What is a product’s Cradle to Grave impact on the environment and how do we reduce ours in the name of becoming more environmentally friendly? We investigate this here…
What does cradle to grave mean?
In the case of products, Cradle to Grave (C2G) is a methodology concerning their lifecycle from design and development, obtaining raw materials and components, manufacturing, shipping, usage by consumers, servicing (repair), reusing, and then disposal, and the impact of all of those elements on the environment. At the end of a product’s lifecycle, C2G puts emphasis on designing the product to NOT become waste at the end of its “first life”. For example, perhaps it can be reused in another way, or truly recycled without the use of much energy or additives.
Most companies who are trying to become eco-friendly manufacturers tend to focus on reducing their product’s impact ‘from cradle to grave’. During a product’s lifecycle waste will be produced, which could be emissions, scrap materials, wastewater, and, of course, old products that are disposed of in landfills or other means.
Green manufacturers will often perform a cradle to grave assessment (also known as a lifecycle assessment or LCA) to evaluate their environmental impact and gain information that allows them to make meaningful changes. It assesses the environmental impact of each stage of a product’s lifecycle from the extraction of raw materials, energy used and pollution created when processing them and during the manufacturing of products, logistics to get them to consumers, when consumers are using the products, the repair or maintenance, and, finally, disposal.
The product lifecycle
The product lifecycle starts from the assumption that industrial products follow this path:
Extraction –> Transformation –> Use/Consumption –> Disposal (and hopefully some type of re-use).
Here is a nice representation of a product’s lifecycle:
Source: the British Standards Institution
Left unchecked, profit-seeking corporations tend to follow a linear path to manufacture products increasingly cheaply, without other considerations such as recyclability or the ability to repair the item. A good example here is the manufacture of disposable food and beverage items, let’s say, cups.
According to this post:
The US uses around 108 billion cups per year. Worldwide it is estimated that 500 billion disposable cups are discarded to landfill each year.
That is equal to one million cups every minute.
Disposable coffee cups from your favorite takeaway coffee house may appear to be made from paper that is recyclable or biodegradable, but they usually have a plastic coating to make them waterproof and plastics are commonly not biodegradable nor easily recyclable. Recycling supply chains may struggle to recycle such cups, as the mix of card and plastic make it difficult to separate and can foul up the materials making everything useless and so sent to landfill (they need only card and paper to be together).
The same goes for plastic cutlery, drinks bottles, and so on. These are products that are designed to be used once and disposed of. A lifecycle assessment on these companies would return pretty damning results about this environmental disaster.
What is eco-efficiency?
The objective, since the Earth Summit of Rio in 1992, has been “doing more with less”, or “eco-efficiency“.
The mandate for companies has been as follows:
To be kinder to the Earth, work on your extraction, manufacturing, and distribution processes, and enable an ‘end of life’, that is less harmful.
On the manufacturing floor, guidelines such as “reduce [the amount consumed/used], re-use, recycle” are very common.
How can a company use a lifecycle assessment to show that it is eco-efficient and measure its progress?
Performing an LCA or cradle to grave assessment is a good way to see where you stand and how you can improve.
ISO 14044:2006 Environmental management — Life cycle assessment — Requirements and guidelines is a part of the suite of standards helping businesses put in place an environmental management system (EMS), and in its introduction, it defines the life cycle assessment (LCA) as follows:
LCA studies the environmental aspects and potential impacts throughout a product’s life cycle (i.e. cradle-to-grave) from raw materials acquisition through production, use and disposal. The general categories of environmental impacts needing consideration include resource use, human health, and ecological consequences.
(Notice the mention of human health – even an “environmental management system” has to take people’s safety into account.)
