MATERIALS, Let’s Do the Life Cycle!

By Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, April 5, 2010

Grade Level

  • Middle School


  • Green Design

Subject Area

  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • Social Studies
  • Technology

Lesson Time

1.5 hours


What stories would our products tell if they could talk?  Many of the products we use everyday go through a process of production and distribution that is often times destructive to our planet and our own health. The way we manufacture and design products consumes vast quantities of water and energy while simultaneously emitting greenhouse gases and air emissions into the atmosphere. The story behind this process is sometimes referred to as a product’s life cycle. This life cycle encompasses the journey of a product from the beginning design phases to final use and disposal; or as designer William Mcdonough would say from “cradle to grave.” Designers today use a life cycle analysis to help them design new ways of making this process more efficient and less impactful on the environment.
In this lesson students will learn about the life cycle of products by understanding key concepts in U.S. History and Economics. Students will consider the progression of the industrial revolution in the 1870s and the economic boom that followed post-WWII. This provides an excellent starting point to explore the changing methods of trade, resource extraction and manufacturing in the United States. Students will use these time periods as a reference for understanding the life cycle of products and services used currently and in the past. For instance, how has the industrial revolution changed the way we produce and manufacture everyday items? Students will conduct a life cycle analysis of one sample product they use every day, then design a new process that is more sustainable and earth-friendly.

National Standards

Common Core Literacy for Other Subjects
Grades 6-8
Common Core Literacy for Other Subjects
Grades 6-8
Level III (Grade 6-8)
Level III (Grade 6-8)
United States History
Level III (Grade 7-8)


• Students will learn about concepts related to a product’s life cycle and how to calculate impacts related to this system.
• Students will consider the Industrial Revolution’s role in design and product development today.
• Students will gain an understanding of the impacts of product design and manufacturing on the earth.
• Students will use design-thinking strategies to imagine new life cycles and processes of everyday products and services.


Investigate Abbott Miller’s FSC Certified Wood projects in the Design for a Living World archive. How is the Forest Stewardship Council certifying its wood and how can this process benefit our environment?
Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum Exhibition Archive Packaging the New: Design and the American Consumer, 1925-1975 is a great exhibition to reference during this lesson.  Consider designers like Raymond Loewy who encouraged the advent of planned obsolescence, or products that are designed to be temporary and cannot be repaired.
Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, National Design Triennial 2010
Consider an example from the 2010 National Design Triennial: IceStone. In 2008, IceStone achieved cradle-to-cradle gold certification due to its use of recycled and VOC-free content, its sustainable manufacturing process, and its concern with the welfare of employees.


Life Cycle Assessment worksheets, poster paper, markers, Story of Stuff video


• Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) - Is the investigation and evaluation of the environmental impacts of a given product or service caused or necessitated by its existence.
• Closed Loop Production - Is making the chain of extraction-production-distribution-consumption-disposal work in a circle or cycle rather than as a straight line.


