A Cradle to Grave (C2G) Approach to Sustainability

Paul Greenwaltby Paul Greenwalt, EIT

As engineers, we here at Wood Harbinger are often asked about sustainability. The context varies slightly from client to client. Some view sustainability as designing a building to last a certain length of time. Others have their eye on reduced energy consumption. A few focus primarily on achieving reduced utility bills. Many like the idea of renewable energy systems like solar photovoltaics, solar water heating, and wind power. The one thing that many people miss is the “cradle to grave” concept as it applies to sustainability. This is the notion that the sustainability of a building or product is the sum of its components and development process from materials extraction, processing, manufacturing, distribution, use, repair, maintenance, and disposal/recycling.

The Life-Cycle Perspective

It isn’t always easy to obtain information about the “cost” of the process and materials involved in products, in terms of their life-cycle environmental impact. For example, when I was looking into purchasing a new television in 2010, I tried to find out whether LCD or Plasma was more sustainable from a life-cycle perspective. The manufacturing processes were cutting-edge at the time. Even now it is still difficult to quantify due in part to issues of proprietary and patented technologies. The fact that the general consumer doesn’t take this holistic perspective into account when making their buying decisions may also account for why this information isn’t readily available. Consumer demand is a powerful thing.

Plasma vs LDC: The Cradle to Grave Verdict

LCD televisions consume less energy while on as well as in standby mode. This is a key factor that consumers focus on, rather than the whole picture (pun intended). This is a valid economical approach. If the two televisions cost relatively the same amount at the store and the energy consumption of one is better than the other, then it makes perfect sense to buy the more efficient type.

After some laborious searching, it turns out that plasma television displays are more environmentally friendly in their production processes. Taking into account production, use, and end-of-life treatment, plasma was the more “cradle to grave” sustainable choice at the time, though the economics suggested LCD.

It seems that economics won out though, as manufacturers have phased out plasma TV production in favor of the more consumer-popular LCD. This economic-centric approach tends to be the case in many of our building projects, but owners and public awareness are increasing and trending towards more complete sustainability demands.


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