Resource and Environmental Impacts of Resource-Efficiency Measures Applied to Electronic Products
Licentiate thesis, 2018
Natural resources such as ecosystems, land, water and metals underpin the functioning of economies and human well-being, and are becoming increasingly scarce due to growth in population and affluence. Metals are increasingly demanded for their specific properties as modern technology develops. The dependence on metals is of growing concern due to the environmental impacts related, for example, to energy use and local impacts from mining, as well as the scarcity risks posed by socio-economic, geological and geopolitical constraints.
Thus, there is a clear need to use metals and other natural resources more efficiently. The vision of a circular economy has been proposed as a way to do this, for example by improving durability, reusing, repairing and recycling. Such so-called resource-efficiency (RE) measures are commonly assumed to be environmentally beneficial, although the evidence is not plentiful. It is plausible that focusing on recirculating products and materials could shift burdens to other environmental impacts or life cycle stages. It has therefore been argued that a life cycle-based approach, such as in life cycle assessment (LCA), is useful to critically assess the environmental implications of RE measures. LCA aims to quantify the environmental impacts of products over their entire life cycles - from cradle to grave - assessing a wide range of impacts such as toxicity, climate change and metal resource use. For metal resource use, however, there are a number of perspectives as to what constitutes the actual environmental problem. These perspectives are represented in a variety of life cycle impact assessment methods (LCIA) which have previously been shown to give diverging results.
Electronic products are emblematic of metal resource use challenges since they deploy a broad spectrum of scarce metals. This thesis aims to provide knowledge on the potential for RE measures to reduce the environmental impacts of electronic products, by addressing the following research questions: (1) What resource-efficiency measures result in reduced potential environmental impacts and resource use – for what types of products and under what conditions? (2) How does extended use of electronic products through design for increased technical lifetime, reuse and repair affect environmental impacts, particularly metal resource use? (3) How does the application of different LCIA methods for metal resource use influence interpretations of resource-efficiency measures applied to electronic products?
This thesis builds on three appended papers which are all based on comparative assessments of resource efficiency, studied as resource use and environmental impacts per function delivered, using LCA and material flow analysis. The results indicate that extended use of electronic products through increasing technical lifetimes, reusing and repairing, is generally resource-efficient. Exceptions may occur, however, if extended use is insufficient to motivate impacts from producing more durable products or spare parts. Use extension of electronic products leads to resource efficiency in two distinct ways: through the intended use extension and by increasingly steering material flows into recycling. Further resource efficiency could be realised by combining RE measures over the entire life cycles of products.
With regards to metal resource use, the choice of LCIA method can influence the interpretation of the results of RE measures for electronic products. Therefore, it is advisable to use several complementary LCIA methods to minimise the risks of overlooking potentially important resources issues. Furthermore, better understanding and transparency of such issues is valuable in order to provide more comprehensive information to decision-makers.
life cycle assessment
metal resource use