COVID Face Coverings: The need to Consider Product Life Cycle

During the Coronavirus pandemic, one of the most prominent changes we have had to make as a society is to adopt face coverings in most public settings, including in shops and when walking through restaurants.

Face coverings are not a new invention.  Surgical masks have been used for many years in healthcare, while filtered masks in construction and manufacturing are not uncommon to protect against potentially harmful dust.

Residents of the world’s most polluted cities have long covered their mouth and nose when going outside. 

However there has never been a demand for face coverings on the current scale and this has required manufacturers to rapidly design and produce a variety of products to solve the problem.

Just as we’ve made positive moves to reduce single use plastics including straws and cotton buds, the appearance of face coverings has caused a new environmental problem. 

Product Life Cycle Assessment

There is a wide range of face coverings available, including short-term ‘disposal’ items and reusable multi-layer cotton.

The raw materials, manufacturing process, durability and disposal method all contribute to the carbon impact during the product’s life cycle.

The vast number of face coverings being made, purchased, used and discarded is at an unprecedented scale, and it seems that neither manufacturers nor consumers have really given consideration to the environmental impact of this.

Too often we can see face covering littering the streets and while, of course, they are necessary we should be considering their environmental impact across the whole life cycle at an early stage to reduce the carbon and environmental impact later on.

But how can organisations do this?

Carbon Footprint of a Product

There are several approaches to measuring the Carbon Footprint of a product, but we would recommend ISO 14067, the international standard that defines requirements and guidelines for quantification of carbon footprint of a product.

It’s important to measure the carbon impact of a product in order to manage it and this standard, part of the ISO 14000 family, offers a recognised methodology which can set you on a path to reduce and eventually neutralise their carbon footprint.

Life Cycle Perspective in ISO 14001

While ISO 14001 takes a border approach to environmental management, requirements of the standard in clause 6.1.2 contains some often overlooked wording.

The environmental aspects and impacts exercise has long been a familiar feature of the standard but have you noticed the final wording which says “considering a life cycle perspective”.

That means alongside the usual waste, energy, travel and other aspects, ISO 14001 is actually asking you to think about the impacts of products you create and buy; assessing the lifetime impact from manufacture to disposal.

Reducing the Environmental Impact of Products

Face coverings are a prime example of a product that we can’t stop using, so we need to find ways to minimise their impact on our environment.

Manufacturers can do this by considering the product’s end-of-life as well as the start. Considering how the product could be reused, adapted, recycled or safely and easily disposed of by the average consumer.

As consumers we can also influence this through our buying behaviour, perhaps paying more for a product that lasts longer or where there is a clear recycling or disposal option at the end of the product’s life.

Reduce your Environmental Impacts

Whatever your organisation does, we can help you have a positive impact on the environment and promote good practice through international standards.

Contact our Environmental Consultants to find out more.

Robert Clements
Robert Clements
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