We did our life cycle homework. Now you don’t have to

Clare Broadbent

Head of Product Sustainability, worldsteel


We did our homework. Now you don't have to.
4 September 2017

Do you want to know what the impact of driving your car to your holiday destination, or of taking the train or plane is?

Do you want to make the best choice about whether you buy fresh, frozen or canned beans from the supermarket?

Do you want to know if the choices that politicians make when it comes to environmental regulations are really the right ones?

You can answer all these questions using life cycle assessment (LCA), a tool that calculates the environmental impact of your decisions by considering the impact of producing the materials used in the product (car, can, washing machine, train etc.), using the product, and then what happens to that product once it reaches the end of its useful life – is it reused, recycled or simply disposed of? LCA can be used for any product and will tell you not only what your CO2 emissions are, but also the energy and other raw materials you have used and the impact you’ll have on water resources, air quality, human health etc.

Let’s consider the question about politicians making the right decisions and look at automotive regulations as an example. These regulations currently focus on producing less CO2 emissions while driving your car – this can be achieved by using less fuel, which comes as a result of making the vehicle lighter. Without a life cycle approach guiding the vehicle design process, you may choose alternative materials or technologies to make these vehicles lighter that are more energy and CO2 intensive to produce than the material or technology they replace. If you decide to use a lower density (‘lightweight’) alternative to replace steel (which is actually 7 to 20 times less emissions-intensive to produce than alternative vehicle structural materials), what happens is that you unintentionally increase the total life cycle environmental impact, even though you may indeed make your vehicle lighter. A full life cycle approach should therefore always be the starting point for environmental policy makers to make sure that unintended consequences like these don’t occur. You can learn more about this from these vehicle case studies which use LCA to analyse material choices.

You may be asking what has this got to do with worldsteel? Well, steel is used in so many products – if you manage to find something without steel in it then it’s surely been produced with a tool or mould made of steel. In order for you to be able to calculate the impact of making that product, you need to know what the impact of making each of the materials used is, including steel.

LCI

To conduct product LCAs, you need high quality data on every component of your product.  We have been collecting data and calculating steel’s life cycle impact for over 20 years. We started in the mid-1990s and since then our database has become more and more extensive. A huge amount of data is collected for steel production from sites all around the world. We then generate the life cycle inventories for products that we produce within the steel industry – this can be anything from steel beams used in building construction, the reinforcement bars used in concrete, the steel sheet used to make cars, domestic appliances and food and beverage cans, and steel for motors and engines. We have just finished the fourth global data collection and data is now available on request via worldsteel.org. It is also available in the GaBi LCA software, and by the end of year, will be available in SimaPro as well.

This information is no longer just for academics or engineers. Manufacturers and consumers - civil society in general in fact -  want to know what they can do to reduce their overall impact on the earth and to show that they are taking their environmental responsibilities seriously. We’re doing our bit to help achieve this.

Add your comment here:

  • 1

    Hello Clare- Excellent initiative and this was exactly the need of the hour. This is the first study I have come across that takes a holistic view with regards to CO2 emissions and sustainability. There has been a lot of work concentrated towards reducing emissions, but most of the studies focus on scope 1 emissions whilst ignoring the scope2 emissions. This is a major impedance in achieving the end goal. Especially when there is huge impetus on increasing role of solar/EV powered cells in producing clean energy one needs to have a wider perspective and consider the scope 2 emissions, because there will increased requirement of materials such as steel, glass etc., resulting in additional energy requirements attributable to raw material extraction, processing, inbound and outbound logistic etc. Additionally, it would be great if this model could be further extended to Life cycling costing (LCC). This will be a boon in enhancing the adoption rate of advance technologies and materials, which are frequently left out because these technologies fail the short term techno-economic viability test, but there are instances where the LCC approach has proven otherwise.

    avatarSHANTANU RAISep 4, 2017 7:03:54 PMReply

  • 2

    Thanks Shantanu! Yes I agree it's important to include scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions to really understand the impacts of making our products and to see the effects of using 'renewable' energies. It's also important to see how these products perform when you're using them and what happens to them when they reach the end of their life - can they be recycled or reused or do they need to be disposed of. We try and consider all of this. We're looking into LCC and how we can apply this in the future. Thanks for your interest in our work!

    avatarClare BroadbentSep 5, 2017 9:49:02 AMReply

  • 3

    Congratulations Clare and the worldsteel LCI team. Few people will understand the extent of resource investment brought to bear by worldsteel and its many member companies to make this happen. It's a great demonstration of leadership and commitment to transparency, and will facilitate many LCAs that help us create a better future. Well done all!

    avatarNicole SullivanSep 8, 2017 12:06:39 AMReply

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