Introduction: Production Consumption Cycle (10 minutes – Review)
In this session we are going to talk about some of the environmental and social impacts of the production-consumption cycle. We are also going to learn how to conduct a life cycle assessment to help us minimize these impacts and come up with more efficient designs.
The production-consumption cycle comprises the steps and processes involved in taking raw materials, like cotton or petroleum, and manufacturing them into products that are distributed to consumers. The cycle has some basic steps including: resource extraction, production (manufacturing), distribution, consumption and disposal. Explain that many of the products we buy and use everyday in the United States are made in other countries and are a part of a global system of trade, resource extraction and cheap labor.
Break down the cycle for students. Draw a straight line on the board with 5 points equally spaced along the line. Start to explain the series of steps involved in the cycle starting with extraction and ending with disposal:
1) Extraction – Raw materials like minerals, petroleum or water are extracted from the earth
2) Production – These raw materials are transformed or manufactured into a product
3) Distribution – This product is distributed to regional centers for individual store suppliers
4) Consumption – These products arrive in stores where they are purchased by individuals
5) Disposal – The average lifespan of products we buy at the store is about 10 minutes – then we throw it away
Warm Up Activity: Real Costs Jeopardy
Students can play a jeopardy style game as a warm up. The objective is to highlight many of the hidden economic and environmental costs consumer products absorb when they reach a final retail outlet. Most of the time we forget to consider the environmental and social impacts of production and consumption.
Setup a grid with 2 categories on the board: “The Real Cost” and the “On the Shelf Cost.” Ask each team of students to guess within a $5 range of error – "on the shelf” price of that product and the “real” cost of the product depending on which category they choose.
(i.e. a computer from Dell costs about $700-800 but factoring in the costs of environmental remediation from extracting raw materials and the eventual e-waste cleanup of the unit – the cost balloons to over $2500.)
It’s impossible to calculate all of the environmental externalities (or costs) associated with a product for your jeopardy game. To estimate and drive home the point, you can use the following criteria that consider various ecological externalities:
• Habitat Restoration – add 5% of the “off the shelf cost” to the “real cost”
• Health Related – add 10%
• Transportation – add 15%
• Climate Change – add 5%
Total: add an extra 35% to get your “real cost”
By the end of the game, students should realize that we don’t factor in the environmental or social impacts of many of the products and services we consume everyday.
Environmental Impacts (10 minutes – Investigate)
After discussing the Production/Consumption cycle, transition to a discussion about the environmental impacts of this process:
• Extraction – The first step is the step where the most damage to the earth occurs. The extraction of raw resources like minerals, water, trees and oil causes a multitude of environmental impacts that we may not witness on a daily basis. What to look for? Offshore drilling operations, quarries, logging operations and piping systems.
  o Environmental Impact – Habitat destruction, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, erosion
• Production - At the production stage, things go into high gear. Extracted raw materials are processed in factories (i.e. smelting facilities, chemical processing plants) around the world. The raw materials are chemically and physically treated to transform into a good to sell on the market. In this process, vast quantities of electricity, water and fuels are consumed.  Additionally, millions of tons of wastes are created ranging from air emissions to liquid runoff.
  o Environmental Impact - Air emissions (greenhouse gases, SOx NOx, particulate matter), runoff of contaminants, processing of wastes, electricity/fuel consumption
• Distribution – At the distribution stage, products from the manufacturing facility are transported thousands of miles to a shop or distribution center. The burning of gasoline and diesel fuels presents a number of air quality challenges that affect human and environmental health (climate change, asthma, cancer).
  o Environmental Impact – Air emissions (CO2 and other byproducts from burning diesel and gasoline)
• Consumption – At the consumption stage, we worry more about the operation of storefronts and warehouse centers. These buildings consume electricity, water, materials and take up open space and land through their construction. For instance, it takes a lot of resources to operate a Walmart 24/7. With thousands of locations the impacts begin to add up.
• Disposal – Finally at the disposal stage we are concerned with waste and landfills. We throw away vast amounts of materials that will never decompose and take up space in landfills where toxic gases like methane and liquids like leachate gather. These substances threaten water quality and land use.
Math Connection: Life Cycle of a Mobile Phone
1) Mobile phone users in the United States increased from 340,000 people in 1985 to approximately 141 million people in 2009.
A. This means that on average, how many NEW mobile phone users are there per year?
B. In 2009 there were roughly ___ times more American mobile phone users than in 1985.
2) Approximately 78% of teenagers in the United States own a mobile phone.
A. If 200 teenagers go to your school, about how many of them own a mobile phone?
B. What if 1,500 teenagers go to your school? Then about how many own a mobile phone?
3) Did you know that, on average, mobile phones are used for only 18 months before being replaced? Most unused phones are stored in drawers or closets before eventually being thrown away. In fact, more than 30 million mobile phones are lying unused in American homes and businesses.
A. If a person buys a new mobile phone every 18 months, how many phones will they buy in 6 years?
4) In 2009, it was estimated that more than 129 million mobile phones—17,300 tons of waste—will be discarded annually. This potentially serious environmental problem can easily be avoided by understanding how to reuse and recycle phones, prolonging their useful life.
A. Suppose that 300 million mobile phones have already been discarded by the end of 2008. Using the mobile phone discard rate above, how many TOTAL mobile phones will be discarded by the end by 2009?
B. At the estimated 2009 rate of discarding cell phones, how many years will it take to discard 750 million phones?
C. 750 million discarded mobile phones is equal to ___ tons of waste?
(Source: EPA)
The Life Cycle Process (10 minutes - Frame Problem)
The “Cradle to Cradle” concept was introduced by Walter Stahel more than 25 years ago in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1976, as director of a project on product life extension at Battelle research laboratories, Stahel embarked on a program to return products to useful lives. He analyzed cars and buildings on microeconomic (local) and macroeconomic (global) basis and concluded that every extension of a product’s life saved enormous amounts of resources in contrast to using new raw materials.
This research resulted in what is now known as a life cycle assessment. The life cycle assessment is a comprehensive examination of the environmental and economic effects of a product at every stage of its existence, from production to disposal. In 1995, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), a product and process design firm, developed a set of principles now used widely to conduct life cycle analyses of products and services. These principles include, among others:
• Materials - The materials in the design of the product must take into account human and environmental health. Do the materials being used contribute to a release of toxic or harmful substances?
• Design for material reuse -  A product must be designed with reuse and recycling of all components and materials during the entire production and consumption cycle.
• Renewable energy/energy efficiency - The manufacturing, distribution and production of the product has maximized renewable energies and efficiently used energy when needed.
• Water use and quality - Water conservation was taken into account during the production and consumption of a product.
• Social responsibility - The product takes into account the responsibility of the labor, techniques and materials used in the making of the product.
The term “life cycle” refers to the major activities in the course of the product’s life-span from its manufacture, use, and maintenance, to its final disposal, including the raw material acquisition required to manufacture the product.
Businesses and companies now use the life cycle assessment to make their products more efficient, saving the company money while reducing impacts on the environment. It allows one to see the full reach of a product’s impact from resource extraction to final use.
As an example of a product that has considered the life cycle process, look at Kraftplex and Kareline’s PLMS6040 Compostable Polymer in the 2010 National Design Triennial.
Kraftplex: Kraftplex is a 100% biodegradable alternative to plastic and metal sheeting. Made exclusively of high-quality cellulose fibers from sustainably harvested soft wood, this flexible fiberboard is manufactured using only water, pressure and heat, without chemical additives, bleaches or binding agents.
Kareline’s PLMS6040 Compostable Polymer: Kareline’s PLMS is a natural, fiber-reinforced PLA (polylactic acid) that is biodegradable and has applications for consumer electronics, packaging, toys and other goods. The matrix plastic is PLA, a compostable thermoplastic that is derived from renewable resources such as corn starch and sugar cane.
Life Cycle Challenge (20 minutes – Generate)
It is time to test out students' knowledge of the life cycle assessment process. Design teams are given a popular item on which to conduct a life cycle survey. Each team must complete a life cycle assessment that considers the four EPA criteria listed below.
1) Goal Definition and Scoping - Define and describe the product, process or activity. Establish the context in which the assessment is to be made and identify the boundaries and environmental effects to be reviewed for the assessment.
2) Inventory Analysis - Identify and quantify energy, water and materials usage and environmental releases (e.g., air emissions, solid waste disposal, waste water discharges).
3) Impact Assessment - Assess the potential human and ecological effects of energy, water, and material usage and the environmental releases identified in the inventory analysis.
4) Interpretation - Evaluate the results of the inventory analysis and impact assessment to select the preferred product, process or service with a clear understanding of the uncertainty and the assumptions used to generate the results.  (From EPA)
Here are some suggested products to have teams analyze:

Design Team





Raw Materials: Plastic casing, aluminum, various heavy metals, silicon, glass Eco-Impacts: air emissions from smelting of metal, solid wastes issues, silicon harvesting

Where: California



Raw Materials: Cotton, Dyes, Metal Buttons/Zippers Eco-Impacts: Land Use, electricity, harmful dyes cause runoff into groundwater

Where: Atlanta, GA, United States


Nike Shoes

Raw Materials: Rubber, Cotton, Nylon, Plastics Eco-Impacts: Air Emissions from rubber processing, packaging

Where: Shanghai, China


Mobile Phone

Raw Materials: Plastic Casing, aluminum, various heavy metals, silicon, glass Eco-Impacts: Toxic materials in soil/water, waste creation

Where: Moscow, Russia

Each team should create a diagram that shows the product's production (from raw materials to manufacturing) use and then disposal. For great examples and visual essays of everything from how fortune cookies are made to bottle water, look at How Stuff is Made, a project by designer and artist Natalie Jeremijenko at
If time allows, create a research connection for each team. Challenge them to create a visual essay of the products on which they conduct life cycles.
Once the life cycle analysis has been completed, challenge students to redesign, re-brand and reinvent their product to be more eco-friendly. Use the life cycle as a guide for innovative thinking. What kinds of eco-friendly materials could be used as substitute? How can manufacturing be less impactful and local? (Edit and Develop)
Finally, each team should share new life cycles or products with the class. Think of applications and “markets” for this new product and discuss as a class. End by talking about the offset environmental impacts these new designs present. (Share and Finalize)


Reflection Questions
  • What consumer goods will you use at home tonight?  Will you play a video game, watch TV or turn a lamp on to finish your homework?  What are some materials used in these products?
  • Do you or your parents/guardians have mobile phones?  If so, for how long will the phone(s) be used?  Six months, a year, two years?
  • How could planned obsolescence benefit corporate interest?

Enrichment Extension Activities

Differentiation for Elementary School:
  • The EPA website has a variety of education materials for K-5 classrooms. They include worksheets, quizzes and games that will help your students learn about waste, recycling, energy, water use, etc.
  • Choose one product and conduct its Life Cycle analysis together as a class.
  • In design groups, students can draw a visual map of the product's Life Cycle, step-by-step.
  • Students can then redesign the same product to be more eco-friendly. Encourage students to brainstorm wild ideas for each step in the Life Cycle. They can then redraw their product's Life Cycle map, visually incorporating their redesign ideas for each step.
  • During class presentations, students can share and compare their two maps with the class.
Differentiation for High School:
  • Encourage students to share the information in this lesson plan with their friends and family. This can be done through a blog that documents their research and findings, a video that is produced by the class and posted on youtube, a school-wide Life Cycle Awareness Day planned and executed by the class, etc.

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