Using LCA to support the circular economy

Here at PRé, we’ve had an ongoing discussion about implementing a circular economy approach to product sustainability. We’ve explored the benefits and challenges of blending LCA and circular economy, and we’ve looked broadly at how the two can be complementary.

Now, we are starting to explore in more detail exactly how the two approaches, when used together properly, can become more than the sum of their parts. How they can help companies take the next step in creating products for a more sustainable world.

A New Life For Old Materials

For those of you not familiar with the concept of circular economy, its principles focus on questioning the linear product life cycle. In a linear economy, goods are designed to be disposed of after the end of their useful life – in most cases, destined for a landfill. The circular economy instead focuses on the old adage of “reduce, reuse, recycle”. It encourages product designers to reduce dependence on virgin materials by designing with recycled materials and for material reuse at the end of life.

These systems are often thought of as closed-loop systems, where the materials from the end of one product’s life cycle are reused for another product’s lifecycle. But as the articles we link to above show, this is not always the most environmentally friendly method. In fact, it can lead to higher emissions than using virgin materials, depending on the processing needed to make the waste material ready for reuse.

How LCA Can Help To Inform Circular Economy Decisions

Let’s take one example of a recycling approach many of us are very familiar with: glass bottle recycling. This seems like an easy win for recycling and an easy way to reduce resource consumption. However, the devil is in the details. In order to maintain an infinite loop, glass recycling must carefully separate bottles by glass type and by color. Mixing different types and colors of glass leads to a lower quality recycled product that may not be good enough to make new glass bottles.

In addition, you must take into account the energy needed to collect, sort, crush, heat, and reform the bottles. Does that take more or less energy than extracting and processing raw materials? Studies have shown that even a few missteps (such as using heated water to clean bottles bound for recycling) can actually cause recycled glass to have  an increased energy footprint. All of this is not to say that glass recycling is counter-productive: if done properly and carefully, it does lead to a lower environmental footprint. However, we need to keep in mind that it is not always a cut-and-dried issue.

This case highlights how important it is to understand the details of the recycling systems, and how to best organize incoming waste materials and outgoing recycled products to achieve maximum efficiency. LCA is a tool that does exactly that.

Another Challenging Example: Your Blue Jeans

Levi Strauss conducted and published a life cycle assessment on their iconic 501 denim jeans. The study identified two life cycle areas in particular that are major contributors to environmental impacts: cotton production and washing the jeans. It stands to reason that recycling creates opportunities for eliminating the dependence on virgin cotton. However, a closer look at the recycling systems in place shows that cotton textile recycling results in shorter fibre lengths, which reduces their ability to be used in new products. Recycled fibers must be blended with either virgin cotton or with other materials, such as recycled plastics, to create different types of textiles. Of course, recycled fibers can also be used to create new materials for other applications, such as insulation materials.

What’s The Role Of LCA?

In the face of uncertainty about the best options for recycling, reuse, and other end-of-life recovery options, LCA is a perfect tool to consistently and effectively evaluate these options. What is the best pathway for recycling textiles? What about understanding what is important when setting up glass collection systems? LCA is a great tool to help us answer all of these questions. If applying the principles of circular economy is the goal, then LCA is the methodology to maximize those benefits.

Cashion East

Cash worked for PRé as a Senior Sustainability Consultant from 2012 to 2017. His areas of expertise included sustainable return on investment, sustainable supply chain collaboration, and sustainability performance. For PRé, he lead the development of tailored sustainability software tools for the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, among many other projects in sustainable development and sustainability integration.

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