It is only recently that life cycle-based indicators have been used to evaluate products from a water use impact perspective. The applicability of some of these methods has been primarily demonstrated on agricultural materials or products, because irrigation requirements in food production can be water-intensive. In view of an increasing interest on life cycle-based water indicators from different products, we ran a study on a hand dishwashing product. A number of water assessment methods were applied with the purpose of identifying both product improvement opportunities, as well as understanding the potential for underlying database and methodological improvements.
The study covered the entire life cycle of the product and focused on environmental issues related to water use, looking in-depth at inventory, midpoint, and endpoint methods. “Traditional” water emission driven methods, such as freshwater eutrophication, were excluded from the analysis. The use of a single formula with the same global supply chain, manufactured in 1 location was evaluated in 2 countries with different water scarcity conditions.
The study shows differences ranging up to 4 orders in magnitude for indicators with similar units associated with different water use types (inventory methods) and different cause-effect chain models (midpoint and endpoint impact categories). No uncertainty information was available on the impact assessment methods, whereas uncertainty from stochastic variability was not available at the time of study. For the majority of the indicators studied, the contribution from the consumer use stage is the most important (>90%), driven by both direct water use (dishwashing process) as well as indirect water use (electricity generation to heat the water). Creating consumer awareness on how the product is used, particularly in water-scarce areas, is the largest improvement opportunity for a hand dishwashing product.
However, spatial differentiation in the inventory and impact assessment model may lead to very different results for the product used under exactly the same consumer use conditions, making the communication of results a real challenge. From a practitioner’s perspective, the data collection step in relation to the goal and scope of the study sets high requirements for both foreground and background data. In particular, databases covering a broad spectrum of inventory data with spatially differentiated water use information are lacking.
For some impact methods, it is unknown as to whether or not characterization factors should be spatially differentiated, which creates uncertainty in their interpretation and applicability. Finally, broad application of life cycle-based water assessment will require further development of commercial life cycle assessment software.