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Engineering Sustainable Change

Life Cycle Tips for the Holiday Season

By: Ellie Troxell

This past weekend I stood frozen in front of a wall of toys, equal parts enamored and overwhelmed by the sheer choice and volume. Building blocks, action figures, baby dolls, stuffed animals, board games, puzzles, robots, drones… rows upon rows of options, stacked a dozen deep. Each toy was safely stored in layers of plastic and cardboard packaging awaiting the final festive wrapping and bow.

This is a wonderful time of year, a season for keeping in mind our loved ones, our friends and coworkers, about the relationships and connections that bring joy to our lives. But standing in the toy isle, as the Brendle Group Team CAOS materials lead, I couldn’t help but notice that in our efforts to appreciate those we care about, we forget unnamed future generations and the impact of our consumption. As we move through this year’s gift giving season, it is in our best interests to consider the environmental implications of our gifts.

Our choices have consequences. To be more conscientious consumers, we need to start thinking across the life of the product to help us make better decisions. We currently lack a holistic perspective when making choices, and therefore, don’t consider the consequences of each purchase. Looking to the life cycle of a product provides valuable information for exploring decisions related to understanding the impacts, environmental and otherwise, in the system.

raw-materials-extractionFor a typical product, the environmental life cycle impacts (commonly known as “cradle-to-grave” impacts) include the extraction of raw materials, the processing, manufacturing, and fabrication; the transportation or distribution of the product to the consumer; and the disposal or recovery of the product after its useful life. Let’s briefly frame how to think of each of these phases for an average toy:

Common materials used for toys include metal, lumber, textiles, and plastics. Moreover, the extraction of a given material requires differing intensities of energy and water use. Look to optimize sustainable materials used in a product such as recyclables or biomaterials.

  • Processing, Manufacturing, and Fabrication
    Packaging design should perform its basic functions while minimizing the use of materials, energy and water resources, and environmental impacts across its life. These impacts could be mitigated, for example, by using more energy-efficient manufacturing methods, design of recyclable packaging, or use of renewable and alternative clean energy sources in production.
  • Distribution
    Products need to be transported far and wide from where they were manufactured to their intended point of sale by various modes of travel. Transportation is the second largest contributing sector to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States. Locally manufactured products are a good option to reduce the transportation-related environmental footprint.
  • Product Use
    Many of the goods we buy and use are designed for obsolescence, especially toys. Seek toys that are designed for durability and resilience for a long life and greater potential for reuse or recovery.
  • Disposal or Recovery
    All toys eventually come to the end of their useful life. Seek products that are easy to recycle, degrade quickly, or donate the toy so that the product can get second life. If it is time to lay the toy to rest, be sure to check with your local waste partner to dispose of it properly.

Everyone has a role to play in supporting sustainability. Here are five questions to guide you as you finish up your holiday shopping:

  1. sustainable-product-labelsWhat materials and products are more preferable for the environment?
  2. Is the product environmentally viable in both the short- and long-term?
  3. Is the product made locally or regionally?
  4. Is the company or product third party environmentally certified i.e. FSC, Cradle to Cradle Certified, etc.) or have an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD)?
  5. Does the toy or product foster sustainable values in the user?

Albeit cheesy – this holiday season, let’s give the give of less waste to our planet. I hope that you take this information to empower your choices and leverage bigger change in the coming year.

ellie1About the Author – Ellie has a strong combination of technical and team skills with experience in both engineering and planning. Her diverse background includes land development design, permitting, and compliance; sustainable building certification; and urban design that integrates sustainable and regenerative principles. In these areas, Ellie has managed and supported project process flow, led stakeholder engagement, and facilitated dynamic teams to positive project outcomes. Her skills are rounded out with strong communication capacity, both in team processes, project documentation, and grant writing.

Prior to joining Brendle Group, Ellie worked in civil engineering design and consulting and non- profit research. At Brendle Group, Ellie is able to uniquely apply her interdisciplinary skills and perspective to the company’s energy and climate action planning projects, sustainable design and management projects, and efforts that cross energy and water disciplines.

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