Modelling the economic and environmental performance of engineering products: a materials selection case study
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- Simões, C.L., Pinto, L.M.C. & Bernardo, C.A. Int J Life Cycle Assess (2012) 17: 678. doi:10.1007/s11367-012-0414-y
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Life cycle assessment (LCA) studies allow understanding all relevant processes and environmental impacts involved in the life cycle of products. However, in order to fully assess their sustainability, these studies should be complemented by economic (LCC) and societal analyses. In this context, the present work aims at assessing all costs (internal and external) and the environmental performance associated to the full life cycle of specific engineering products. These products are lighting columns for roadway illumination made with three different materials: a glass fibre reinforced polymer composite, steel and aluminium.
The LCA/LCC integrated methodology used was based in a “cradle-to-grave” assessment which considers the raw materials production, manufacture, on-site installation, use and maintenance, dismantlement and end-of-life (EoL) of the lighting columns. The fossil fuels environmental impact category was selected as the key environmental impact indicator to perform the integrated environmental and cost analysis.
The potential total costs obtained for the full life cycle of the lighting columns demonstrated that the one made in steel performs globally worse than those made in composite or aluminium. Although the three systems present very similar internal costs, the steel column has higher external costs in the use phase that contribute for its higher total cost. This column has very high costs associated to safety features, since it constitutes a significant risk to the life of individuals. The raw material and column production stages are the main contributors for the total internal life cycle costs. The EoL treatment is a revenue source in all systems because it generates energy (in the case of the composite incineration) or materials (in the case of metal recycling). The composite and aluminium lighting columns present similar “cradle-to-grave” life cycle total cost. However, until the dismantlement phase, the aluminium column presents the highest environmental impact, whereas in the EoL treatment phase this scenario is reversed. The “cradle-to-grave” life cycle potential total cost and the environmental impact (fossil fuels) indicator of the steel lighting column are higher than those of the other columns.
Even though the uncertainties in the LCC are larger if external costs are included, their consideration when modelling the economic performance of engineering products increases the probability of developing a more sustainable solution from a societal perspective.