, Volume 13, Issue 5, pp 401-411
Date: 22 May 2008

Life cycle assessment of commercial furniture: a case study of Formway LIFE chair

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Abstract

Background, aims and scope

The environmental aspects of companies and their products are becoming more significant in delivering competitive advantage. Formway Furniture, a designer and manufacturer of office furniture products, is a New Zealand-based company that is committed to sustainable development. It manufactures two models of the light, intuitive, flexible and environmental (LIFE) office chair: one with an aluminium base and one with a glass-filled nylon (GFN) base. It was decided to undertake a life cycle assessment (LCA) study of these two models in order to: (1) determine environmental hotspots in the life cycle of the two chairs (goal 1); (2) compare the life cycle impacts of the two chairs (goal 2); and (3) compare alternative potential waste-management scenarios (goal 3). The study also included sensitivity analysis with respect to recycled content of aluminium in the product.

Materials and methods

The LIFE chair models consist of a mix of metal and plastic components manufactured by selected Formway suppliers according to design criteria. Hence, the research methodology included determining the specific material composition of the two chair models and acquisition of manufacturing data from individual suppliers. These data were compiled and used in conjunction with pre-existing data, specifically from the ecoinvent database purchased in conjunction with the SimaPro7 LCA software, to develop the life cycle inventory of the two chair models. The life cycle stages included in the study extended from raw-material extraction through to waste management. Impact assessment was carried out using CML 2 baseline 2000, the methodology developed by Leiden University’s Institute for Environmental Sciences.

Results

This paper presents results for global warming potential (GWP100). The study showed a significant impact contribution from the raw-material extraction/refinement stage for both chair models; aluminium extraction and refining made the greatest contribution to GWP100. The comparison of the two LIFE chair models showed that the model with the aluminium base had a higher GWP100 impact than the model with the GFN base. The waste-management scenario compared the GWP100 result when (1) both chair models were sent to landfill and (2) steel and aluminium components were recycled with the remainder of the chair sent to landfill. The results showed that the recycling scenario contributed to a reduced GWP100 result. Since production and processing of aluminium was found to be significant, a sensitivity analysis was carried out to determine the impact of using aluminium with different recycled contents (0%, 34% and 100%) in both waste-management scenarios; this showed that increased use of recycled aluminium was beneficial. The recycling at end-of-life scenarios was modelled using two different end-of-life allocation approaches, i.e. consequential and attributional, in order to illustrate the variation in results caused by choice of allocation approach. The results using the consequential approach showed that recycling at end-of-life was beneficial, while use of the attributional method led to a similar GWP100 as that seen for the landfill scenario.

Discussion

The results show that the main hotspot in the life cycle is the raw-material extraction/refinement stage. This can be attributed to the extraction and processing of aluminium, a material that is energy intensive. The LIFE chair model with the aluminium base has a higher GWP100 as it contains more aluminium. Sensitivity analysis pertaining to the recycled content of aluminium showed that use of aluminium with high recycled content was beneficial; this is because production of recycled aluminium is less energy intensive than production of primary aluminium. The waste-management scenario showed that recycling at end-of-life resulted in a significantly lower GWP100 than landfilling at end-of-life. However, this result is dependent upon the modelling approach used for recycling.

Conclusions

With respect to goal 1, the study found that the raw-material extraction/refinement stage of the life cycle was a significant factor for both LIFE chair models. This was largely due to the use of aluminium in the product. For goal 2, it was found that the LIFE chair model with the aluminium base had a higher GWP100 than the GFN model, again due to the material content of the two models. Results for goal 3 illustrated that recycling at end-of-life is beneficial when using a system expansion (consequential) approach to model recycling; if an attributional ‘cut-off’ approach is used to model recycling at end-of-life, there is virtually no difference in the results between landfilling and recycling. Sensitivity analysis pertaining to the recycled content of aluminium showed that use of higher recycled contents leads to a lower GWP100 impact.

Recommendation and perspectives

Most of the GWP100 impact was contributed during the raw-material extraction/refinement stage of the life cycle; thus, the overall impact of both LIFE chair models may be reduced through engaging in material choice and supply chain environmental management with respect to environmental requirements. The study identified aluminium components as a major contributor to GWP100 for both LIFE chair models and also highlighted the sensitivity of the results to its recycled content. Thus, it is recommended that the use of aluminium in future product designs be limited unless it is possible to use aluminium with a high recycled content. With respect to waste management, it was found that a substantial reduction in the GWP100 impact would occur if the chairs are recycled rather than landfilled, assuming an expanding market for aluminium. Thus, recycling the two LIFE chair models at end-of-life is highly recommended.

Responsible editor: Barbara Nebel