There is growing demand for environmentally-friendly products. As consumers become more educated, they are paying attention to the full range of environmental effects related to products –such as the source, production use and disposal.
With new data on global warming driving up consumer awareness, plastic packaging has come under a high level of scrutiny in the public eye. The pressure is on from not just the consumers but also from policy makers who are passing stricter legislation for health safety and waste management.
For these reasons, brands have begun to take a more holistic approach to social responsibility, demanding increased visibility up the supply chain. Polymer manufacturers— key players within the supply stream—are now held accountable to take greener initiatives.
Polymer manufacturers are faced with environmental challenges
Most polymers used today are derived from petroleum— a non-renewable resource. Plastics take up 4% of the world’s oil consumption, and public concern is growing on the large portion of landfills they take up, considering their non-biodegradable composition. In addition, the VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) released in the air as well as the hazardous waste from manufacturing process negatively affect the community and environment around the polymer plants.
As both end consumers and brands are becoming more sensitive to these environmental issues, it is critical for polymer manufacturers to come up with solutions that will drive efficiency, process change and differentiation of their products. Here are some helpful ways to think about this challenge:
Assess your product’s current impact on the environment: You need to know your product’s life cycle impact—you can’t manage what you don’t measure. How much energy are you utilizing? Are you complying with all the environmental regulations? How much of your feedstock comes from recycled content? What happens to your product after consumer use?
Innovate your way to sustainability: Whether it is finding an alternative to petro-based polymers or incorporating smarter packaging or adapting to a more efficient manufacturing process, capitalizing on this new market focus can deliver long-run advantages. Find alternatives to your environmental problems through product innovation and operational efficiency.
Communicate your efforts to stakeholders: It is important to support your initiatives with communications that have both authenticity and hard data. Whether is in comparison to peers or your own past performance, messaging your work well will increase awareness of your business among key audiences, gain product credibility and avoid green washing accusations.
An international polymer manufacturer was able to take a more competitive stance within the market by analyzing the environmental difference between recycled and virgin content in manufacturing PET films through a Life Cycle Assessment. Through this analysis, the manufacturing company was able to rationalize an increase in unit price while increasing sales to consumer product companies through clearer product differentiation.
Environmental accountability is fast becoming a core part of polymer sales and product development, with consumers driving growth in the ‘green’ packaging market. In order meet this demand, brands are communicating with their suppliers up the value chain to take sustainable initiatives. By assessing and reducing their environmental impact, polymer manufacturers will be able to gain competitive differentiation for their products.
International Energy Agency (IEA) announced this past Monday that CO2 emission levels for 2010 have broken the record of being the highest yet in history. Growing public concern for climate change, cost of resources as well as tighter governmental regulations are expected to escalate—this calls for businesses to refocus on their CO2 emissions.
Current emission level makes UN’s climate goals highly unattainable
UN climate change talks in Cancun last year set the cap for global temperature to 2°C, which scientists believe would be the “threshold for dangerous climate change.” With recent estimates on carbon emission, this goal seems farfetched. The IEA’s 2010 World Energy Outlook suggested that in order to stay below the 2°C target, carbon emissions in 2020 must not exceed 32 Gt. However, with 1.6 gigatonnes (Gt) increase in emissions last year, it will only take 1.4 more to reach 32 Gt. (Refer to chart below)
In addition, IEA stated that 80% of the future carbon emissions from the power plants for 2020 are already locked-in, with most of the infrastructure newly built or currently under construction. Overall, this is an urgent blinking yellow light, warning us of projected climate change and the serious consequences that are associated with it.
“This is a wakeup call for all of us,” says Andrew Keenan, CMO of Verus, “CO2 emissions will continue to spike even though climate change no longer makes front-page news. This calls for a serious action.” There are opportunities for business owners to think ahead and to take the lead on reducing their carbon footprint. Many pressing factors that make this a time-sensitive matter.
Growing public concern for climate change: With 2°C increase in temperature, come serious consequences that will endanger the environment and the livelihoods of people. Heat waves, sea level rise, floods among many other occurrences will disrupt the lives of millions of human beings as well as other life forms on earth. Consumers, activists, stakeholders as well as organizations driven by social missions will be taking an even more fervent stance in promoting green initiatives.
