Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Snowboard Life Cycle Analysis

A life cycle analysis (LCA) is a tool that is used to evaluate the processes associated with material manufacturing, production, disposal, and use. Simply put, an LCA is used to measure the impact a product may have on the environment from the "cradle to the grave". LCA's can be pretty complex. First off, several models exist to calculate impact and there isn't one that is perfect for all industries or needs. Secondly, they each vary on what level of analysis you are interested in and the data needed can often require a lot of time to track down (for example, the life cycle can be based on a whole manufacturing sector itself like the wood products industry or can be customized at a more granular level, specific to the products in a companies particular supply chain). Lucky for us, there are also many ways to find some level of data to enter into the models from a variety of databases supported by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Ecoinvent and software available to purchase such as KCL Eco and SimaPro.These tools can walk one through the LCA, but you have to ask yourself first what your main interest in the data is and therein lies the complexity.

An LCA usually focuses on the following processes:
-material extraction (growing and harvesting wood, extracting coal, or ore)
-material processing (making plastics or adhesives)
-transportation and distribution (trucks, air, boat)
-disposal (wastes)

Life Cycle Analyses have been conducted for surfboards (Schultz, 2009; and for snowboard bindings (Hamilton,, but I did not find anything out there on snowboards! Thus, I decided to conduct an extremely caveatted, back-of-the-envelope, nerdy exercise to estimate the LCA for a typical snowboard.

 A few upfront explanations to set boundaries of my analysis and to caveat.

-I restricted my exercise to a typical snowboard design that focused on the use of a wood core, fiberglass, and epoxy (anything else I considered too small of an impact and outside the bounds). I based my calculation on the Carnegie Mellon University, Green Design Institute EIO-LCA online tool This free, online tool is based on the Economic Input-Output theory. The tool does not allow you to input the amount of material used in the manufacturing, it only evaluates the sectors used in manufacturing on a higher level. I focused my study on the following sectors miscellaneous wood product manufacturing (sector #321999), epoxy/adhesive material (sector #325520), and mineral wool manufacturing/fiberglass (sector #327993).

-Results from the EIO-LCA approach are based on the dollar amount of the product in the US from 2002. For my first model run, I conducted an LCA on one snowboard (valued at $350). I decided that this was really too small of a level to mean much to the consumer; therefore, I based my second model run on $1 million U.S. dollars. I have no idea if this is a typical week in sales (based on 500 snowboards made in a large factory a day) or how much a company can hope to make in a season! Regardless, my study was based on this amount. It may be an inflated dollar amount, but the intent is to show how much impact occurs based on the resources not an accurate financial audit.

-Results are presented in graphs for greenhouse gas emissions (expressed as carbon dioxide equivalent for CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, and HFC/PFC), water use, toxic releases (from air to water and land), hazardous wastes (RCRA), and energy use. I have grouped impacts based on the three sectors. Take this with a grain of salt and see which process contributes the most.

-Lastly, you may think, who really cares or can put this into perspective! It really boils down to consumer choice and information. One interesting thing that I noted is that it isn't as simple as showing up and buying a board. Did you think about grain farming, power generation, sawmills, refineries, and plastics before shredding ze gnar?

Click on image to show results.

-The fiberglass sector contributes the most greenhouse gases via the power generation required to produce the material . Overall, CO2 equivalents range from 28.2-447 metric tons. A little point of reference, various carbon legislation proposals define large emitters of CO2 emit at least 10,000 metric tons-maybe small beans. Fiberglass also emits more toxic air emissions compared to the wood and epoxy sectors at 1,180 kg.

-Epoxy uses the most water from the adhesive manufacturing process up to 1.34 million gallons of water per $1 million.

-Wood product manufacturing requires the most energy from power generation and supply at 3 MW-hours.
-The manufacturing of organic chemicals used in making epoxy contributes to 1.4 million short tons of hazardous wastes emitted.

All data aside and with a grain of salt, if you are really looking for a material to tweak to produce less CO2 perhaps consider fiberglass alternatives. To play devils advocate, fiberglass makes the material stronger, so you may be sacrificing long term quality for fewer emissions. If you want a board that has a smaller energy footprint, I might consider one where the wood is harvested regionally; however, this may mean fewer suppliers with a limited supply and therefore more cost to the company.

Most importantly, I think it is important to appreciate various innovative manufacturing strategies and alternatives and for riders to be educated on the amount of materials and work that goes into making the product. There is no magic snowboard wand.

Note: Please be kind and reference this work by citation.