The role of washing machines in LCA studies

J. M. Cullen, J. M. Allwood

A key requirement for those in industry and elsewhere who wish to reduce the environmental impact of a product is to develop priorities for action. Life cycle assessment (LCA) is increasingly used to identify such priorities but can be misleading. This article draws attention to two effects that can occur when the system boundary for a product LCA is not defined correctly. We illustrate the washing machine effect- by showing that in separate life cycle studies of clothing, detergents, and washing machines, the use of energy is dominated by operation of the washing machine. All three studies prioritize the use phase for action, but in an aggregated study, double counting of the use-phase impact occurs. We demonstrate the inverse washing machine effect- with an example related to energy used in transport. We show that some activities that are significant on a cumulative basis consistently fall outside the chosen system boundary for individual products. A consequence is that when LCA studies are used for prioritization, they are in danger of overemphasizing the use-phase impacts and overlooking the impacts from indirect activities. These effects, which are broadly understood by LCA developers, appear not to be understood properly by those who use LCA to direct priorities for action. Therefore, practitioners should be wary of using LCA for prioritizing action, and LCA guidance documents should reflect this caution.