Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a well-established method to evaluate the environmental footprint of a product or process and has been widely used in several industries – packaging, pulp and paper, biofuels, food, dairy, fishery, textile (how about LCA of a pair of jeans?) – even to assess whether hand dryers in restrooms are greener than paper towels! (How does the iPad fare against printed books? This, this and this make for some interesting reading.)
Life cycle ‘thinking’ requires that we take a holistic look at the product or process under consideration and ‘track’ all the inputs, outputs and impacts at each stage – raw materials, manufacturing, packaging and distribution, use and disposal or recycle.
As scientists address the uncertainties regarding the health and environmental impacts of nanotechnology, legislators reassess policies and the public seeks sources to form educated opinions and to make informed decisions regarding nanotechnology, life cycle approaches offer tools to address these intertwined issues that cannot be tackled in isolation. With the rapid increase in nano-based products in the market, there is a pressing need to develop metrics for nanotechnology’s ‘green quotient’. (An example of ‘green’ metrics in consumer products is Timberland’s Green Index.)
The scientific community is preparing to “steward nanotechnology as a tool for sustainability rather than a future environmental liability” , and needs to proactively assess how ‘green’ nanotechnology is. Employing nano-specific life cycle approaches to assess sustainability would be a step in the right direction.
1. Research Priorities to Advance Eco-Responsible Nanotechnology, Pedro J. J. Alvarez, Vicki Colvin, Jamie Lead, and Vicki Stone, ACS Nano 2009 3 (7), 1616-1619