The impact of our products

The environmental impact of a product, or activity, is a complex activity and can be difficult to assess. This is because there are so many aspects to be taken into account. What materials are needed and where do they come from? How much energy is needed to produce it? Where is it transported to? How long do you use it? Is the product recycled once it reaches the end of first life?

These questions, and more, are all considered when doing a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). An LCA is a scientific methodology to structurally assess the environmental impact of a product, or service. With an LCA, environmental impact becomes measurable and transparent. With that information, actions can be taken to effectively reduce impacts. For example, industries can optimize process steps that have most impact. Or, new products can be compared to alternative products to check which product is doing ‘better’ environmentally. The ISO has set up various standards for a complete LCA (learn more here).

One of the most well-known measurements is ‘Global Warming Impact’, or the Carbon footprint, measured in kg CO2-eq. This indicator is well known as global warming is one of the main environmental issues globally, and limitations to emissions are set in the Paris Agreement. However, there are many ways a product or service can have impact in the environment. These include land and water use, toxicity, nitrogen deposit, ozone damage, or fine particulate matter formation. Dutch research (Radboud university, University of Leiden, RIVM) has summarized all these impacts in an LCA methodology called ReCiPe. In the figure below, they are summarized as midpoint indicators. To make it easier to compare two products, these indicators can be summarized to endpoint indicators.

The Recipe methodology. Read more in the website of the RIVM here.

For the products designed by Arapaha, an LCA was done from cradle to grave. This means that the full lifetime of the product was considered, from production of the product, use, and end of the first life. Sometimes, products are only assessed from cradle to gate, meaning only production. The impact the product has after production is therefore not considered, including the (often limited) recyclability and potential incineration or landfilling of the product, which comes with huge impacts.

The Global warming impact is shown in the figure below for a rug, where the Arapaha design is compared to a conventional rug. From the LCA that was executed, it can be concluded that Arapaha rugs emit less kg CO2 eq over its lifetime. Because the rug is designed with recycling in mind, the material can be re-used and no incineration has to take place, which is the case for the rug with the conventional design. The environmental impact of the transport, which is higher for Arapaha rug due to the recollection of materials, has only limited impact. The LCA shows that in this case, it is better for the environment to drive more kilometers by truck and recycle the materials, instead of limiting the transport and incinerating the material.

Making new material has a lot more global warming impact than the driving distance assessed for the Arapaha rugs. Additionally, the LCA shows where the environmental impact of the Arapaha rug can be reduced even more. One of the main conclusions is that a higher collection rate of the rugs will decrease impacts even further as it increases the recycling percentage. Also using the same PLA material again in new products will result in lower environmental impacts. This multi-cycle use of PLA is a result of recyclability and a key concept in the low environmental impacts of the Arapaha products.

In the LCA of Arapaha products, the other ReCiPe indicators were assessed as well and compared to the conventional rug. The need for fossil material is lower for the Arapaha rug, as no fossil materials such as oil are needed for production. However, some other environmental impact categories are higher for the PLA rug. PLA is made through sugars from maize and sugarcane, which is grown on agricultural land. Therefore, impacts related to toxicity and eutrophication are generally higher as a result of pesticide and fertilizer used in agricultural products. The use of these products is well documented and made transparent in the LCA of Arapaha. The LCA on the conventional design is based on average data and assumptions. Therefore, it is possible that impacts are not well documented in the conventional design, and that the difference of level of detail results in higher impacts for Arapaha products. However, the LCA still shows that the choice to design with recycling in mind is very important, so the need for new maize and sugarcane for PLA production is limited and the PLA can be used in multiple product cycles. This decreases the environmental impact even further. Biological production of crops can likewise reduce these environmental impacts.