The life and times of products

Jason Rayfield reports on a new Environment Agency project which aims to offer Small and Medium sized Enterprises (SMEs) in the electrical and electronic equipment sectors, expert advice and help in producing Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) for products they manufacture in the UK.

Small businesses (SMEs) in the UK have come under fire in recent times for their lack of understanding, and action, regarding the regulations that affect them. But in this new era of impending directives, SMEs in the electrical and electronic equipment sectors are being thrown a lifeline in the form of advice in the difficult area of producing Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) for products that they manufacture. In return, businesses are asked to provide product data for a pan-European project that is being developed by the Environment Agency and other organisations across Europe.

The European Commission funded project – Electronic Life Cycle Assessment (eLCA) – will eventually provide web based tools and guidance to help SMEs establish the environmental impacts of their products, to assist with eco-design and to produce environmental product declarations. These measures are increasingly required by large suppliers moving towards green procurement and will be required under EU law.

Environmental burden

Taking a step back, it becomes clear that there is a great need for eLCA. Integrated Product Policy (IPP) is a European Union (EU) initiative aimed at reducing the environmental burden of products and services throughout their lifecycle by ‘greening’ the product its manufacture, use and end of life.

IPP will heavily influence SME production processes by identifying new criteria to assess the level of environmental sustainability of products, and providing economical support, such as tax incentives to businesses that are able to demonstrate this sustainability. This is a change in the established thinking and policy, with movement from end-of-pipe technology and middle-of-pipe solutions (e.g. waste minimisation and pollution prevention) to front-of-pipe solutions (the greening of product design and development).

The EU has passed a number of directives in an attempt to reduce the environmental impacts of products as an integral part of their design and manufacture rather than concentrating on control at the end of life stage. Several of these directives are specifically related to electronic and electrical equipment in the UK – the fastest growing waste stream in the EU, totalling an average of 14kg per person each year 90 per cent of which is currently landfilled or incinerated.

The effect of IPP and the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE), the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS) and the proposed End Use Equipment Directive (EuE) is that manufacturers will have to design their products in an environmentally friendly manner. Life cycle thinking, LCA and eco-design tools are designed to help achieve this.

Commenting on the WEEE Directive, producer responsibility manager at the Environment Agency, Adrian Harding, says: “WEEE will have significant impacts on manufacturers, local authorities, reprocessors, and a range of stakeholders. The upshot of WEEE and RoHS will be a need to eliminate certain heavy metals from equipment, and look at alternative methods of redesign and remanufacture. Importantly, companies will need to design goods for recycling which do away with parts that are incompatible because one tiny part could impact on every other part in a single product.”

Harding also emphasises the Agency’s mission, in collaboration with other government departments such as DTI and DEFRA, to ensure an ongoing dialogue with industry, with the ultimate aim of facilitating the smooth implementation of the various Directives.

The electronics and electrical equipment sector has been chosen as one of the first sectors to be looked at by eLCA. The sector is characterised by rapid advances in technology resulting in high rates of product obsolescence. The WEEE and RoHS Directives aim to reduce electrical products entering the waste stream, increase the re-use, recovery and recycling of electrical products and improve the environmental performance of all operators involved in the life cycle of electrical and electronic equipment. A third proposed Directive, the EuE Directive, merges two separate initiatives, the EEE Directive (Impact on the Environment of Electrical and Electronic Equipment) and the EER Directive (Energy Efficiency Requirements), to set eco-design standards and minimum energy efficiency standards for consumer appliances. The aim of EuE is to harmonise requirements concerning the design of end use equipment to ensure the free movement of products within the internal market, aiming to improve their overall impact on the environment, thus providing an efficient use of resources and a high level of environmental protection compatible with sustainable development.

Life cycle thinking

Life cycle thinking is concerned with the environmental impacts of products and services from cradle to grave (i.e. from the extraction of raw materials, the manufacture, use and disposal of the product and the return of the materials to the natural environment). Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is the compilation and evaluation of the inputs and outputs and the potential environmental impacts of a product at all stages of its life cycle.

LCAs require technical expertise, a huge amount of validated and structured data covering materials, processes, emissions energy, transport and waste disposal and have high associated financial and time costs. This means that LCAs are generally beyond the means of SMEs. However, SMEs comprise 99 per cent of the 1.35 million businesses in the UK, and are estimated to contribute over 60 per cent of all industrial and commercial waste (National Waste Survey 2001, EA).

Relevant legislation

The eLCA project will develop a multi-lingual website where SMEs can find information and tools to support the implementation of IPP. The main services will be:

  • European and country specific information (relevant policy, legislation, best practice guidelines and case studies);

  • Training packages on market tools (Ecolabel and Environmental Product Declaration), Environmental Management Systems (ISO 14000 and EMAS), and analysis and design methods (Eco-design and LCA);

  • LCA and Eco-design simplified software tools for SMEs;

  • Specialised databases and guidelines for SMEs LCA in six sectors (hotels, construction, textiles, electronic and electrical equipment, wood products and metal products);

  • General Life Cycle Inventory databases;

  • Access to on / off line consultancy.

    A company that participates in the eLCA project can expect an initial telephone discussion to establish whether the company has a product that is suitable to be used as a case study for this work. Relevant attributes of a suitable product include:

  • An electrical or electronic product which is preferably (but not necessarily) going to be covered by the WEEE Directive. The categories of equipment covered are listed in Annex 1B of the Draft Directive;

  • Relatively simple product with high materials intensity;

  • At least part of the product manufactured and / or assembled in the UK with the remainder of the manufacturing process preferably being undertaken within the EU;

  • Products that have been the subject of any life cycle assessment in the past are likely to be selected as a priority but this is not an essential requirement.

    A member of the Agency eLCA team will then visit the site to gather life cycle inventory data on the selected product based on a simple questionnaire and by weighing components. The visit is likely to take less than half a day and will focus on the following:

  • Discussion and tour of the manufacturing / assembly process in order to produce a gate-to-gate (within factory) process diagram for the manufacture and assembly of the selected product. The stages that will be examined and included in the process diagram will include input of raw materials and components, input of energy and water to the process, use of energy and packaging during the distribution and transportation of the finished product, and wastes at all stages of the process;

  • Data will be quantified in relevant metric units or where data are not available and cannot be measured they will be calculated or estimated so that material and energy flows at all stages of the process have values assigned in order to produce a life cycle inventory for the product;

  • Names and contact details of all suppliers will be obtained.

    Follow-up contact will allow the company to quality check the process flow diagram and tabulated life cycle inventory produced by the Agency following the site visit. There are likely to be a limited number of iterations before the final data is agreed. The Agency will also contact suppliers to enable it to include all upstream processing of materials and components in the LCA. Businesses interested in participating can be assured that, if required, confidentiality will be maintained through the use of averaged or anonymised data.

Legislative background

The benefits for companies from participating in this study are likely to be considerable, especially considering the legislation pending for companies operating in this sector. The Agency will evaluate the life cycle study and suggest changes to the product to reduce both environmental and financial costs of the product.

eLCA project manager, Phil White, concludes: “The biggest challenge facing SMEs in the electrical and electronics sectors will come from high up in the supply chain. For example, an increasing number of larger companies are implementing green procurement policies and environmental product declarations and this means that SMEs will benefit greatly from incorporating greener design practices, in line with the companies they depend on. Also, by adopting this practice as soon as possible, SMEs will begin to realise the tangible bottom line benefits that Life Cycle Analysis and eco-design can bring about.”

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