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Sustainability in metal production

Posted by: Keirissa Lawson

June 26, 2017

Dr Mark CookseyBy Dr Mark Cooksey

The importance of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)

It is becoming increasingly important for organisations to focus on sustainability to minimise future disruption to their business.

In Apple’s 2017 Progress Report, the company indicated they hope to “transition to products made with 100% recycled materials, as well as transform its supply chain to run entirely on sustainable energy.”

The effect of large companies like Apple making sustainability-driven changes to their production will likely push metal producers to adopt similar changes.

The metal production industry is already experiencing a shift towards sustainability, as evidenced by the formation of organisations such as the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI). This group is made up of producers, users, and stakeholders across the aluminium value chain, with a commitment to “maximising the contribution of aluminium to a sustainable society.”

Without understanding the total environmental impacts of your products, there is a risk that sales will decrease.

Already, consumers are placing high value on sustainable practices when making their purchasing decisions. The effects of this preference for sustainability have already started to flow up the value chain.

How you can achieve sustainability in metal production?

The increased focus on sustainability has prompted the need for organisations to undertake Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).

This allows organisations to evaluate the environmental impact of any product across its entire life cycle – from raw material production, processing, manufacture to use and disposal.

LCA allows organisations to benchmark their operations and products to better balance economic and environmental aspects.

By identifying all material and energy inputs, organisations can gain a comprehensive understanding of their operations and products, and use the information to identify areas of improvement and consequent cost reductions.

An effective LCA requires thorough investigation of all inputs to a product. It is difficult to conduct robust LCA studies, especially for metals, because there is significant variation in mining and processing parameters.

For example, the environmental impacts of a metal are heavily dependent on ore grade, and so can vary significantly even within a single mine.

It is not practical to include every material and energy input, so significant expert judgment and experience are required to select appropriate assumptions and simplifications.

Life Cycle Assessment in more detail

Life Cycle Assessment determines various environmental impact indicators.

Each indicator has its own unit of measurement. For example, greenhouse gas emissions are measured in kg of carbon dioxide equivalent (kg CO2-e) which is also expressed as Global Warming Potential (GWP). GWP is popularly known as carbon footprint.

Similarly there are other indicators, as shown in Figure 1 with their units of measurement. These environmental indicators are so called mid-point indicators, but can be broadly grouped under three main end-point point indicator as shown below.

These three main indicators – human health, ecosystems and resources – are used to determine the eco-point of a product or a technology for a set of scenarios.

Graphic showing indicator list connected to end point indicators which is connected to end point score or product
Figure 1: Impact categories using life cycle assessment

Leveraging CSIRO’s expertise to achieve sustainability in metal production

While there are a number of LCA providers in the market, CSIRO’s expertise in metal production processes allows it to conduct robust LCA studies of metals production through appropriate assumptions and simplifications.

CSIRO has been one of the pioneers and key contributors of publications in the application of LCA for metal production over last 15 years.

CSIRO’s expertise in LCA and metal production processes is supplemented by knowledge of the current and future metal market, including projected supply and demand.

These capabilities can be combined to predict the future environmental impacts of metals which can be leveraged in planning your operation for the long term.

Contact the Sustainable Metals team on +61 3 9545 8865 or email Mark.Cooksey@csiro.au to leverage our expertise and experience.

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