How can consumables be made more resource efficient? Environmental and resource assessment of measures
Abstract: The global population growth paired with increasing consumption per capita puts resource efficiency and sustainability on the political agenda. Consequently, the need for resource-efficient and sustainable products, including consumables, is expected to increase in the future. Strategies and measures for resource-efficient products are being developed, however, with less focus on consumables. This thesis aims to investigate how consumables can be made more resource efficient. The research was carried out in two parts. First, a life cycle assessment was carried out on a selected consumable, namely an incontinence product. The aim was to investigate the potential to improve the resource efficiency of incontinence products by assessing four different resource efficiency (RE) measures which could be applied within a short time frame using current technology. The measures included reduce losses in production, change material composition to a larger proportion of renewables, shift to a partly multiple-use product and improve the use of the product through customisation. The second part of this thesis focused on synthesising learnings from a number of assessment studies. The analysis was based on typologies formulated for mapping resource efficiency measures and product characteristics. This resulted in a number of findings detailing under which circumstances resource efficiency measures yield environmental and resource benefits, as well as when there are possible trade-offs. The assessment studies of consumables were selected for a more detailed analysis in this thesis. Based on the review of cases and the typology of RE measures, the following RE measures were found applicable to consumables: reduce losses in production, reduce material use in products, change material in product, use effectively, shift to multiple-use products, reduce use of auxiliary materials and energy, recycle, digest anaerobically or compost, recover energy, and landfill. These are more measures which could potentially be applied to consumables than commonly discussed in the circular economy literature. Moreover, the identified measures among the cases all showed potential to improve resource efficiency. For the measure shift to multiple-use product, it was important for the product to last enough times to outweigh the environmental impact from production. In addition, an efficient maintenance system using electricity with low fossil content was an important element for achieving RE. When changing the material in a product, a risk of burden shifting between environmental impact categories was identified. Moreover, the measures applied to the incontinence products were found to be widely combinable, which could ultimately lead to greater resource efficiency. Others findings were that some measures are interdependent and that many, if not most, are dependent on design.
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