ATLANTA — Industry officials explored applying the complex concept of life-cycle analysis to plastics during an April 29 panel discussion at Antec '98.
Life-cycle analysis is an approach to understanding the potential environmental impacts of a product through its life cycle, from raw material extraction to final product disposal.
The American Plastics Council has been researching life cycles and their methodology for years and has created a Life Cycle Resource Center intended to provide guidance for organizations planning life-cycle studies.
Ronald Liesemer, APC's vice president for technology, moderated the Antec session in Atlanta.
The life-cycle framework involves:
Goal and scope definition: This phase includes determining the purpose of the study and stating it in clear terms. It also requires a description of the system to be studied, the intended use of the study and any limitations that have been identified.
Inventory analysis: The quantified list of environmental inputs, such as raw materials and energy, and outputs, including emissions to air, water and land.
Impact assessment: An inventory review and an evaluation of the potential resource depletion, health and environmental consequences. There is no accepted methodology of the assessment, which requires subjective value judgments be placed on emissions.
Improvement/interpretation: The determination of the meaning and evaluation of the system. A reduction in raw materials and emissions generally is considered improvement, and is one result of interpretation.
A study of a product's environmental profile from cradle to grave can be a versatile tool, Liesemer said, but that versatility can lead to complexity.
He said the life-cycle approach is being used by processors, original equipment manufacturers and businesses in general to measure process or product impact. However, he said, there has been consensus only in a few key areas of life-cycle thinking, specifically, how to conduct an inventory.
Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co. was credited with conducting the first life-cycle inventory on soft drink containers in 1969, according to panelist Tom Kornegay Jr. At the time, Coke's initial focus was on energy considerations and conservation of nonrenewable resources, said Kornegay, communications manager for plastics issues at Amoco Chemicals of Alpharetta, Ga.
Heightened awareness toward solid waste and emissions in recent years has resulted in an explosion of studies, methodologies and ``experts,'' he said. Standards organizations, like the International Organization for Standardization, are working to harmonize life-cycle efforts on a global basis.
The U.S. Council for Automotive Research, a consortium formed by Big Three carmakers, is collecting data to assess the overall environmental life cycle of a generic passenger car, from manufacturing through its operation and eventual scrapping. Plastics are included in the inventory, and Washington-based APC is actively involved, along with the aluminum and steel industries.
Xerox Corp., too, is among companies exploring using life cycles to aid in design decisions.
In 1993, Xerox began a streamlined environmental life-cycle assessment of a small- to medium-volume ``generic'' copier system, said panelist Patricia Calkins, manager of environmental products and technology.
Data resulting from the assessment, which could aid in the effort to reduce paper production and conserve energy, was forwarded to researchers, she said. The results could lead the Stamford, Conn., firm to apply the data to new products and even retrofit existing ones, she said.
Most panelists agreed that the complexities and wide variability make life-cycle analysis unacceptable as a policy tool. Results should not be reduced to a ``single score'' that every practitioner must meet, Kornegay said.
It is even more inappropriate, he said, for government officials to try to use such a score to establish public policy, particularly since life-cycle assessment does not consider cost, product performance or ease of manufacturing — considerations critical to decision making.
Life-cycle analysis can be a valuable tool for internal process improvements, panelists said.