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.
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.