Nokia opts for performance indicators in place of full-blown LCA

Key performance indicators on the use of energy and raw materials can help designers reduce the environmental impact of complex products such as mobile phones without need for complex life-cycle assessments (LCAs), according to a study by Nokia for the European Commission's integrated product policy (IPP) programme.1

Nokia's study is part of the follow-up programme to the Commission's disappointingly thin White Paper on IPP, issued in 2003 (ENDS Report 342, pp 28-31 ). The Commission is due to submit a progress report on IPP to the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers in 2007.

The Commission has selected two projects - Nokia's on mobile phones and Carrefour's on teak garden furniture - to explore how IPP can be put into practice. Each project aims to identify the main environmental impacts associated with the products, the potential for improvement and, "ideally", to secure agreement from companies for voluntary improvement measures.

The Commission has also developed a methodology for identifying those products that have the greatest potential for environmental improvement. A report revealing which products have been identified and a stakeholder meeting to discuss the results are due shortly.

As one of the fastest-growing consumer markets, mobiles are an ideal candidate for pilot projects on IPP. Worldwide sales reached 630 million units last year (see Figure 1) and the number of users is expected to reach two billion in 2006.

As a leading practitioner of environmental management, Nokia is well placed to conduct pilot studies into the environmental impacts of products. All of its production sites are certified to the environmental management standard ISO14001, and its website includes eco-declarations for some of its products. These conform to the standard set by the European ICT and consumer electronics body ECMA (ENDS Report 344, p 38 ), and provide standardised information on energy consumption, material use, packaging, batteries and disassembly issues.

Nokia's study aimed to provide a basic understanding of a mobile phone, its composition, its life cycle, market trends, and the associated significant environmental issues. It also describes the company's experiences with different tools for assessing products' environmental impacts, including LCA.

The electronics giant has conducted LCAs of its products since the mid-1990s and its LCA of a third generation (3G) mobile, conducted in 2003, was a key source for the study. But while it "supports life-cycle thinking", LCA's "practical application for complex products, in particular as a tool for environmental improvement in product design, has proved very difficult."

One reason is the lack of data for the many substances and components contained in mobile phones, and on toxicity issues related to phone recovery and disposal. Mobiles have a complicated material composition (see Figure 2) and contain between 500 and 1,000 components.

Even with such information gaps, the amount of data that needs to be collected to carry out a full-blown LCA "is immense", while LCAs are also poorly equipped to assess products with "short product development and innovation timescales".

Moreover, says Nokia, the results are difficult for the layman to understand and the impact assessment phase is "inevitably contentious" because it involves value judgements.

Instead, LCA should be used periodically to identify a product's most significant environmental impacts and develop simple environmental indicators that can be updated more frequently. It can also be useful in assessing the environmental impacts of a new technology or business model.

KPIs are a better tool for improving the performance of complex products. They "significantly reduce reliance on the supply chain for data on material flows" and allow manufacturers to compare the environmental performance of their products against that of their competitors.

Nokia's comments reflect the conclusions of a study that it jointly commissioned with Motorola, Panasonic and Philips last year to develop environmental KPIs for mobile phones.

This found that printed wiring boards are the components with the biggest environmental impact, followed by integrated circuits and then the liquid crystal display. Brominated flame retardants account for "most of the embedded toxicity".

The study proposed nine KPIs, including the number of components, standby power consumption of the charger and the amount of gold, copper, solder paste and bromine in the phone.

Nokia has yet to use the KPIs but believes they provide a simple approach for environmental assessments. While they could be used for "simple assessment in product design", they could be put to better use in choosing components.

Its report for the Commission concludes that the most important environmental issue for mobile phones is energy consumption, and that the energy consumption of radio base stations during the use phase makes the biggest contribution.

The 55kg of carbon dioxide emitted by the user of a 3G phone over a year is equivalent to those produced by driving a car for 250-380 kilometres or to using 10 litres of petrol.

Collection and "proper management" of unwanted mobiles is "crucial" to ensure that a positive environmental effect is achieved.

However, the study appears to ignore the fate of the vast majority of unwanted phones and concentrates instead on the small proportion that are retrieved from consumers when they become "obsolete". It also ignores the refurbishment of old phones and limits discussion on the end-of-life phase to recycling - perhaps because mobile phone manufacturers' are reluctant to promote the refurbished phone market (ENDS Report 358, pp 19-20 ).

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