Everything that exists (including us) has a life cycle. It starts at some point and ends somewhere else... Some of us opt for the reincarnation idea and others opt for the six feet under option. This is exactly the same with a products life, landfill or recycled you pick...
In order to understand what makes a person who they are, we need to start at the beginning, by doing this we get a clearing picture of who we really are by understanding where we have come from and what we have been through.
This is the same with products as well. By analysing the entire life of a product we start to get a clearer understating of the aspects of its life that could potentially have an impact on the environment.
From the extraction of materials from the natural environment (everything comes from nature one point) to the processing, manufacturing, transportation, use and end of life - each life cycle stage of a product tells us a story about it and allows us to find ways of reducing the environmental impacts embedded in the product.
This process is known as ‘life cycle assessment’ (LCA) and is becoming increasingly popular as a method for understanding environmental impacts and finding ways of designing them out. The theoretical basis of this is ‘life cycle thinking’ (LCT) which involves looking a things from a holistic perspective.
Life cycle thinking can help designers and consumers to make decisions that ultimately reduce the environmental impacts associated with a product.
Whilst LCA requires software and databases to conduct a comprehensive analysis, individuals can apply the LCT theory to any product, material, system or service by breaking down its life into the main stages or extraction, manufacturing, transportation, use and end of life. By doing this clear impact areas will become apparent and investigations can be made to find ways of reducing these impacts.
For am example of how LCA can be used to understand the real impacts of design decisions check out this LCA done on plastic and biodegradable bags
I have been involved in the development of resources to help designers take a holistic view on the things they create. One of these is an online tool for designers called Greenfly.
Links to more info on LCA include: