Sustainable Christmas

Research in focus December 2011

Christmas graphic

Think Christmas festivities and the Christmas tree will undoubtedly spring to mind, at least if you live in the West. Decorated with ornaments and candles, it is part and parcel of the festive spirit in many homes. But while admiring your Christmas tree in all its glory, have you ever wondered about your festive fir’s environmental footprint? Or about the environmental, economic, technical and social impact the Christmas tree standing in your living room has on the environment and on society? The Life Cycle Engineering department at the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics IBP looks into these very questions for products, processes and services throughout their entire life cycle.

But rest assured, the researchers are not intent on ruining your Christmas. “At this time of year in particular, the Christmas tree serves to perfectly illustrate what we actually do here in the department. Normally our research focuses on building materials and on the associated processing techniques. We aim to help people make more informed choices about products, processes and services, as well as helping suppliers to optimize these products, processes and services so that their Life Cycle Assessment is satisfactory on all levels,” explains Matthias Fischer, head of the Life Cycle Engineering department at Fraunhofer IBP. Life Cycle Assessment is a method for illustrating the environmental, economic, technical and social influence of a product – as in this case of the Christmas tree.
To that end, the first step is to record everything that constitutes a Christmas tree: “Of course, you have the tree itself on the one hand, then there are the ornaments and candles as decoration, the stand, maybe water used to fill the stand, and so on. It’s all included in the calculation,” is how Matthias Fischer explains the principles behind collecting the relevant data. The life cycle assessment also embraces the various phases which all these individual components run through. Each product has a past history. “First we look at where each product comes from, and how it was processed and transported all the way to your living room at Christmas.”
The tree, for instance, was planted, grew thanks to sunlight, water and nutrients from the soil, and was then felled and transported to us on a truck. The candles were also produced using raw materials and energy. Each individual step always generates emissions, wastewater, solid waste, etc. – and all of these are important items in the Life Cycle Assessment. Then there is the usage phase. “With a Christmas tree you’re looking at two weeks on average,” says Matthias Fischer. A host of different aspects are factored into the researchers’ calculations, such as how often the candles are lit and hence how often they have to be changed, or whether the tree is watered. At the end comes the recycling phase. Here, the ornaments are put back into their boxes so they can be used again the following year. Ideally, the wood from the tree is processed further in order to utilize its full potential wherever possible. It can be used, for instance, to provide heat or energy. We need to be careful though: “You can’t simply burn a Christmas tree,” warns Matthias Fischer. “Regulations exist that govern how long wood needs to be stored and dried before being burned as fuel, so as to minimize emissions.”
Taking all these aspects together enables the life cycle assessment to be drawn up. This provides an assessment of the sustainability of a product such as a Christmas tree and of its usage. In order to make this task easier, scientists from Fraunhofer IBP have co-developed the GaBi software. This allows complex system models to be created and evaluated according to different criteria, for instance a product system’s environmental impact or Life Cycle Costs. In this way it is possible to determine variables such as the cost/benefit factor. “The Christmas tree on its own doesn’t come out that badly. But you certainly can’t just look at just the environmental aspect. You also have to consider the feel-good factor and the experience that is Christmas since these aspects, after all, are easily just as important,” explains Matthias Fischer, as he poses the question: “What would Christmas be without a Christmas tree?”
Life Cycle Engineering with all its aspects and methods can certainly be seen as a key factor in future developments across a number of sectors. “We need to be aware of where products come from and how human behavior impacts on the way those products are used. One of the key questions is: how can I satisfy my needs – without having to make compromises? From this point of view, manufacturers should develop and produce products more efficiently from the outset.” The Life Cycle Assessment helps, for instance, in deciding which concepts or products should best be used for a given set of conditions, or where there are shortcomings and how you can eliminate these to prevent them from occurring in the first place. Matthias Fischer explains: “It’s about not creating problems in the first place and then having to spend a lot of time and effort eliminating them. It’s really about thinking beforehand where problems might arise and avoiding them from the outset. The motto is: the best kind of energy is energy that isn’t consumed in the first place.”

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