How can you make a measurable change? It starts with being able to measure and quantify the impact of our actions, beyond just words.
The Purpose of Impact Measurement
At erthos™, our goal is to make a positive impact on our planet by reducing plastic pollution, while also being conscious of our environmental footprint as a global business. To accomplish this, it’s important to quantify where we’re at today, and what our impact looks like – in numbers. Everything we make, do, and use as a society, has an impact – no matter how small. Take a tree, for example. It starts with a seed, requires water, air, nutrients, and sunlight to grow, and outputs oxygen, CO2, and materials like wood. These inputs and outputs all have different impacts – like greenhouse gas emissions (or uptake), land use, and water use.
Unfortunately, as businesses and consumers, we’re at a point in time where we can no longer ignore our negative environmental footprint. We need to strive to give more than we take from our planet (becoming net positive) or at the very least, minimize our negative impact in every way we can. Environmental impact is not intuitive, and can’t be determined based on how good you think a material or process is. At erthos, our plant powered materials tell a powerful story, backed by real data, to help us drive a movement towards a better planet.
Life Cycle Assessment (LCA): One Method of Measurement
A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is one way to measure the independent or comparable impact of a product or service. LCA is a framework used to take inventory of everything going into and coming out of a process or product, and map those to different environmental effects. There are four main stages of an LCA:
The LCA process isn’t always linear; the stages intermingle and you may need to take a step back to reassess the data collected to see how your assessment is fulfilling the initial purpose.
Industry-Wide Challenges with LCA
For next generation materials like ours, quantifying our impact with LCA has potential, but there’s still work to be done on methods built in a time where comparisons were made on things like plastic vs. metal packaging. In a time where novel and circular materials are making great strides to replace conventional plastics, we need to continuously improve the ways we measure and communicate impact for our partners and our planet.
With new materials and alternative production methods, the same level of scaled-up data to quantify impacts in the same way that conventional materials have, are not yet readily available. Conventional plastics like polypropylene, for example, have had decades to optimize and scale up, to select relevant data that can be used for an LCA. New materials, on the other hand, are working with a limited set of pilot-scale data. This makes an apples-to-apples comparison – the whole intention of an LCA – challenging when the data availability is not on par.
Greenhouse gas emissions are a well known measure of impact for sustainability, but for plastic, there’s a lot more than just emissions to consider when it comes to sustainability. We have yet to accurately quantify the true impacts of plastic waste on nature and society in the same way we can quantify and compare emissions values and their impact on global warming. These similar challenges were highlighted by the European Bioeconomy Alliance (EUBA) in the recently published position paper, supported by European Bioplastics. In this paper, the EUBA summarized the challenges with the LCA framework for direct comparison between conventional plastics and novel biobased alternatives. This position paper highlights the need for modifications to the existing LCA framework and methods, to account for the comparative value that plant powered materials bring to the industry.
To get a better sense for the broader challenges with impact assessment, we chatted with Eric Miller, Director of York University’s Ecological Footprint Initiative, which produces the National Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts for the world. Eric focuses on uncovering the complexities in this field to better understand how to reduce our environmental impact and become more resilient in the face of climate change.
“In my view the greatest challenge of measuring and comparing product impacts is that they cannot all be measured in the same unit. Comparisons need to be made upon a multi-criteria basis, with for example some criteria relating to toxics, others related to carbon, […] to land use, etc. I appreciate that it’s possible to weigh different criteria so that one can mathematically derive a single unit of measure, but those weights will always be subjective. Even with (theoretically) perfect and complete information, this challenge would remain. […] I wish for impact assessment to remain broad even in the face of tremendous global pressures to focus solely on carbon emissions, which has the potential to narrow the range of metrics that inform decisions which could potentially exclude those that are also important to solving other pressing challenges […].” – Eric Miller, Director, Ecological Footprint Initiative, York University.
erthos’ Impacts: Where we are Today
Despite the challenges, we’ve used the LCA framework internally to create a foundation that helps us measure impact in a way that’s powerful, to drive change and iterate continuously on more sustainable materials. At erthos, we’ve completed our own internal LCA for our first material (Eco-Plastic resins) with the help of Mobius (by Ecochain), an online LCA software, to better quantify our impact. Here’s a step-by-step example of how we’ve incorporated the LCA methodology for our own products.
Stage 1: Define Goal & Scope
First, a goal must be set and a scope must be defined. The scopes are typically: cradle-to-gate, gate-to-gate, gate-to-grave, or cradle-to-grave, where “cradle” is the very beginning raw materials, “gate” is the process facility limits, and “grave” is the end of life of the material. The scope determines where the inventory starts and where it ends – without a clear scope, the material inventory could go on forever!
For our initial assessments, we’ve defined our scope as “cradle-to-gate.” This scope allows us to understand the impacts of our materials on everything we can control, from sourcing, to getting raw materials to our facility, to producing our Eco-Plastic resins, and having them ready for partners to turn into sustainable single-use products.
Stage 2: Inventory Analysis
Once a scope is defined, all of the “ins and outs” of the process get put together in the inventory. The inventory is used for mapping impacts of each input and output by looking at their equivalent values for categories like global warming potential, water consumption, etc. The inventory for our erthos materials includes our plant-powered inputs like agricultural byproducts, the transportation to our facility, and the energy and water used in production. Of course there are outputs too – for example, CO2 emissions are attributed to extracting and growing raw materials, as well as transporting them. All of these inputs and outputs are taken into account to be ready for Stage 3: the impact assessment.
Stage 3: Impact Assessment
Based on the inventory we put together, we used data from the EcoInvent v3.5 database along with peer-reviewed reports and journal articles to turn the inputs and outputs into equivalent impacts for 4 key industry metrics. Putting all of that together, below is our impact to-date of the first version of our Eco-Plastic resins produced at pilot scale.
Stage 4: Interpretation of Results
Interpretation is a key stage of an LCA and should happen throughout the assessment. Questions should be asked such as: Are these values realistic? What is the uncertainty in these values? What can we compare this to? How can we use this to make decisions moving forward? The interpretation stage is a chance to appreciate, reflect, and set ambitious goals for future improvement; which is exactly what we’re doing at erthos.
Our internal estimates give us an idea of where we are today, and how we’re providing value through our plant powered materials by looking at estimated reductions in negative impact compared to conventional plastics. Even at a small pilot scale, our impact numbers tell a powerful story. This is a great start – but we aren’t stopping here. Our goal is to continue optimizing our processes and materials to do better, and continue to provide net positive value for our partners and our planet.
Together, We’re Creating a Positive Impact
We recognize the existing gaps with the LCA framework and tools, but it has also allowed us to build a foundation for our impact measurement strategy, and support our partners with data that showcases the value in choosing our sustainable materials for single-use plastic alternatives.
If you’re a brand or manufacturer looking for ways to enhance your sustainability metrics and tell a powerful story about the materials you use, let’s chat about the measurable positive impact you can make by working with us at erthos™.