Integrating environmental and economic life cycle analysis in product development: a material selection case study
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- Simões, C.L., Costa Pinto, L.M., Simoes, R. et al. Int J Life Cycle Assess (2013) 18: 1734. doi:10.1007/s11367-013-0561-9
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Achieving sustainability by rethinking products, services and strategies is an enormous challenge currently laid upon the economic sector, in which materials selection plays a critical role. In this context, the present work describes an environmental and economic life cycle analysis of a structural product, comparing two possible material alternatives. The product chosen is a storage tank, presently manufactured in stainless steel (SST) or in a glass fibre reinforced polymer composite (CST). The overall goal of the study is to identify environmental and economic strong and weak points related to the life cycle of the two material alternatives. The consequential win–win or trade-off situations will be identified via a life cycle assessment/life cycle costing (LCA/LCC) integrated model.
The LCA/LCC integrated model used consists in applying the LCA methodology to the product system, incorporating, in parallel, its results into the LCC study, namely those of the life cycle inventory and the life cycle impact assessment.
Results and discussion
In both the SST and CST systems, the most significant life cycle phase is the raw materials production, in which the most significant environmental burdens correspond to the Fossil fuels and Respiratory inorganics categories. The LCA/LCC integrated analysis shows that the CST has globally a preferable environmental and economic profile, as its impacts are lower than those of the SST in all life cycle stages. Both the internal and external costs are lower, the former resulting mainly from the composite material being significantly less expensive than stainless steel. This therefore represents a full win–win situation. As a consequence, the study clearly indicates that using a thermoset composite material to manufacture storage tanks is environmentally and economically desirable. However, it was also evident that the environmental performance of the CST could be improved by altering its end-of-life stage.
The results of the present work provide enlightening insights into the synergies between the environmental and the economic performance of a structural product made with alternative materials. Furthermore, they provide conclusive evidence to support the integration of environmental and economic life cycle analysis in the product development processes of a manufacturing company or, in some cases, even in its procurement practices.