Designers are increasingly being more responsible and accountable for the short and long term consequences of their designs. Designers must consider how their design may affect the user, society and the environment now and into the future. Life cycle analysis (LCA), also known as life cycle assessment is a method of analysing the environmental impacts of a process, a product or an activity along its entire life cycle. It assists in giving you the information you need to make the most environmentally friendly decisions throughout product design. The analysis looks at a product’s entire life, which encompasses raw material extraction, material production, manufacturing, product use, end-of-life disposal, and all of the transportation that occurs between all these stages. It can also include recovery or recycling. The aim of most LCA studies is to help product designers examine inputs (such as resources, materials and electricity) and outputs (such as waste) and the impacts of these to improve efficiencies and identify where better environmental performance can be achieved.

An life cycle analysis should include evaluations of the impacts of  processing, manufacture, distribution, use, repair, maintenance, disposal and recycling on society, the environment and the economy. The life cycle analysis has two variants. Cradle to grave and Cradle to cradle.

Life Cycle analysis
Life Cycle Analysis

Cradle to grave – Cradle to grave is a concept that assumes a product is made, used and then disposed of. Cradle to grave assessment is where the design is assesses from its inception until it disposal. The life cycle analysis in a cradle to grave model looks at the environmental impacts of a product starting with the raw materials, the transport of materials and products and the energy used in production as well as the resources used during the life of the product. It can include any energy used and when it is disposed of – for example the carbon produced by decomposition of plastic.

Cradle to cradle – Cradle to cradle assessment has no disposal. The materials are recycled or reused and a new or identical product is produced. For example asphalt pavement from discarded asphalt, glass bottles from collected glass bottles or different products such as glass wool insulation from collected glass bottles are produced. The aims of cradle to cradle assessment are to minimise the environmental impact of products through using sustainable practices and to be socially responsible when developing products. Products can now obtain a cradle to cradle certification level.

Cradle to cradle factors in the options for reuse, recycling, recovery and re-manufacturing.

  • Reuse – using a product without change or remodeling, whether for the original or a different application
  • Recovery – extracting elements of a product or process such as chemicals from computer parts or heat from a production process.
  • Recycle – processing a product or components into a new form for a different application.
  • Re-manufacture –rebuilding a product to its original specifications or improved specifications.

The 20 minute video below is a TED talk by Green-minded architect and designer William McDonough asks what our buildings and products would look like if designers took into account “all children, all species, for all time.” He speaks about the concept of designing products and buildings using the Cradle to Cradle design concept.