Changing costs and availability of resources: Attempting to reduce global carbon emission means higher energy costs and carbon taxes for businesses. Fuel prices are subjected to increase and it is important for businesses to become more fuel efficient in their operations in order to cope with these changes. As more companies reach higher level of efficiency, they will be able to cut costs and lessen their carbon footprints. In addition, carbon emissions increase is a global issue and therefore, there are cost implications even if you are outsourcing overseas.
Tighter government regulation: Following IEA’s announcement of the 2010’s carbon emission level, global leaders will be stepping up to regulate carbon emissions on a more rigorous level. While businesses across industries will be impacted by such adjustment, heavy-emitters such as those within energy, cement and other industries that burn a lot of fossil fuels.
Businesses should take initiative by reassessing their carbon footprint
Climate change should no longer be on the backburner. The 2010 carbon emission level provides strong evidence that action must be taken now. In order to meet public demand and governmental control and to offset the expected rise in resource costs, businesses should evaluate their current carbon footprints up their supply chain and consider ways to become more efficient and sustainable.
Life Cycle Assessment—a tool that evaluates environmental impacts on a product-level life cycle—delivers valuable information to companies that can impact their financial performance as well as strategic stance.
Sometimes called “cradle-to-grave” or “cradle-to-cradle” analysis, LCAs take a holistic approach in evaluating factors in product manufacturing that impact the environment. The analysis provides a methodology to assess often hidden factors starting with raw materials, how the materials that make up the product are transported and what methods are used for consumption and disposal.
LCAs allow companies to integrate environmental consideration into core business operations, revealing opportunities for improvement as well as strategic issues. Overall, information from an LCA can help top management make informed decisions that will impact their company’s top and bottom line and help develop a sound strategy.
Impacting Top-and-Bottom Line
LCAs link environmental impact with financial implications by identifying fuel, energy and environmental risks, but also by identifying ways to cut costs and improve processes within the scope of a product. With the comprehensive performance data from an LCA, managers can better identify where fuel and energy are being spent and thus focus on where improvements can be made. By mitigating environmental issues and achieving more efficient and low-impact operations, companies are also able to achieve top-line growth.
An LCA of for a building product manufacturer revealed that a huge amount of energy use was resulting from a common practice which involves burning off natural gas to destroy toxins before they reached the atmosphere. Using findings from the LCA, the company focused on this as an opportunity to decrease energy use and boost environmental performance, and successfully pursued a grant from their State Department of Energy to purchase a cogeneration unit to capture the wasted energy. As a result, the company was able to lower its long-term costs by adapting to a more energy-efficient process, which also decreased its carbon footprint.
Developing a Sound Strategy
Protecting the environment is no longer restricted to extending a company’s social responsibility. More importantly, it has become a matter of strategy and a source for competitive advantage. The benefit of LCAs can vary according to the specific pains and interests of a company. This information allows top management to make key decisions in defining the strategic direction of its products or company by conforming to emerging client buying preferences, risks and challenges within the regulatory landscape, as well as identifying opportunities for improvement and innovation.
TreeZero Paper Products—an innovative company that creates paper products without the use of trees—underwent a life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions analysis that helped define it product’s environmental advantages over tree-based paper. Its unique process of using bagasse from sugar cane and bamboo from waste scaffolding was validated through the LCA and as a result, TreeZero was able to launch a new product by taking a strategic stance that distinguishes its product from traditional paper products.
Whether it is a product manager needing to differentiate product benefits, or a CEO looking to understand the risks and rewards inherent in their business, environmental analysis has never been more important. LCAs offer directed, meaningful analyses which tell a story about the energy and effect of a product or process, providing critical data to the supply chain, marketing and strategic management.
[Re-posted with permission from SACE]
Southern Alliance for Clean Energy recently underwent a short stint of navel gazing by calculating its annual carbon footprint for the second time, and we took appropriate action to attain carbon neutral certification for 2010. While SACE can still make many improvements, we have taken steps to more accurately measure our carbon footprint than in years past, and are excited to share the results.
SACE’s carbon footprint in 2009 and 2010 was calculated based on Scope 1, 2 and 3 carbon emissions. This means we account for the carbon dioxide equivalent of greenhouse gases emitted from our direct energy consumption.
