Analyzing uncertainty in a comparative life cycle assessment of hand drying systems

Abstract

Purpose

The goal of this study is to evaluate and compare the environmental impact (with a focus on global warming potential) of five hand drying systems: hands-under (HU) dryers, high-speed hands-under (HSHU) dryers, high-speed hands-in (HSHI) dryers, cotton roll towels, and paper towels. Another objective is to incorporate uncertainty into this comparative life cycle assessment (LCA) as a means of understanding the statistical robustness of the difference between the environmental impacts of the hand drying systems.

Methods

We conducted a life cycle assessment in accordance with the ISO 14040/14044 standards using data primarily from publicly available reports. As part of the study, we performed a parameter uncertainty analysis for multiple scenarios to evaluate the impact of uncertainty in input data on the relative performance of products. In addition, we conducted a probabilistic scenario analysis of key drying system parameters in order to understand the implications of changing assumptions on the outcomes of the analyses.

Results and discussion

The scope of the analyses enabled us to draw robust conclusions about the relative environmental performance of the products. We can say with a high degree of confidence that the high-speed dryers have a lower impact than paper towels and cotton roll towels. Differentiating the performance of the hand dryers requires being more specific about framing assumptions. Under certain conditions, the HSHI dryer is expected to have a lower impact than the HU and HSHU dryers. However, under other conditions, one cannot say that the HSHI dryer is clearly better than the other dryers. We cannot differentiate the performance between the HU dryer, cotton roll towels, and paper towels.

Conclusions

This work demonstrates the importance of going beyond traditional uncertainty analyses for comparative LCAs that are used for assertions of relative product environmental impact. Indeed, we found instances where the conclusions changed as a result of using the probabilistic scenario analysis. We outline important elements that should be included in future guidance on uncertainty analyses in comparative LCAs, including conducting parameter and scenario uncertainty analyses together and then using the outcomes to guide selection of parameters and/or choices to analyze further.

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Acknowledgments

This work was commissioned and funded by Dyson.

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Correspondence to Jeremy R. Gregory.

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Responsible editor: Andreas Ciroth

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Gregory, J.R., Montalbo, T.M. & Kirchain, R.E. Analyzing uncertainty in a comparative life cycle assessment of hand drying systems. Int J Life Cycle Assess 18, 1605–1617 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-013-0606-0

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Keywords

  • Life cycle assessment
  • Hand drying systems
  • Parameter uncertainty
  • Scenario analysis