A typical LCA has these 4 stages:
- Scope and goal (the definition of these shapes the assessment and future actions)
- Overall inventory analysis (analyze environmental inputs like energy use and raw materials, and outputs like emissions, scrap, and wastewater so you see how your product affects the environment)
- Impact assessment (classify how your production impacts the environment and evaluate each factor and how you will tackle it to achieve the goals set out in stage 1)
- Interpretation (interpret the data to come to conclusions about your current situation and how you need to make changes to improve)
A company that designs or manufactures a product needs to consider not only all the activities it controls but also those it influences. A couple of examples of how to lessen environmental impacts are as follows:
- If the extraction of a certain mineral is extremely energy-consuming and wasteful, the design team can try and switch to a different material that is easier to extract.
- PVC is often used for general consumer goods, including toys. It is gradually being phased out in favor of TPE and other polymers that are less harmful to human health and whose manufacturing process involves less polluting substances.
An example of a lifecycle assessment flowchart
What does an LCA or cradle to grave analysis look like? This lifecycle assessment flowchart for soybean crop production in Brazil shows what it can look like:
Examining the above analysis, it would be even better if the amounts of materials and energy used, as well as the amount of equivalent CO2 released, are quantified, as a move toward a “life cycle impact inventory”.
The ISO 14044 standard prescribes a specific method for preparing such an inventory. It is a basis for a company to claim their product/material is more eco friendly than its alternatives. And it is a great way to track improvements over time.
This approach has a downside, though. Accurate data collection can be very challenging, and accounting for all the factors and impacts throughout the wider supply chain can be next to impossible. This can lead to an amount of ‘guesswork’ by businesses that doesn’t translate into wholly reliable data.
What are the limitations of trying to become more eco-friendly?
A limitation of this whole “do less harm by using fewer resources and polluting less” approach is that the end game is still the same as before: depletion of natural resources, high pollution, a lot of waste in landfills, etc. Only the timeline is different.
And this approach pits environmentalists against businesses, with very little common ground possible. Many hard-core environmentalists seem to call for the end of growth and an end to the current capitalist system. Working hand in hand to find solutions is not easy in such a context.
That’s why McDonnough and Braungart (Cradle To Cradle or C2C pioneers – see next section) advocate that we need to change to a new philosophy. Instead of keeping the same old paradigm (a product has a life cycle and ends as waste), it is time to switch to a new philosophy.
They want to focus on increasing the positive impact of products (eco effectiveness), not only minimizing the negative impact (eco efficiency).
Cradle to grave VS cradle to cradle
This leads to different approaches like Cradle to Cradle (C2C) which, unlike its cousin Cradle to Grave, focuses on designing and producing products that are made to be endlessly recycled, reused, or harmlessly biodegrade with nothing going to landfill at all and which should generally have a low impact on the environment during production.
The difference between C2G and C2C products is clear when we see some products that are more eco efficient, but nonetheless still, have a negative impact on the environment and must ultimately be disposed of.
Let’s take Coca-Cola’s plant bottle as an example.
This bottle uses 30% less petroleum-based plastic per bottle by mixing bioplastics with PET to create a bottle that’s still recyclable. This is a good thing as the overall carbon footprint of Coke is reduced, however, it must be said that it’s likely to be ultimately heading to the landfill as PET only has a finite number of times it can be recycled before it must be disposed of. The environmental damage caused by production still exists, too, as it requires fossil fuels to produce, doesn’t biodegrade, and there are numerous claims against the use of plastic bottles for the sake of health.
C2C products, in comparison, must have NO NEGATIVE IMPACT ON THE ENVIRONMENT OR HUMANS, and the difference is stark. A C2C product would be something that uses sustainable materials, no harmful chemicals, and is made by a company that commits to reducing its impact on the environment and treats workers well, such as this wool blanket that uses sustainable and renewable wool, biological colors, and is fully biodegradable.
We’ll explore Cradle To Cradle more in the following article: Designing New Products With A Cradle To Cradle Cycle In Mind
You can learn even more about C2C and other eco certifications, including ISO 14001, in this post: 15 Key Eco Certifications For Green Manufacturers. You can also jump straight into how to get cradle to cradle certified, too.
We at Sofeast are not lawyers. What we wrote above is based only on our understanding of the regulatory requirements. We do not present this information as a basis for you to make decisions, and we do not accept any liability if you do so. Please consult a lawyer before taking action.
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