The ongoing debate over disposable diapers versus washable diapers centres on the assertion that the disposable product is less desirable from an environmental perspective. It uses more natural resources to manufacture, and it takes up more room in landfill when discarded. On the other hand, the reusable diaper consumes energy, water and detergents every time it is cleaned for reuse. So what is the answer?
This is where life-cycle assessment (LCA) comes in. It is a method of checking the facts about the environmental burden of a product, from its design through to production and thence to final disposal. An LCA can be used in the design of a new product or the evaluation of an existing product, but it attempts to make sense of environmental information.
The need to clarify the assumptions and methods on which LCA depends has led to a great deal of interest in LCA techniques.
The life-cycle method considers the air, water and solid waste pollution that is generated when raw materials are extracted. It examines the energy used in the extraction of raw materials, and the pollution that results from manufacturing the product. It also accounts for environmental harm that might occur during the distribution and use of the product. Finally, LCA considers the solid and liquid wastes that enter the environment following final use of the product.
Applications of LCA
The uses of LCA as set out by the Canadian Standards Association, include:
1. Evaluation and policy-making:
Supply information for evaluating policies that affect resource use and releases;
Develop regulations on materials use and environmental releases where a comprehensive inventory and impact analysis have been conducted;
Identify gaps in information and knowledge, and help establish research priorities and monitoring requirements;
Evaluate product statements of quantifiable reductions in energy, raw materials, and environmental releases.
2. Public education:
Develop materials to help the public understand resource use and release characteristics associated with products, processes, and activities;
Design curricula for training those involved in product, process, and activity design.
3. Internal decision-making:
Compare alternative materials, products, processes, or activities within an organization;
Compare resource use and pollution information with those of other manufacturers;
Train staff responsible for reducing the environmental burdens associated with products, processes, and activities, including product designers and engineers.
4. Public disclosure of information:
Provide information to policy makers, professional organizations and the general public on resource use and pollution'
Help substantiate product-related statements relating to energy, raw materials, and environmental releases.
Life-cycle assessment helps companies to look at all aspects of their operations and integrate them into the overall decision-making process.
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