Examples of Scope 1, 2 and 3 GHG emissions. Source U.S. EPA
For SACE that consists of our biodiesel manufacturing, offices, transportation and accommodations for work-related events, waste, and staff commutes to the office. In 2009, our carbon footprint was 260 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2). Last year, in 2010, we had a carbon footprint of 200 metric tons of CO2, a significant reduction.
Becoming Carbon Neutral
In 2009 and 2010, SACE reduced our carbon footprint by participating in TVA’s Green Power Switch. Through this program, we purchased five 150 kWh blocks of green power each month.
This totaled 9000 kWh for the year, which offset about half of the electricity consumption from our Knoxville office. The remainder of our carbon emissions were accounted for by purchasing carbon dioxide offsets from the Chicago Climate Exchange Registry by Verus Carbon Neutral, the company that we chose to review our carbon footprint and provides us with our annual carbon neutral certification. The Chicago Climate Exchange Registry is a voluntary, for-profit greenhouse gas trading system. Verus Carbon Neutral purchased 100 metric tons of offsets from Wright’s Dairy Farm and 112 metric tons of offsets from Valley Wood Forestry to offset our carbon emissions.
As you can see in the chart below, we have some overlap in our carbon offsets. This is because we erred on the side of caution and purchased a few extra carbon offsets, making SACE a bit carbon negative this year! We also did not count our recycling credit granted by Verus Carbon Neutral, that credit is not shown in the chart below.
Based on these actions, Verus Carbon Neutral was able to certify SACE as carbon neutral company in 2010.
Managing our Footprint
As the old adage goes, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. The first step SACE took in managing its carbon footprint was simply to begin tracking it. While our CO2 emissions from 2009 to 2010 were reduced, the components of our footprint also changed.
This chart compares SACE’s carbon emissions from 2009 and 2010
As shown in the accompanying chart, our travel emissions were about 50% less in 2010 than in 2009, and our transportation emissions went up by about 50%. This was due to a few different reasons. Our transportation emissions are from the diesel consumed in trucks used in our biodiesel operations. These emissions changed from 2009 to 2010 because we drove our trucks more miles, and we also used different biodiesel/diesel blend levels. Our travel emissions – emissions from transportation and accommodations for work-related events – were reduced partly because of a shift in programmatic priorities, as well as a conscious effort to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions from flying.
Moving forward, we plan to more proactively manage our carbon footprint – now that we have an idea of the amount, and how we are consuming carbon. For context, 200 metric tons of carbon dioxide is the equivalent of the emissions from the annual electricity use of about 22 homes in the United States.
Recently, SACE purchased an office building in Knoxville, which presents many opportunities for reducing our energy consumption (and resulting carbon dioxide emissions) on site. Retrofits on our building to save energy are already underway, including foaming our external walls, installing Solatubes, and upgrading our lighting system. This week, Pioneer Heating and Air Conditioning is beginning to install a vertical loop geothermal system that we anticipate will reduce our cooling and heating electricity consumption by 70%.
We are also looking for ways to improve our data tracking, which may result in a lower carbon footprint simply because we have better information. For example, Verus uses a model that estimates building electricity consumption based on location and building type. The building model assumption for our Knoxville office is 60% higher than our actual energy usage.
Similarly, employees usually attempt to rent fuel-efficient vehicles for work related travel. However, we did not record the miles per gallon, or make of the vehicles, so, to be conservative we used the 2010 vehicle MPG average (27 MPG). This year, we have encouraged employees to record the make and model of their rental vehicles so we can more precisely track gallons of fuel consumed. We hope that by elevating employee’s awareness of how we are consuming carbon, we will also encourage creative solutions to reducing our emissions.
We also have learned that calculating a carbon footprint is still a bit of an art, particularly when you are getting started. We encourage anyone that is tracking their carbon footprint, on their own or with a consultant, to verify the assumptions being made and double-check the final output – as you would with any analysis. Half of the value of calculating a carbon footprint is understanding how and where you consume carbon. We will keep you posted on how we do in 2011!
We all see sustainability reports and environmental claims with statements such as: “it’s like taking X cars off the road” or “it’s like saving Y trees.” Equivalents like these are designed to help us understand what CO2 looks like. Let’s take a look behind the curtain…
Metric Tons of CO2 per year
Whether you’re offsetting the emissions or preventing them from occurring altogether, the most common metric is mass of GHG per year, usually in metric tons of CO2 annually.
