Cartoon network was probably the one channel we all were glued to at one point of time or the other. If you are one of them, you surely would not have missed Captain Planet, the hero for saving our Earth. What was showcased years before in that show has today become a reality. Their theme of ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ is professionally termed now as life cycle assessment (LCA).

Technology that has made life convenient and comfortable has not been good enough to the environment. From using the bountiful natural resources to get here, the world is now seeking ways to preserve what is left of it. ‘Development at what cost?’ is the question today, and the answer to it lies in LCA.

What is the LCA?

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Life cycle assessment, as the name suggests, is the analysis of the environmental impact of a product over its entire life cycle, starting from gathering raw materials, manufacturing, distribution, usage, repair and maintenance, to disposal or recycling.

Why is it done: The reason behind performing the LCA is to evaluate how products and services affect the environment and to work at reducing their ecological footprint. It quantifies all aspects of the product flow, from start to finish, adopting a holistic approach. The result of the assessment is used as a feedback to modify or better the processes involved and the support policies and to make informed decisions.

The main types: Attributional LCA aims at quantifying how the production cycle, specific services or uses contribute to environmental degradation, while consequential LCA seeks to predict the consequences of a decision or a proposed change to the concerned system. Along with these environmental LCA as part of the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) 14000 environmental management standards, a social LCA for assessing social implications or potential impact is also being developed.

How is it done: An LCA starts off with the ‘goal and scope definition’ that defines system boundaries, the assumptions and limitations, the methods involved and the impact categories. Next is the ‘inventory analysis’ stage, also called the life cycle inventory (LCI), where a flow model or flow chart is prepared, which indicates the inputs and outputs, from and to nature. Following this, comes the ‘impact assessment’ or the life cycle impact assessment (LCIA) that aims at obtaining a complete measure of the impact on the environment, based on the LCI flow results. Finally, we have the ‘interpretation’, a systematic technique to identify, quantify, check and evaluate data and provide a summary of the LCI and LCIA stages. The output from this stage forms a comprehensive conclusion and recommendations for the study.

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‘The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment’ by Springer is the first journal devoted entirely to LCA.

LCA for electronics

Take the case of a computer. To make the glass screen, sand is needed. The plastic casing uses oil. Wiring and circuitry for its motherboard requires a variety of metals. The manufacturing cannot happen without fossil fuels, chemicals and water. Packaging and transporting the computer to your table consumes fuel. We need not even go into the amount of power a computer draws. Hold your horses, we are still not done. What about the e-waste your old, unused computer generates? This makes LCA imperative for all verticals of the electronics industry.

Here, let us take a look at how LCA works for some popular electronics segments. We will attempt to answer questions like

what areas it targets, what exactly does it study and how can the results be used.

Consumer electronics: Be it a television, a phone or a computer, the LCA process aims at estimating the emission of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gases during manufacturing and use stages and arriving at a global warming potential (GWP) index. The analysis is complete with respect to whether the emission is due to the circuit wiring/ layering or the materials that go into the device casing. The power consumed by the devices in different use-case scenarios makes for another interesting study. With the LCA results one can predict the lifespan of the device and improvements that could be made in the manufacturing or usage process, say in terms of the components used or the raw materials behind production.

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Power electronics: The electricity that flows in transmission lines pumps blood to the heart of electronic devices. With consumption requirements sky-rocketing, the resources for producing power are depleting. No wonder then that the LCA for the usage of these devices points to power consumption, to the level of exploitation. In contrast, LCA of plants and organisations working on a solar-based set-up show tremendous change. Using photovoltaic panels to power your industry not only reduces the carbon footprint, but also saves on the basic resources by maximising solar output. Also, photo-catalytic paint for buildings acts like trees, using sunlight to release oxygen. In the energy sector, with alarming LCA results, the focus is shifting towards biomass, hybrid batteries and gas co-generation to supply for the demand.

Electronics design process: LCA results show that the metals in electronic wiring and lead in solders are major pollutants. The industry is rigorously studying alternatives like alloys that harm less and lead-free solder. Integrated circuit manufacturing and packaging is another area the LCA targets. Assessments show that reuse of electronic components and parts, and reduction in size contribute to a smaller footprint. Impact on health and even outlet of industrial wastes into sources like rivers is an important focus of the LCA.

Software for LCA

There are various software for performing the life cycle assessment of products. The popular ones seem to be SimaPro by Pre consultants and GaBi by Thinkstep. Open LCA by GreenDelta is an open source option that seems to be giving good competition to the proprietary tools. Umberto, Quantis suite, Earth Smart, Sustainable Minds, Enviance System, LCA calculator and Ecoinvent are few of the other proprietary ones in the race.

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The catch

With different organisations following their own processes for LCA, there is a lack of transparency in the whole process. Not knowing the detailed manufacturing process or the purpose of use of the product makes it difficult to compare different processes to arrive at a comprehensive study. Although there are standards out there, they talk about how the LCA should be done without mentioning the specifications or a method to evaluate different processes and use-cases. With the International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative (iNEMI) and the European Telecommunication Standards Institute (ETSI) working towards this, we may soon find a way to pin real numbers to the intricacies involved.

The point is clear. With everything we do, non-renewable resources are depleting and the ecological footprint is increasing. This is where the life cycle assessment will play a major role. It will tell you how much trouble you are causing to the environment and at what point, so you could try alternate measures for the process or service. Also, a continuous evaluation helps you identify if your improved or alternate method is working and helps you decide what you should stick to. The only way to make this work is a conscious effort towards a greener environment. Hopefully, with the help of the LCA, we can expect to see a comparatively better and safer design process, and in turn create a better world for generations to come. But all said and done, life is moving towards comfort and fast solutions, and alternatives suggested may not stand up to the expectations. Well, a compromise has to be made somewhere and maybe making LCA compulsory in all design processes might be a good start. Effectively using the LCA results to create sustainable electronics design is the way forward.

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