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Simplifying a life cycle assessment of a mobile phone

Abstract

Purpose

The possibilities for full life cycle assessment (LCA) of new Information and Communication Technology (ICT) products are often limited, so simplification approaches are needed. The aim of this paper is to investigate possible simplifications in LCA of a mobile phone and to use the results to discuss the possibilities of LCA simplifications for ICT products in a broader sense. Another aim is to identify processes and data that are sensitive to different methodological choices and assumptions related to the environmental impacts of a mobile phone.

Methods

Different approaches to a reference LCA of a mobile phone was tested: (1) excluding environmental impact categories, (2) excluding life cycle stages/processes, (3) using secondary process data from generic databases, (4) using input-output data and (5) using a simple linear relationship between mass and embodied emissions.

Results and discussion

It was not possible to identify one or a few impact categories representative of all others. If several impact categories would be excluded, information would be lost. A precautionary approach of not excluding impact categories is therefore recommended since impacts from the different life cycle stages vary between impact categories. Regarding use of secondary data for an ICT product similar to that studied here, we recommend prioritising collection of primary (specific) data on energy use during production and use, key component data (primarily integrated circuits) and process-specific data regarding raw material acquisition of specific metals (e.g. gold) and air transport. If secondary data are used for important processes, the scaling is crucial. The use of input-output data can be a considerable simplification and is probably best used to avoid data gaps when more specific data are lacking.

Conclusions

Further studies are needed to provide for simplified LCAs for ICT products. In particular, the end-of-life treatment stage need to be further addressed, as it could not be investigated here for all simplifications due to data gaps.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Carbon footprint is standardised by ISO (ISO 14067, Carbon footprint of products—requirements and guidelines for quantification and communication), which defines it in terms of life cycle impact related to GWP. It should be noted that for ICT products the GWP varies greatly with usage conditions, etc. Thus, a “carbon footprint” value only provides limited information regarding the GWP associated with an ICT product.

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Acknowledgments

Financial support from Vinnova and partners supporting the Centre for Sustainable Communication is gratefully appreciated. Comments from anonymous reviewers are also gratefully acknowledged.

Author information

Correspondence to Åsa Moberg.

Additional information

Responsible editor: Sangwon Suh

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Moberg, Å., Borggren, C., Ambell, C. et al. Simplifying a life cycle assessment of a mobile phone. Int J Life Cycle Assess 19, 979–993 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-014-0721-6

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Keywords

  • Information and communication technology (ICT)
  • Mobile phone, data
  • Simplification
  • Simplified LCA