Climate change and the responsible use of natural resources are among the main challenges in modern society. There is an increasing awareness that product design affects the overall environmental performance and efficiency of a product. Companies making products are paying closer attention to the product’s end-of-life, which is an increasingly important factor for consumers and material specifiers.
To fully understand the environmental performance of materials and consumer products, the entire life cycle must be considered. Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a holistic approach to evaluating resources, energy, and emissions as well as potential environmental impacts from all life cycle stages, including the production of materials and products, transportation, product use and end-of-life.
Steel is a major component material for a wide range of market applications and products, such as in the automotive, construction and packaging. Steel has life cycle advantages over competing materials because of its relatively low energy use, high recyclability, conservation of natural resources and the extensive re-use of by-products.
Credible LCAs begin with robust, representative life cycle inventory (LCI) data. Since 1995, the World Steel Association (worldsteel) has been collecting LCI data for global and regional average steel products and the Steel Recycling Institute provides assistance and coordination of the data collection efforts in North America. The resulting LCI data quantifies 'cradle to gate' inputs, including resource use and energy consumption, and outputs, such as environmental emissions, of steel production. The cradle-to-gate scope covers the extraction and processing of raw materials and steel scrap, transport of materials, and production of steel products through to the steel mill gate.
Steel’s contributions to helping achieve the triple bottom line of environmental, economic and societal sustainability make it vital to achieving the needs of today without impacting society’s ability to meet the needs of the future. While competing materials focus their sustainability claims on specific phases of product application, steel’s superior sustainability performance minimizes environmental impact when measured through the entire life cycle. The North American steel industry is implementing life cycle thinking in all major market sectors.