this is the right material for your project. No material is perfect; but knowing what goes into each product makes you a more informed consumer.
(Image Source: Allison Verdoorn)