Friday, October 23, 2009

Greening The Product Life Cycle

Time was when the life cycle of a product consisted of completely disconnected phases. It was designed, manufactured, shipped, sold, used, and discarded with little or no connection between these activities. That era is coming to an end. We’re entering a new era where every life cycle activity will be coordinated and, in many cases, optimized for least impact on the environment.

Remember the mantra of agricultural America? It went “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” That philosophy stands in stark contrast to industrial America where planned obsolescence and disposable everything was in vogue. But as we enter what might be called the age of environmental concern, we may well return to those rural values of century ago.

The beating we’ve given Mother Earth is starting to come back on us. There are real safety issues associated with our food and water. We’re running out of acceptable places to throw our trash. Oh, and have you noticed that sea ice is melting, oceans are rising, and even local climates are going a little weird?

Even if global warming wasn’t coming to cook us or that the price of oil is going to make our eyes bug out as soon as the economy picks up again, it would still make sense to address the way we make, use and dispose of products before we wind up poisoning ourselves.

First and foremost, we’ve got to stop making stuff that tries to kill us. That includes anything that runs on hydrocarbon fuels. As it turns out, most of what we make will try to kill us if we make large enough quantities. For instance, consider the humble cell phone. They may seem benign, but when you throw them in the trash bad things start to happen. There are all sorts of toxic chemicals, such as cadmium and arsenic, that leach out as they decompose in the landfill.

There are a couple of ways to avoid this problem. In the short term we can send cell phones and other electronic gadgets to a recycler instead of tossing them in the trash. That way the materials will be kept out of the waste stream and used in future manufacturing. A longer term solution is to identify troublesome materials and substitute others that aren’t toxic or much less so. One example is the solder that fastens components to circuit boards. It used to be full of lead. Now more and more circuit boards are being made with lead-free solder alloys. CRTs are also full of lead. But flat screen displays aren’t.

Material selection is critical to making environmentally safe products, but the manufacturing process is also important. A key element is the amount of energy used to create a device and where that energy comes from. The degree of future climate change that is caused by manufacturing one more item today can be cut dramatically by using green energy in the manufacturing process and using materials that have been recycled, especially metals such as copper, gold and steel. Getting new metals from ore costs much more in energy terms that simply re-melting and purifying already refined metal.

Product design itself is a major influence on how much damage a product will do over its lifetime. Circuits designed to minimize power draw mean less demand for power stations. Products designed for easy disassembly and recycling save energy downstream when they’re useful life is over. The fact is that most things we use are not heirlooms. We’re likely going to buy and replace a dozen or more personal computers in our lifetimes. The old ones have to go somewhere. Apple Computer is particularly sensitive to this issue and offers to pay for the return and recycling of your old computer when you buy a new one. Perhaps the day will come when all products are treated this way.

It’s easy to see now that the energy that a product draws from the grid while operating is just a fraction of the energy involved in its life cycle. So, too, the materials used to create one product can come from the remains of a previous item and live on as they are recycled to build the next model. The incremental cost of transforming products to incorporate technology innovations is far less than the cost of starting from scratch with raw materials each time.

Better life cycle planning for all the products we use has the potential to dramatically reduce our need for new energy sources as it simultaneously saves us from chemically polluting our environment. All of this without having to sacrifice the progress we’ve come to enjoy.

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