The time for the chemical sector to report the environmental impact of its products is long overdue, says Michael Collins

All I want to know is how much damage the product I’m purchasing might be doing to the environment. And all products result in some environmental harm – there is no such thing as a zero waste, zero carbon or a zero impact product. 

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It’s 20 years since the Society for Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry first published its guidelines for undertaking a lifecycle assessment (LCA), and since Plastics Europe (then known as APME) first published its eco-profiles for the sector. But despite this promising start, two decades later the sector is lagging behind on product environmental disclosure; companies still lack a thorough understanding of their products’ impacts, and consumers are still kept in the dark. 

Why should this be? The business case is sound – the tools and methods have been tried and tested by industry peers, and they are easy to use and inexpensive. The sugar to help this medicine go down, if it is needed, is that the information can, and should, help to manage costs and identify opportunities for savings.

The calculation itself is straightforward: multiply the electricity, materials, fuel and water used per unit of product by emission factors, along with some informed estimates about use and disposal, and we can rapidly gain a very good estimate of the impact of a product. It really is that easy. More effort can improve the resolution of the assessment, but much can be achieved with just a small amount of knowledge, a few conversations with experts, and a simple spreadsheet, or even the back of an envelope.

Costs and benefits

There is no excuse for not understanding the costs, and customers’ costs, related to a product. But despite spending millions of pounds consuming them, some companies simply do not know how much electricity or water is used, or how much waste is generated, for every unit of product going out the door. Some do, and if you are looking for a lead, Apple’s product by product approach uses lifecycle environmental reports on all its products. The analysis informs the company’s business decisions and the information is easily available to the consumer. It is difficult to understand why such appraisals are not universal.

If we close our eyes to the environmental harm that products cause from cradle to grave, and if we continue to ignore our responsibility to society to reduce that harm, we cannot realise the environmental benefits that can also be delivered. 

Accounting for benefits without also accounting for costs is to risk reputation, and to be ignorant of the full picture is a fig leaf of a defence. Fingers were burned when sourcing bio-based feedstocks resulted in deforestation and greater emissions. ‘Natural’, ‘biomaterial’, ‘biodegradable’, and ‘chlorine free’ do not automatically guarantee a better environment: we simply don’t know if we have no understanding of the impacts that occur across the lifecycle.

No excuses

Companies cite the potential for unfair comparison or unwanted competition as excuses, and there is no doubt that lifecycle assessment, or footprinting, has been tarnished by misuse. But that is no reason to ignore the benefits gained from having the information available. At the very least, it can help to identify risks, inform internal decision making and support corporate reporting.

If companies are wilfully blind to the benefits and unwilling to take the initiative, then it falls to legislation and customer demand to effect change. Customers and government have struggled to make product environmental cost reporting a requirement because of the lack of harmonised methods for doing so. But this is changing. 

Recently, the European Single Market for Green Products initiative has developed an environmental footprinting method and has called for volunteers to assist in developing the rules ahead of a new pan-European policy.  The programme is likely to stimulate activity across all sectors and raise awareness among consumers. Together with the French Grenelle law, that states consumers should have access to objective and comprehensive environmental information on all products, legislation for the appraisal of lifecycle impacts and the provision of lifecycle data is approaching.

In the 20 years that the chemical industry has been dragging its feet, the world’s population has increased from 5.5 billion to 7 billion. Consumption and its associated environmental impacts continue to increase. Appraising the environmental profile of every product should be the norm, with the results used to underpin sustainability and resource efficiency strategies, as well as product development. This is what I expect, and this is what customers should expect. I am not aware of any better way than LCA for assessing the environmental impact of a product, nor can I see any argument for remaining ignorant of the impacts. 

Michael Collins is technical director at Environmental Resources Management and an author of the international greenhouse gas accounting sector guidance for pharmaceutical products and medical devices