But what does a metric ton of CO2 look like? If you were to build a cube to represent one metric ton of CO2, it would measure 27’ on all sides. Keep that in mind as we look at the other measures of emissions.
Number of Passenger Cars
This is probably the most common equivalency that people use. In order to accurately use it, you have to make a few generalizations first. We will assume that gasoline is only considered, the average fuel economy of a passenger vehicle is 20.3 MPG (this includes a weighted average of cars and light trucks), and the average vehicle is driven 12,000 miles per year. Again, these are all averages that must be made for this equivalency to be used.
The result is that a passenger vehicle emits about 5.5 metric tons of CO2 per year.
Number of Trees
Carbon sequestration through trees is another popular means to quantify green claims. Of course, carbon sequestration rates vary by tree species, soil type, regional climate, topography and management practice. According to American Forests, sequestering one metric ton of CO2 equals about 3.6 trees planted per year.
This means a single tree sequesters about .277 metric tons of CO2 over 40 years.
Area of Cropland
Carbon dioxide is not the only GHG; below is an example of the relative greenhouse gas impact of N2O and methane compared to CO2. N2O emissions originate largely from soil in cropland.
1.1 acres of cropland emit our normalized metric ton of CO2-e, so a typical average per acre emission rate is .91 metric tons of CO2e.
Area of Ocean Cover
At the upper layers of the ocean, photosynthesis occurs and enables the sequestration of carbon dioxide. According NASA, much of the world’s ocean area absorbs about .25kgC per square meter per year. This amounts to…
1091m2 of ocean cover to sequester a metric ton of CO2.
Amount of Coal Burned
Looking at EPA data, if you were to burn a single metric ton of coal, you would release 2.1 metric tons of CO2. If you extrapolate this to something relatable, like a railcar full of coal, you would release about 191.5 metric tons of CO2.
2.1 metric tons of CO2 is released by a metric ton of burned coal.
Household Energy Use
Given average household energy use, an American releases roughly 12.9 metric tons of CO2. This, of course, is a broad generalization. Each state uses a different mix of fossil fuels and renewables to generate electricity, which affects its carbon footprint. For example:
- Indiana is 24 metric tons of CO2.
- New York is 6.8 metric tons of CO2.
- Californian is 3.4 metric tons of CO2.
- A metric ton of CO2 is like a 27’ cube
- A passenger vehicle emits 5.5
- A tree sequesters .277
- An acre of crops emits .91
- A metric ton of coal releases 2.1
2 cars ~ 5-6 metric tons of coal ~ 12 acres ~ 40 trees
Earlier we looked at how cutting red meat and adopting a more vegetarian diet can shrink your carbon footprint, but what about organic food? The term “organic” gets tossed around a lot, so let’s lay out the definition right here. Organic farming attempts to maximize crop and water quality by eliminating “external inputs,” or synthetic fertilizers and pesticides as well as genetically modified crops.
While there are many ways to achieve this effect (Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma looks at, among other things, the comparison of these very different organic farming methods), the main characteristic is that synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are not used.
On a per-land area basis, organic wins big: The graph above shows the environmental impacts of conventional and organic farming, and as we can see, the organic farming method was cleaner in every metric, from carbon footprint to toxicity to humans. Read the rest of this entry »
When you consider production, land use change and transportation, agriculture is a carbon-intensive sector, contributing to about 6% of all U.S. greenhouse (GHG) emissions. More specifically, it is also responsible for 25% of the country’s methane (CH4) emissions and over 2/3 of nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions, both of which trap more heat than CO2. Since not all foods have the same impact, which ones are worse than others?
Click graph to enlarge
Read the rest of this entry »
If you’re like me you try to recycle everything and you cringe when you see someone toss an aluminum can in the trash. But have you ever really thought about all the benefits of recycling? And what about all the recycling that happens on an industrial level?
The act of recycling means that some one’s trash ends up as content for a new product. But that’s only part of the story. The use of recycled content actually reduces the product’s carbon footprint. Let’s take the average Coke can for example, the mining and smelting of aluminum is extremely carbon intensive, but using recycled aluminum has only 5% of the energy impact. The ink on an aluminum can acts as a fuel to help melt it down into liquid form. Aluminum is also infinitely recyclable, strong and lightweight, which lowers its environmental impact even more over time.
