• Avoid using hazardous/toxic materials: A list can be found
• Use compatible materials: If you must use different
materials, use two that can be recycled together. For
example, PC and ABS can form to make PC/ABS. See the
• Make the product light: Heavier products require more
energy to move. More energy means higher carbon
monoxide levels, which leads to a higher carbon footprint.
• Keep it small: The less room your
product + packaging takes up, the
more items you can move on one
pallet reducing fuel for shipping.
To gain a holistic understanding
of the impact your product has on
the environment, it is important to
also understand the impact your
product has at each stage of the
its life, from raw material extraction,
through prototyping and production,
to distribution and finally disposal.
This is often referred to as a life-cycle
assessment (LCA) or cradle-to-grave
Luckily, the International Organization
for Standardization has created, you guessed it, a standard
for how to carry out a Life Cycle Assessment which breaks
down the process into four steps:
• Goal and Scope: What are you trying to learn about your
product and achieve from this study? There are so many
areas to focus on when it comes to environmental impact
that it’s important to narrow it down to high impact items.
This phase should define the purpose, what is being
studied, the scope of the analysis, any assumptions, and
the environmental impact area your team wants to improve.
• Inventory: What is the flow, from nature to disposal, for
all parts associated with the product, within the defined
scope? This step takes into account each energy input
that goes into sourcing, producing, and moving a material.
Think about the energy required for material extraction,
the environmental impact for moving the material before
and after production, and byproducts or recyclability of
the material after consumer use. Typically this is shown
for each part in a flow chart, with energy inputs calculated
based on the mass of the material.
• Impact: Classify and characterize each inventory flow to
uncover its quantified environmental impact. Classification
is done simply by assigning an environmental impact to
each inventory flow (e.g., global warming, toxicity, ozone
depletion, etc.). Then, based on the scope set out in phase
one, focus your time on those impacts you initially want to
To assess the impact, “characterize” means to convert
those material masses into measurable units specific to the
environmental impact (i.e., global warming can be measured
in kgCO2). Since it can be hard to measure the impact of
global warming vs. toxicity, an optional step is to weight
each environmental impact based on assumed importance
and convert to a universal measurement, like millipoints.
Weighting values can change drastically from team to team,
as their value is often subjective and based upon person or
See the visual below for an example on how to convert an
inventory flow to a quantified and measurable form.
• Interpretation: Understand and evaluate the finding
from each of the above phases. The Life Cycle Assessment
is an evolving process, and the results of one phase can
often impact others. Because of this, interpretation is
recommended after both the inventory and impact phases.
The desired outcome of the interpretation phase is to
walk away with a clear understanding of the significant
issues, reassurance that the assessment was thorough
and consistent, and finally, a list of recommendations for
A Life Cycle Assessment can take some time to do
properly, but when completed, it will influence your
internal design policies and help solidify guidelines for
how your company thinks about and makes decisions with
sustainability in mind. Plus, by doing so, you’re literally making
the world a better place.
The explosion of consumer electronics doesn’t seem to be
slowing down anytime soon, and with that, e-waste is going
to continue to build. As with many things in life, it’s better to
be proactive, rather than reactive. The proactive approach is
for companies, engineers, and designers to take ownership
of the cradle-to-grave product lifecycle and start building
for a sustainable future. It all starts with a framework and
building a process.
Example LCA Impact Assessment. Table courtesy of Solidworks