Life Cycle Thinking: Helping Our Stakeholders Help The Earth

Mar 31, 2014 7:00 PM ET

When it comes to being good stewards of the earth, we all want to do the right thing.  We strive to reduce our carbon footprint, avoid products that harm the air and water, and use recyclable materials whenever possible. But, good intentions only get us halfway.  It also requires strategic thinking.

Waste Management is proud to join its business, academic and community partners in the Sustainable Materials Management Coalition which last week released an important new guidance document entitled, “Guidance on Life-Cycle Thinking and Its Role in Environmental Decision Making.”

Life-Cycle Thinking is a fancy term that speaks to an important process. When end-users purchase a good or service, they don’t always see the larger sequence of events that preceded their purchase.  How were the raw materials sourced, and what were the environmental implications of that step? How was the product manufactured, and what environmental footprint did that phase leave behind? How do the end-users consume the product, and how will they dispose of it?

Let’s look at an example that is referenced in this guidance document: the movement for locally sourced food products. If the idea is to support local farmers and prime the pump of the hometown economy, there’s a lot of merit in this initiative. If the idea is that locally sourced goods are more environmentally responsible than products from larger, more distant entities, then the truth is more complicated. As the report explains, “In 2008, researchers at Carnegie-Mellon reported a detailed life-cycle inventory of GHGs associated with foods, looking at eight different standard food categories. The study showed that 83 percent of the average U.S. household’s annual carbon footprint for food consumption comes from producing the food (such as from the energy used to power farm equipment and the use of fertilizers that derive from natural gas).“ Even if we assume that local farmers employ the same chemicals and processes as larger farms to create their product, the greenhouse gas reductions associated with local sourcing are only in the 4 to 5 percent range.

Or another example: “compostable” plastics, which many consumers prefer in hopes that they are consistent with a zero-waste philosophy.  But, buyers beware: products don’t always deliver on the promise of their labels.  In reality, when deposited in a compost pile, many of these plastics decompose into carbon dioxide and water; in effect, none of the resources that went into producing these goods can be recovered.  Additionally, people frequently fail to separate “compostable” plastics; at the end of the day, they often end up in landfills. When we focus on just one stage in the life-cycle of a plastic product, we miss the larger picture.

The idea behind this new report is to get businesses, governments and nonprofits thinking… about Life-Cycle Thinking.  Organizations that procure goods and services want to do right.  At Waste Management, we want to help them translate good intentions into impactful decision-making. Taking a step back and seeing the whole process will help us become more efficient and discerning in how we move toward that unquestionably worthy end goal.