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The Lifecycle of a Product or System

This article investigates LCA, which stands for Life Cycle Assessment
© Luleå University of Technology

The life cycle of a product or a system is all the stages it takes to go from an idea to recycling.

Often, we think that products or systems are “done” when they are constructed. But it is important to understand that this is not the final step. Especially when we talk about sustainability, we must remember that something happens to the product or system after we are done using it.

Stages of a lifecycle

The stages of a lifecycle will be different depending on what product or system that we look at. But many lifecycles have the following stages.

  • Needfinding: First we become aware of the need of a system or product. Here we get the first idea of our system or product that we develop in the later stages
  • Design: Here we decide how the product or system will work and how it will be used. We decide how it will be constructed.
  • Production: With the design done we the produce our product. When we talk about systems, for example production systems, it is here that we construct the system.
  • Distribution: How do we get the product or the system to the user? This is what this stage is about
  • Use: In this this stage the product or system is used. This is what many think is the main stage of a product or system.
  • Decommissioning and recycling: When the product or system is no longer used we need to take care of it. It is very important that we think about how we will decommission or recycle our product or system.

The waste hierarchy

In the end of the lifecycle, we have to deal with waste. In Europe we often talk about a waste hierarchy.

First, we should make sure our product or system produces as little waste as possible. Second, we should reuse the product or system as far as possible. Third, we should recycle as many materials as possible. Fourth, we should recover as much energy as possible through incineration Fifth, after we have done all of the above, we must dispose of the rest of the material in a safe way.

The effect over a lifecycle

It is important that we understand the effects over a lifecycle for our products or systems. There are many ways of doing this. This is sometimes called a life cycle assessment or LCA. Because there are many ways of doing a life cycle assessment, we will talk about some of the main principles.

To repeat, in a life cycle assessment we want to understand the effect of a product or system on the environment through its whole life. For a product we want to know how it affect the environment from design, manufacturing and then disposal.

A model in three parts

A way of understanding the effects of the lifecycle of a product or system is to imagine that it has three parts.

In the middle we have the lifecycle itself. It consists of stages such as raw material, manufacturing, transport, use, maintenance and recycling – as we saw above.

For every part we have an inflow or energy and material.

For every part we also have an outflow of for example emissions of waste.

Assesing the effects

One way of assessing the lifecycle effects is to summarise all material and energy that is used in a system or for producing a product. We also summarise all the waste and emissions that comes from this.

In this way we can compare different products or evaluate changes to a system.

One common example is the life cycle assessment of a paper cup versus a Styrofoam cup. In this example we see that a paper cup uses much more raw material (for example, wood, oil and other chemical). The paper cup also produces more waste and emissions. The Styrofoam cup only produces more waste when it comes to metal salts and emissions when it comes to pentane. The paper cup is also harder to recycle.

© Luleå University of Technology
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Exploring Sustainable Production Systems

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