Tools for assessing the circular/environmental impacts of a product

Environmental assessment tools

There are a few environmental analysis tools which can be utilised to identify which aspects within a product have the greatest environmental impact. They serve to detect points of improvement or to compare products or design options. Most of these tools are based on the product lifecycle, which provides an overview of the environmental aspects of the product to avoid transferring the impacts from one stage of the cycle to another. The choice of one tool over another depends on the type of product, the objective of the study, and the availability of data, among other factors.

The following sections describe the environmental analysis tools that are considered most useful to introduce environmental criteria in the development of designs.

Materials use, energy use, and toxic materials matrix

The Materials use, Energy use and Toxic materials (MET) tool is based on a matrix of qualitative or semiquantitative metrics which offers an overview of the inputs (materials and energy) and outputs (emissions, spills, and toxic waste) of each phase of the product lifecycle. The main environmental aspects of the product and possible environmental improvement options are listed or quantified at each stage.

The main objective of the MET matrix is to identify environmental weaknesses or priorities on which to work for the product when very precise information is not available. It is used to detect in broad strokes the main environmental aspects of a product. These quantitative and/or qualitative data are arranged on a double entry matrix, where the main categories (Materials use. Energy use, and Toxic materials, emissions and waste) are shown in different columns in relation to the different rows where each stage of the product lifecycle is shown.

Once the MET matrix has been proposed, subjective conclusions can be drawn, allowing the identification of the main environmental weaknesses of the product and, therefore, showing at which stages the consideration of environmental criteria is a priority without the need to be an expert in the subject. When drawing conclusions from the matrix, it should be noted that the use of toxic and/or hazardous materials, as well as the consumption of energy or other auxiliary consumables of the product during use, will be aspects to be prioritised in the assessment scale of the improvement actions.

Lifecycle assessment

This tool includes computer programs based on the lifecycle assessment (LCA) methodology, which includes a database of eco-indicators. It is one of the key tools in the environmental analysis of products. It consists of an objective evaluation that prioritises the environmental aspects of a product and potential associated environmental impacts within a system using computer programs. There are different computer programs on the market that vary in extent and quality of data, economic cost, and so on.

The objective of this tool is to identify, quantify, interpret, and evaluate the environmental impacts of a product under a global vision and divided by each stage of its lifecycle. It allows visualisation of the main environmental aspects of the product in a graphical way, identifying improvement points, as well as comparing different product alternatives. It is standardised by

ISO 14040, ‘Environmental Management — Life Cycle Assessment — Principles and Framework' (ISO, 2006). The steps to follow for applying this tool are mainly the following:

  • • Definition of objectives and scope of the study. In this phase, the purpose of the study is defined, and the limits of the system (what is to be included and what not) and the functional unit must be established
  • • Inventory analysis. This consists of obtaining detailed data so that all inputs and outputs of the product are identified and quantified, such as consumption of resources (raw materials, water, energy, etc.) and emissions to air, water, and soil. The data collection process is the most intensive step
  • • Impact assessment. The conversion of collected data into environmental impacts requires databases and computing software. There is no internationally accepted single database that evaluates the environmental impact of a product. The accuracy and veracity of the results depend on the quality of the data collected, the data source selected, and the robustness of the software
  • • Interpretation of the result. The LCA software provides numerical data and graphs that show what the main impacts of the product are and in which stages they are present. This stage makes use of them for detecting points of environmental improvements within the product.
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