Volume 9, Issue 10 - November 2008


Where Does Your Cradle Fall?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the transition to cradleto- cradle from cradle-tograve. No, I’m not talking about how to prevent my two-year-old from breaking his neck when he finally figures out he’s tall enough to scamper out of his crib. I’m referring to Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). According to Wikipedia, “the term ‘life cycle’ refers to the notion that a fair, holistic assessment requires the assessment of raw material production, manufacture, distribution, use and disposal including all intervening transportation steps necessary or caused by the product’s existence. The sum of all those steps—or phases— is the life cycle of the product.”

I first became aware of LCA in a meaningful way in 2004 at a brainstorming session at GreenBuild in Portland, Ore. As I packed into a room far too tiny for the volume of interested parties, I quickly became aware that, while green building advocates wanted LCA to play a larger role in their decision-making process, the sheer volume of information needed to make such an assessment was staggering.

Indeed, LCA is a great example of “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” According to ISO 14040 (Environmental management— Life cycle assessment—principles and framework), a scope of LCA would include raw material acquisition, transport, production, use, reuse/recycling, energy supply and waste treatment. Moreover, the “essential property of a product system is characterized by its function, and cannot be defined solely in terms of the final products.” Theoretically, manufacturers would need a similar LCA on every individual component from lineals to glass to spacers to hardware to adhesives and sealants in order to complete their own LCA. I might be underestimating that there are thousands of tidbits of information to be gathered.

How to Manage the Data Pool
Luckily, databases and calculation engines have been developed and currently are being improved to manage all this data, since it’s just as important to manage this data as it is to measure it. Currently, the Window and Door Manufacturers Association (WDMA) is working with one of the leaders in the LCA field, the Athena Institute, who led that fateful meeting back in 2004 and produces the Eco-Calculator (http://www.athenasmi.org/).

“Right now, we’re learning what LCA really means for window manufacturers,” says Jeff Lowinski, vice president of the WDMA. “We need to gain a better understanding of how whole building LCAs are done, fenestration’s role within it and what type of information should be gathered to make a reasonable, yet valuable LCA.”

The inherent expectation is that improvements can—and should— be made. A vast number of products and byproducts go into a landfill when the user is done with them—hence the term “grave.” Once the process is known, can improvements be made that would return the product back to the cradle, or beginning of, something else? If so, can it do this without adversely affecting overall product performance?

LCA Demand is Growing As a green building certifier, I know that no product can be absolutely environmentally benign. I’m interested in products that reduce environmental impact. Products that are truly cradle-to-cradle products are few and far between but I’m looking for them. In spite of the fact that the green industry has been speaking about LCA for at least ten years, the field is still in its infancy in terms of implementation. Still, as we fast-forward to 2008, as that packed room foreshadowed, the demand for cradleto- cradle products has grown. LCA pioneer William McDonough spoke at this year’s the International Builders’ Show and his company has certified more than 20 building products for cradle- to-cradle. I’m expecting that green building programs will begin placing parameters on product impacts during production and deconstruction, not just during usage through the lifetime of the building. LCA will be essential to knowing where to implement those parameters.

So, where does your cradle fall? Remember, a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Those material safety data sheets will only cut it for so long.


© Copyright 2008 Key Communications Inc. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.