Product Life Cycles, And Sustainability

The Plastics Division of American Chemistry Council (ACC) is on the cusp of providing unprecedented cradle-to-polymer information about many of its plastic resin products. This life cycle assessment inventory (LCI) data, culled from the U.S. and global plastics industry, will soon be published in a publicly accessible database. (See the next issue of Modern Materials for a deeper look at what this means for design professionals.)

For the first time, it will be clear to the public just how much energy is involved with the plastic resin and polyurethanes precursors manufacturing process. This life cycle assessment inventory (LCI) Database Project is focused on product improvement, and like the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP’s) Life Cycle Initiative, it will ultimately provide the tools for helping achieve a more sustainable world.

The goal of the life cycle assessment inventory (LCI) project is to develop an accessible database for commonly used materials, products, and processes.¹ The automotive industry’s Vehicle Recycling Partnership, the wood products industry, and now the plastics industry are providing important contributions for this resource, which will be maintained by the federal government (the Department of Energy [DoE] and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], among other units).

In providing cradle-to-polymer plastic products data for nine major polymers and four polyurethanes precursors, the Plastics Division of American Chemistry Council (ACC) life cycle inventory project will yield an important component to help examine the full life cycle (i.e. fabrication, use phase, and end-of-life data) for the majority of plastics products.

U.N involvement
In 2002, UNEP joined forces with the Society of the Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) to launch the Life Cycle Initiative, an international partnership to put life cycle thinking into practice² The initiative is a response to the call from governments for a ‘life cycle economy’ in the 2000 Malmo Declaration, and it contributes to the decade-long framework of programs to promote sustainable consumption and production patterns, as requested at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD).

The first action of the Life Cycle Initiative was to draft definition studies to determine a road map for the next few years on developing and disseminating practical tools for evaluating the opportunities, risks, and tradeoffs associated with all products and services over their entire life cycle.

Today, plastics industry associations from North America, Europe, and Japan provide financial support, serve as sponsors of the initiative’s International Life Cycle Panel, and promote the concepts of sustainable development put forth by this UNEP-SETAC program.

The global plastics industry has long been an advocate of life cycle thinking and eco-efficiency as methods to demonstrate and optimize the resource efficiency, functionality, and performance characteristics of their plastic products throughout the full value chain, while trying to minimize emissions and environmental impacts on society.

The life cycle assessment inventory (LCI) project will help manufacturers, academia, governments, organizations, and the public better understand the contributions plastic products make towards sustainable development, while trying to create a lighter footprint on the environment.

About the Author

Mike Levy is the lifecycle coordinator for the American Chemistry Council’s (ACC) plastics programs under the Non-durable and the Durable Plastics Panels.