Plastics are more complicated materials to recycle, but the results are well worth the effort. First they must be sorted according to their polymer (PET, PE-HD, PVC, etc.). Then they are ground into chips, washed in a bath to remove impurities and melted into pellets. Adding recycled plastic to virgin plastic greatly reduces the amount of energy needed to make a new product, reducing energy to make the new product and lowering its carbon footprint. Studies show that by using 72% recycled PET flakes a 72% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) can be achieved.
Paper is perhaps the most common recycled material. But because the fibers that hold paper together are shorten each time they are recycled, paper has a life of only seven generations. Recycling paper helps to resolve two contributors to GHG production. First, keeping paper out of landfills reduces anaerobic decomposition that creates methane, a potent GHG. Second, it uses less energy to recycle paper versus harvesting and processing virgin timber. According to the Environmental Defense Fund’s Paper Calculator, even recycled content of only 30% can yield reductions in GHGs of over 12%.
There are two types of recycled content, which come from the origins of the waste: Post-consumer and pre-consumer. Post-consumer content is pretty straightforward coming from the common recycling efforts of you and me. Although companies may also be considered “consumers” and many recycle vast amounts of packaging materials.
Defining pre-consumer recycling is more complicated because there is some room for interpretation. If waste materials from a manufacturing process are normally sent to a landfill but diverted by a third-party and sold to another company, it is safe to say that the materials qualify for pre-consumer recycled content. If the company simply feeds its own scraps back into its manufacturing process, it cannot claim that it uses recycled content.
Recycled content is based on the total mass of the product less its packaging, although it’s possible for packaging to also contain recycled content. The content is expressed in percentages. The Federal Trade Commission allows pre-consumer and post-consumer percentages to be combined, but consumer trends demand that the two be separated.
If your company is using recycled content in the manufacturer of its products and wishes to receive a third-party certification, please contact us. You can also learn more here.
Just one of Disney’s toys, a Winnie the Pooh plush, generated ten metric tons of cardboard waste in its packaging alone. Thanks to a life cycle assessment and a product redesign, that number has been slashed to two metric tons. The picture shows that the change involved removing the plush from the cardboard “seat” and replacing it with a “saddle.” In addition to cutting material waste, the new toy can also be packed into trucks for transit more efficiently; transportation costs will be cut from the reduced packing space required for each toy.
Life cycle assessments can be performed on products that might not seem like they need them and result in efficiencies that would never be expected. In Disney’s case, this reduction in material waste resulted in removing 10 metric tons of GHG emissions. This small contribution can translate into massive emissions reductions if this “efficiency mindset” is applied to a growing number of products and processes.
In light of the climate negotiations at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP16), EnviroMedia Social Marketing released a survey on Americans knowledge of the connection between personal energy use and developing nations. The agree/disagree statement that was presented to the 1,022 respondents was phrased, “My personal energy use affects the health and living conditions of people in poor, developing countries.” The logic behind the statement is that because America’s energy mix is fairly carbon-intensive, Americans’ energy use contributes to climate change. Because climate change has been shown to negatively impact developing nations (via sea-level rise and agricultural impacts, among others), personal energy use is linked to the wellbeing of developing countries. Here are the results of who agreed with the statement:
64% of Democrats
60% of 18-34 year-olds
37% of Republicans
These results clash with a UN survey that showed that roughly 90% of Americans want the US to support UN projects that improve the health of citizens of developing nations, including access to drinking water and reversing the spread of malaria, poverty and hunger. This discrepancy shows Americans’ lack of understanding that their personal actions, like energy use, have a global impact. The good news is that Americans actively want these positive changes for poorer countries; once they more fully understand the impacts of their choices, they can begin to create real global change.
Still, we have a long way to go. When asked if coal is a renewable resource, 25% said “Yes” and another 15% said “I don’t know.” The survey also asked Americans, “When you turn on a light switch at home, what fuel is the source of your electricity?” Nearly two-thirds of Americans didn’t even name a fuel source like coal, natural gas, or wind, with 45% saying the fuel source is “Electricity” or “The electric company,” and another 19% saying “I don’t know.”