Looking at life cycles

Your Styrofoam coffee cup might get 10 minutes of use, but its life cycle is centuries long. Photo: Jyoti Das

Have you ever wondered how your coffee cup got made or what exactly happens to it when you throw it in the trash? It is not instinctive to think about the flows of material, energy and water that are required in making a coffee cup, but if you have, you were thinking of some of the steps in its life cycle.

You may have heard the term life cycle analysis or cradle-to-grave analysis. When companies try to sell their products as green, sustainability professionals create detailed life cycle analyses to evaluate the environmental impacts in these products’ life cycles.

Extracting raw materials from the earth is the first step in a product’s life cycle. This could include metals, minerals or water. Every step of the raw material extraction can be measured, such as assessing how many tons of carbon were emitted in the extraction of the raw material to a manufacturing facility. This is often the most resource-intensive step. For instance, the initial aluminum extraction involved in producing a soda can requires so much energy, recycling one aluminum can save enough energy to run a TV for three hours. (Yet Americans recycle less than half the soda cans they consume.)

The next step is the manufacture of the materials or components that go into the product. Then come the product’s production, packaging, shipping, customer use, maintenance and end-of-life disposal. When product designers are able to see the life cycle of a product, they can address the stage of production in which the most energy is being used or substitute materials that have less harmful impacts.

Back to your coffee cup: Do you use your own mug when you can? Or do you use a Styrofoam cup once and then toss it in the trash? Styrofoam or polystyrene is made of benzene from coal, styrene from petroleum and ethylene. It does not biodegrade: The cup will dissolve in about 500 years, but the chemicals will still be in the ecosystem. In the United States, about 25 billion cups are thrown away each year, and that’s only the Styrofoam found in cups, not other packaging or food containers. Styrofoam consumes more than 25 percent of landfill space. It is not recyclable by municipalities. Some companies such as Dart Container Corporation will take clean Styrofoam to manufacture other plastic products.

So why is Styrofoam used? It is usually the cheapest choice, is very lightweight and works better insulating food or drinks than other alternatives.

By considering the life cycle of the products we use, all of us as consumers can make greener choices, which are less costly for the Earth.

Katie Kosirog