, Volume 13, Issue 1, pp 75-86
Date: 28 Nov 2006

Life cycle assessment in the telecommunication industry: A review

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Abstract

Background, Goal and Scope

Today, after the technologically and commercially successful breakthrough of electronic telecommunication facilities, rapid and globally untrammelled information exchange has become an indispensable service in daily life. Associated with the tremendous growth in electronic telecommunication hardware (GSMAssociation 2005), however, was and continues to be an increasing awareness of the environmental effects related to both the operation and the production, as well as the End-of-Life (EoL) treatment of such communication equipment. Environmental concerns, for example, have resulted in various governmental regulations such as the WEEE- (CEC 2003b) and the RoHS-directives (CEC 2003a).

To analyse, interpret and improve the environmental performance of electronic telecommunication equipment, life cycle assessment (LCA) is increasingly recognised as one promising analytical tool. Based on a thorough review of the scientific work and by discussing industrial views, this paper is intended to determine the key milestones achieved, to analyse the current research situation and to outline the key challenges concerning LCA and electronic telecommunication industries.

Method

Starting with a brief reflection of the LCA approach, the particularities in context with telecommunication products1 are discussed. Exemplary for various stakeholders participating in the supply chain of telecommunication means recent industry perspectives are also presented.

Results

In the core section of the proposed paper, the pertinent scientific literature on LCA and electronic telecommunication means is reviewed and the most impressive achievements are documented. Particular attention is dedicated to subcomponents of individual electronic telecommunication devices (e.g. Printed Wiring Board Assemblies (PWBA) of mobile phones), components of mobile communication networks (e.g. Base Transceiver Stations (BTS)) and entire networks concentrating on product comparisons, inventory approaches, impact assessment method development, result interpretations and presentation, and usability of LCA in decision-making.

Discussion

From the reviewed scientific literature and industry views, it was found that telecommunication products, in general, represent complex objects requiring a well thought-out performance of the LCA tool. It has been shown that today there is a lack of stakeholder involvement resulting in LCA studies which only partly fulfil the expectations of the contractors. In this spirit it was recognised, at present, that most of the LCA studies on telecommunication equipment result in bulky and stakeholder unspecific compilations of findings impossible to be used in rapid decision-making. This aspect may explain why LCA so far is not or only partly integrated into decision-making of globally integrated industries, such as in telecommunication industries.

Conclusions

In summary, it can be stated that LCA represents a promising alternative to analyse, to interpret and essentially to adjust the environmental performance of electronic telecommunication products. The review showed that there is a need to focus research efforts in order to arrive at sound improvements of the LCA methodology.

Perspectives

The conclusions from the presented review suggest concentrating in particular on further development of the LCA methodology with respect to efficiency, effectivity and flexibility. This challenge is associated with the need for LCA to be understood as a process rather than a discontinuously applicable tool, attending industrial processes, in essence to contribute to improved environmental performances of products. In this context, particular attention should be paid to proper stakeholder involvement and continuous exchange of concentrated information relevant for the respective stakeholder.