Sustainable Electronic Product Design: A Comparison of Environmental Performance Assessment Tools Derived from Life Cycle Thinking

Sustainable Electronic Product Design: A Comparison of Environmental Performance Assessment Tools Derived from Life Cycle Thinking

Xiaoying Zhou (University of California – Davis, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-114-8.ch005
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Abstract

The ability to concretely and quantitatively measure the environmental performance of a product system is essential to support the establishment of objectives, the selection among alternatives, and continuous improvement in environmental management. Integration of the life cycle perspective into the assessment tools is one of the key challenges. On the basis of an extensive literature review, the authors describe the state-of-the-art of assessment tools available for product systems in the electronics industry. The intent is to enable the informed use of these product assessment tools with life cycle thinking so that a tool is chosen for the optimal application given specific goals. Furthermore, the classification scheme, the business initiatives, the economic, geographical, legislative factors, and the methodological challenges of the emerging industrial practice are thoroughly examined. Through these discussions, the authors hope to facilitate the methodological development that moves beyond discrete product boundaries toward system optimization and standard guidelines that best meet the needs of corporations in a global and societal context.
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Background

In the past 2 decades, the logic of life cycle thinking within environmental impact assessment (EIA) and the concept of sustainability have extended beyond the traditional focus of specific projects with long service life, such as infrastructure construction for transportation, to the field of consumer products with short life cycles. Taking environmental aspects into consideration creates new challenges for managers accustomed to focusing on engineering performance and cost elements. Such strategic and life cycle orientations need new measurement tools or quantitative indicators to simultaneously assess environmental, technical, and economic performance of products and product systems. Although there are many existing management methods and engineering tools, they do not allow the cross-functional integration to evaluate trade-offs between environmental performance, technical characteristics, and economic impact for product systems. An important quantitative analytical tool, life cycle assessment (LCA), has been developed and utilized for the evaluation of potential environmental impacts of product systems. Although the conceptual “from cradle to grave” framework is widely acknowledged, LCA has some methodological limitations to constrain its widespread application in industrial sectors, such as the expensive purchase price of LCA commercial software, the time-consuming procedure, the complexity of assumptions, the involvement of uncertainties in each evaluation process, the dependence on extensive databases, and the failure to satisfy the special requirements and priorities of individual companies. Because, thus far, industry employs different approaches to fulfill various objectives, there is a clear need to summarize the innovations and development in currently available tools and to discuss their strengths and limitations so that we can improve the overall implementation of a consistent set of operational tools by integrating the discrete approaches and better address the challenges associated with this field of study.

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