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-to-cradle,” 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 ever-growing 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 accompanying chart, 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 Environmental Magazine.

 

Call for Cradle-to-Cradle Product Lifestyle

MATERIAL ENERGY COST TO PRODUCE $1,000 WORTH GREENHOUSE GASES PRODUCED AMOUNT RECYCLED LANDFILL LIFESPAN ALTERNATIVES
Paper 10,611 kilowatt-hours (kWh) 3,373 pounds 63.5 percent
(2010)
2 to 4 weeks Use recycled and scrap paper and limit printing.
Glass containers 7,778 kWh 3,373 pounds 33.4 percent
(2010)
1 million years Recycle or reuse glass bottles and jars as glassware or to store food.
Plastic bottles 6,361 kWh 2,910 pounds 28 percent HDPE bottles; 29 percent PET bottles (2010)* 450 years Save money by choosing refillable bottles over throwaways.
Plastic bags and film 5,889 kWh 2,712 pounds 12 percent
(2010)
Up to 1,000 years or more Use washable cloth shopping bags and non-plastic food storage containers.
Carpets and rugs 5,083 kWh 2,469 pounds 8.1 percent
(2009)
Up to 20,000 years Use individual carpet tiles or carpet that meets Carpet Area Recovery Effort (CARE) standards.
Soaps and cleaners 3,500 kWh 1,715 pounds Not applicable Toxins from cleaners can contaminate water supplies. Recycle plastic bottles and use biodegradable cleaners.
Light bulbs and parts 2,328 kWh 1,023 pounds 2 to 6.7 percent of household CFLs (2009)* Up to 1,000 years or more Use CFL and LED energy- efficient lights and recycle CFLs at major hardware  stores or check Earth911.com.* Consider solar exterior lights.
Mattresses 2,281 kWh 1,122 pounds Less than 10 percent (2012) Up to 1,000 years or more Buy organic mattresses and recycle old ones (Earth911.com).
Computers 1,183 kWh 586 pounds 38 percent
(2009)
Up to 1,000 years or more Look for recycled content in electronics and recycle equipment. See Earth911.com.
Cell phones and other devices 1,322 kWh 665 pounds 8 percent
(2009)
Up to 1,000 years or more Only upgrade when needed. Trade old phone in to recycle (SecureTradeIn.com) or donate to charity (ReCellular.com).


*HDPE means high density polyethylene; PET means polyethylene terephthalate; CFL means compact fluorescent lamp (or light); LED means light-emitting diode. Additional sources include epa.gov, PaperRecycles.org and ProductStewardship.us.

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