Long March Toward Sustainability Begins

Companies consider reducing carbon footprint only one of the key steps necessary for sustainability.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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"In Europe there is a drive for LCAs, so companies are forced to do them. In the U.S. companies are using the tools internally for their own purposes. But standardization comes from sharing and I think a lot of companies in the U.S. are working on this," she adds.

"One of the reasons for the success of MATGAS is because it is connected into external work going on within the EU and in Spain with LCA. This helps us stay up-to-date with progress in LCA analysis outside of our own company," notes Collins.

One of the initiatives springing from this connection is a sustainable technology center currently being set up by Collins to carry out LCAs for the whole corporation.

BASF, which took top honors in a recent survey of chemical companies' effectiveness in using resources ("Sustainability Proves Its Worth"), also takes an holistic approach to LCAs, advocating environmental assessments that draw up a complete ecological picture with comprehensive criteria. In addition, these should consider economic and, if possible, social criteria for assessing sustainability, it says.

Like Dow, the company cautions that carbon footprint only forms part of the complete LCA. "The data on carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases only make sense for our customers and the end-consumers if they are seen and assessed in connection with other ecological factors such as energy consumption, raw material consumption, various emission categories, ecotoxicity, water consumption, area requirement and economic criteria. The assessment should take all the individual results into account and provide a clear and readily understandable statement on the sustainability of products. Climate-related product optimizations must not be carried out at the expense of other environmental categories," notes Giuliana Angonoa-Doehnert, senior IT consultant, Ludwigshafen.

So the company emphatically recommends assessing the effects of products on the environment over the whole lifecycle. "Our experience shows that only considering the production phase of products is much too restricted. Only a correct, uniform definition of the system limits and the complete LCA taking the use phase into account — and including the disposal — enables products to be compared and can show our customers the right options for action," she adds.

BASF used this approach for a case study on its polystyrene insulation material Neopor (Figure 2), carried out as part of the Product Carbon Footprint Pilot Project Germany by BASF in association with its Eco-Efficiency group and nine other companies.

The study started from the premise that in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries construction consumes approximately 30% of all raw materials; erection, use and disposal of buildings causes 30–40 % of all GHG emissions; and their operation, especially heating, accounts for 25–40% of total energy demand in the those countries.

"Such numbers show us clearly that it is very important to identify materials for GHG reduction potentials in this area," says the company.

LCA analyses show that for a building used for 40 years an insulated wall leads to 490 metric tons of GHG emissions versus 755 metric tons for an uninsulated one. This, says BASF, highlights the importance of calculating all lifecycle phases, including the use phase, when evaluating a product. It also points up the potential for the development of other innovative insulation materials.

Another study shows the non-intuitive nature of LCAs. Here, the company compared 1,000 kg of organically grown German apples with the same amount of German apples conventionally grown using mineral fertilizers and chemical crop protection products. It evaluated the entire lifecycle of the apples — from the production of fertilizer and crop protection products through to the actual cultivation.

The study indicates that the conventional apple has a slightly better environmental profile. This is because a typical organic apple orchard has an approximately 30% lower yield and growing the organic apple requires more labor to ensure adequate plant protection. Overall, organically grown apples were found to consume 15–25% more energy, emit 5–15% more carbon dioxide and use 30% more land over their lifecycle.

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