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Saving energy through multifunctional consumer products: an analysis utilizing current literature and life cycle assessment methodology

Hicks, AndreaL.
The international journal of life cycle assessment 2018 v.23 no.2 pp. 267-278
cameras, case studies, computers, electronics, environmental impact, life cycle assessment, manufacturing, primary energy, raw materials, television
PURPOSE: Technology has fundamentally shifted communication and interaction over time, and has effectively increased the interconnectedness of the world. Enabling this have been multiple evolutions in technology itself, with a more recent shift towards multifunctionality. Smartphones, with their multifunctional design, are characteristic of this, and have the ability to replace a suite of single-function products. The purpose of this work is to evaluate the energy implications of multifunctional products utilizing the service of consuming video programming as a case study. METHODS: A review of relevant literature is presented for each product considered in the analysis (televisions, laptops, cellular phones, smartphones, and cameras). The environmental implications, in the form of primary energy consumption, are evaluated with respect to the degree of multifunctionality in product communities found in an typical household and providing the service of television programming viewing. The raw materials and manufacturing phases are evaluated using economic input-output life cycle assessment. The use phase energy consumption of the devices is generated from literature, as is the energy consumed in the production and distribution of the television programming. The functional unit utilized in this work is annual household television consumption. As a midpoint, the impact of the raw materials and manufacturing of the devices themselves are also presented. The analysis is informed heavily through the review of relevant life cycle literature. RESULTS AND DISCUSSION: Although the quantity of energy consumed in device production was found to be similar among the products considered (television, laptop computer, smartphone, and camera), they have different service lives, ranging from 2 to 8 years. This influences the annual energy consumption when the raw materials and manufacturing impacts are normalized per year of device lifetime. It was found that due to the relatively short lifetime of smartphones, televisions and laptop computers for programming viewing would have a lesser environmental impact than utilizing smartphones for this purpose. A limitation of this work is the difference in number of viewers who may watch a single device at one time. At the same time, this work suggests that there is significant potential to save energy both during the raw materials, manufacturing, and use phases of the life cycle of these products through the use of multifunctional devices instead of single-purpose devices, if the lifetime of the multifunctional devices is long enough. CONCLUSIONS: These findings have broad implications for consumer electronics, not only from an energy consumption perspective, but also from the viewpoint of resource acquisition and product disposal. Critical questions arise if multifunctional consumer device communities have a greater environmental impact than their single-function counterparts, including what the sustainable devices of the future should look like, whether these devices should be single or multifunctional. This work suggests that multifunctional devices may reduce environmental impact, if their lifetime is longer than the customary 2 years of a smartphone. However, if it is not, then conventional products may have an advantage with respect to primary energy consumption.