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Life-cycle Design - Strategies for Improving the Sustainability of New Products


The product life-cycle defines the key phases that constitute the creation, use, and disposal of products. By understanding what and where environmental harm occurs in the cycle, we are able to reduce impact and improve the sustainable credentials of our designs.

It’s an unfortunate fact that we can never produce a new product which creates no environmental impact through its production and use. Materials must be extracted and processed into parts, assembled products shipped to customers, and energy consumed during use and final processing at the end of life. On top of this, we also need to consider what happens to the materials built into our products when they’re no longer needed. The environmental harm this waste poses aside, most materials are finite, valuable resources that should not be casually lost for future re-use.

To address these issues, and hopefully make the least impactful products possible, we use a method called life-cycle design (LCD). As a framework, it provides us with a clear way of separating each stage in the product journey and several key strategies we can use to create better products. Irrespective of the approaches we decide to use, we’re always trying to achieve three main objectives: 

1. Reduce the amount of energy required to complete the full life-cycle.

2. Enable the recapture of materials for use in high value products.

3. Eliminate the use of harmful materials that pose an environmental hazard.

Covid 19 worldwide map

The product life-cycle (take, make, waste) and circular economy principles to close the loop

The Product Life-cycle
Separate from the product sales life-cycle - which describes the various sales stages a product will go through from introduction to ultimate decline, the product life-cycle describes all energy, materials and by-products that go into the creation and use of a product. It begins at the material phase, with the extraction and processing of raw materials for manufacturing - where products are made, assembled and packaged. From here, the product moves via the distribution phase into its use phase, until finally end-of-life for re-purposing, repossessing or disposal.

For any given type of product, we need to look for hotspots along the life-cycle where we can strategically aim to reduce or eliminate the worst impacts. By looking at comparable products, we’re able to get a benchmark for where these typically occur, as we often find that they share a similar distribution:

Covid 19 worldwide map

Typical CO2 impact distributions for different products categories

[ et al]

- The majority of products circulating in the economy today follow the linear take, make, waste model, where materials are used to create products and subsequently lost through processes such as incineration and land-fill at the end-of-life.

Once we’ve established where most harm occurs, we have different opportunities along the cycle to reduce our environmental impact. Here we’ll discuss these stages in more detail and the strategies we use:

1/ Material Processing
Aim: Target sustainable suppliers and materials

This phase accounts for all energy, resources and damage to human health/environmental systems from the extraction, harvesting, recycling, and processing of materials for manufacturing. We reduce our impact by using materials from renewable or recycled sources that don’t contain harmful and toxic constituents. 

Design Strategies:

Use virgin materials from sustainably managed sources and production processes.

Use renewable materials such as biopolymers and natural alternatives.

Use materials from recycled sources over virgin stock.

Use materials and additives that do not contain harmful chemical components.

To further highlight the impact of the decisions we make here, several examples showing the comparison between emissions for common virgin vs recycled materials is shown below:

Covid 19 worldwide map

Typical CO2 emissions for common virgin and recycled materials

[ et al]

2/ Manufacturing
Aim: Design for optimised resource use

This phase accounts for all energy, resources and damage to human health/environmental systems from the manufacturing of components, assembly and packaging of a product. We reduce impact by optimising part design and selecting local manufacturers with sustainable business practices.

Design Strategies:

Select manufacturers and processes that use energy and water resources efficiently.

Use processes that limit the emission of greenhouse gases.

Design products that use materials efficiently and provide optimal performance.

Design products for fast and efficient assembly processes.

3/ Distribution and Sales
Aim: Design for efficient packaging and transportation

This phase accounts for all energy, resources and damage to human health/environmental systems from the marketing and distribution of products to customers. We reduce harm by using efficient transportation methods and minimising the distance needed to travel from factory to customer.

Design Strategies:

Use distribution methods that minimise emissions and energy use.

Optimise shipping volume for maximum packaging density.

Increase the use of recycled and renewable materials in packaging.

4/ Product Use  
Aim: Maximise product life and power efficiency

This phase accounts for all energy, resources and damage to human health/environmental systems from the product in use. We reduce impact by designing robust, easily repairable, desirable products, and implementing power efficient technologies that limit energy use.

Design Strategies:

Design for re-use, multi-use and sharing.

Design for re-manufacture and re-refurbishment.

Maximise ease of repair and maintenance.

Maximise product durability and desirability.

5/ End-of-life  
Aim: Enable re-use and disassembly

This phase accounts for all energy, resources and damage to human health/environmental systems from the processing of a product at the end of its useful life. We reduce harm by working with infrastructure to recapture materials and making products that can be easily repaired, re-used and disassembled.

Design Strategies:

Enable easy disassembly ready for recycling into closed (preferred) or open-loop systems.

Utilise renewable materials that can be separated and composted into biological resources.

Provide infrastructure to enable re-capture and re-processing of materials to be used in new products of the same value.

That hopefully gives you a general overview of how we approach sustainable design at One/Three, we’re very much committed to principles described in this framework and use these strategies for discussions with all of our clients.

Want to Know More About Sustainable Product Design?
In this series of articles, we explore the key drivers of sustainable design, the barriers we face, and also how we as a design consultancy try to tackle these problems:


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