Beyond Reduce Reuse and Recycle

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The three cyclical arrows indicating ‘recycle’ have become all too familiar­. We all have a dedicated bin in the house where we put away cardboard, paper, soda cans, glass bottles etc.; in public parks, separate receptacles are installed to encourage us to recycle on the go, and that recycle symbol appears on packaging to help us decide what can be recycled. Recycle is one of the 3Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle – that we are encouraged to practice from a very early age. The goal is to reduce what resources we take from the planet and reduce the waste we produce.

But how is the impact of an item or process evaluated? That’s where life cycle assessment comes into play.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is the systematic investigation of the inputs and outputs of materials and energy that accompany the production, use and disposal of products or services. The primary purpose of LCA is to account for the environmental impact, in order to assist in policy making, business decisions, and also making smart personal choices.  LCA can be performed on anything, for example, it can be used to compare greenhouse gas emissions released with public buses vs. personal vehicles (to inform policy making), or to compare energy consumption of LED bulbs with incandescent bulbs (to inform personal choice).

The 3Rs are a part of the bigger picture of LCA – the less we consume, the less environmental impact we have. Comprehensive LCA is quite extensive and requires specialized education and expertise. However, using simple activities, school children can be educated about LCA, why they should practice the 3Rs, and the potential consequences otherwise. For example, by comparing packing school lunch in disposable, plastic bags every day, versus using containers that can be washed at the end of the day and reused, students can appreciate the value of reuse. LCA also finds use in deciding between alternatives – by comparing greenhouse gas emissions of gasoline and diesel, they can conclude that since the former produces fewer toxic gases, it is a better alternative to diesel for cars as it has reduced carbon footprint.

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Beyond LCA

LCA largely concerns itself with energy efficiency, environmental impact, and socio-economical factors. Even today, a standard protocol to consider the littering problem that some products pose is lacking. The presence of plastic in remote, pristine areas such as the Arctic, to piles of toxic, electronic waste produced by industrial countries and dumped in parts of Africa is not accounted for by the LCA, yet these examples of how human activity is affecting the planet cannot be ignored.

The internet is teeming with imagery of wild animals being tangled or choked by plastic items. There is also a psychological element of relating with visuals. While the relation of industrial smoke plumes containing greenhouse gases to climate change and increasing sea levels may need explanation via reactions and diagrams, images of household consumables found inside the bodies of animals need no explanation. Examples like this can be used to reinforce the big picture to school-going children and create more awareness about the long-lasting effect of our actions.

Human population is ever increasing, and with the ubiquity of lavish, throw-away lifestyles, it is imperative that environmental consciousness is instilled from a young age, and children are trained to assess the consequences of their actions and act in ways that foster sustainable living.

About the author

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Amrita Yasin obtained her bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering from the University of Waterloo, and a PhD in Materials Engineering from McGill University. Her PhD introduced her to the world of nanoparticles that convert solar energy to electricity. She did her postdoc at Swansea University in mystical Wales in the UK, where she worked on processes to deposit few atoms thick coatings. Her continuing research on solar cells has fuelled an interest in sustainable practices. She loves partaking in science outreach events with kids because it gives perspective to the daily, detailed lab experiments, and reminds her of what got her interested in science at a young age.

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