What is your handprint? Spread a positive message about environmental impacts

 

Environmental impacts play a key role in business nowadays, both in product design and communications on business activities. These are traditionally measured using quantities, such as emissions and resource consumption, which companies try to minimise. However, our activities can also have a positive impact on the environment.

Aiming for a smaller customer footprint

The calculation of footprints and their use in product design, B2B and B2C communications, and in support of strategic decision-making, are now established in industry. This is a good thing. An approach based on life cycle thinking is important to avoiding sub-optimisation and seeing the wider, overall impact of solutions. The inclusion of impact assessments in the product development phase, in particular, has markedly increased the market share of products that are more environmentally friendly than their predecessors. Decisive choices are made during the product design phase, on issues such as raw materials, production processes and recyclability. Each phase consumes energy and resources and either directly or indirectly generates various types of emissions and waste resulting an environmental footprint.

Many companies are already seeking to reduce their own footprint. At the same time, more and more companies are developing products or processes aimed at reducing the footprint of the customer’s product or service. In such cases, their activities also have a positive environmental impact.

Let’s take an example: Company X develops a more energy-efficient solution than its competitors and launches it on the market. A carbon handprint is created when another actor applies this solution and thereby reduces its own footprint. However, measuring – and communicating on – the related impact has so far been difficult, and companies have been in sore need of a solution.

Environmental handprint can now be calculated

VTT has accepted the challenge: it is developing a carbon handprint calculation method, as well as guidelines on positive environmental impact assessment and communications, alongside Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT).

A carbon handprint can be created in many ways, such as through lower material and energy consumption, reduced emissions and waste, or improved product performance and lifetimes. To ensure that the method takes account of the range of various handprint-forming , methodological development is conducted in cooperation with a group of companies.

Case studies include AM Finland, Biolan, Innofive, KONE, Neste, Nokia and Paptic. We also cooperate with the international organisations involved in developing the handprint concept. These include the CSCP in Germany (which operates in association with the Wuppertal) and Harvard University in the USA.

However, VTT and LUT are working at a more tangible level; we intend to publish the first practical handprint guidebook next summer. Companies can use this to evaluate and communicate on the positive environmental impacts of their products.

”When you go to work for a company, you want to work in a company that is making the world better place”
Al Gore at SLUSH2017.

For more information: http://www.vtt.fi/sites/handprint

tiina_pajula_
Tiina Pajula
Principal Scientist, VTT
tiina.pajula(a)vtt.fi

 

 

saija_vatanen


Saija Vatanen

Senior Scientist, VTT
saija.vatanen(a)vtt.fi

Discovering the unused potential of secondary materials

From the viewpoint of circular economy, a large share of products would still need improvements, particularly as regards the choice of materials and the case of residues. We also need to change our way of thinking and we need more information in order to leverage the unused potential of secondary materials.

Trends affect the product cycle

In its report “Circular by Design”[1], the European Environment Agency[2] examined the impact of product trends on product cycles. The report highlights a positive trend, modular design, which extends the life cycle of products with the help of easy remanufacturing and repairability. Other trends that support circular economy include the services developed around products and shared use, such as making the use of products more efficient.

The development of circular economy is slowed down by complex product design and increased functionality. On the other hand, functional materials may make the use of materials more efficient, but, generally speaking, heterogeneous and complex materials are difficult to reuse and recycle, especially if actions after end-of-life are not designed properly. In other words, increasing complexity and functionality hamper the cycling of materials.

3-D printing, the Internet of Things and the development of markets for recycling are examples of “hot” developing trends, the impacts of which still remain unclear from the viewpoint of circular economy: each one of the above-mentioned trends contains both positive and challenging factors:

  • 3-D printing, or other additive manufacturing technologies, enable local production and improve material efficiency, but, on the other hand, high level of customisation may make the shared use of the products involved more difficult, and the use of many materials in products can negatively impact their recyclability.
  • The Internet of Things (IoT) enables such functions as product tracking and product information management, but may contribute to increasing product complexity and use of critical product materials.
  • The markets for recycling support business models related to recycling, but focusing all resources on recycling may reduce incentives for remanufacture and reuse of products and materials.

Let us not forget the secondary raw materials

In addition to the trends described above, it is good to recognise the potential of secondary materials.

There is no general definition for secondary raw materials, but they typically include waste materials (e.g. mine tailings), side streams (e.g. slag and ashes), processing residues, material removed during product life cycle, and the products and their materials that have reached the end of their life cycle.

Waste-free production is not always possible, since the current production processes generate waste or side products, and the product life cycle is not necessarily very long. The large volume of waste material generated beside our actual product may come as a surprise to many. An example: according to report “Growth within: a circular economy vision for a competitive Europe”[3], we recapture only 5 percent of the raw material value after the first use cycle. Are we really going to forget these lost materials? When discussing sustainability and climate, the focus is often on gaseous air emissions. But what about the solid “emissions”?

Should we change our conception of such “waste material” and, from this point forward, start calling it raw material or material instead of waste?

Should we raise the bar higher? In addition to using secondary materials for such purposes as soil improvement, road construction and filler material, we could aim for high-added value materials and products given an equal status alongside primary materials.

The idea about using and utilising waste materials for functional purposes in particular is good, but there are still major challenges in making that happen, and also concerns such as potential hazardous substances.

The utilisation of secondary materials requires openness, a change in our way of thinking, research and development, scientific competence and pilot production lines. And even more important, contributing factors include enthusiasm, commitment, securing safety sufficient competence and the ability to see the potential of new initiatives in terms of business development both within industry and research.

In addition to idea generation and technical challenges, we are also facing challenges related to ways of thinking, trust, openness, value chain co-operation, markets, legislation and taxation, and getting them solved depends on our common will to do so.

Material science in CloseLoop project

At VTT, we study and develop solutions for circular economy and design strategies for circular products in the CloseLoop[4] project of the Strategic Research Council of the Academy of Finland. We seek, for example, a high-temperature-resistant material, an electroconductive material and a porous ceramic material processed out of secondary raw materials. We aim at finding such solutions utilizing aluminium industry side streams, waste electrical and electronic equipment residues, and other waste materials. All the applications mentioned above and the materials used for them need to have specific technical properties and be functional. We will demonstrate how customised high-added value applications can be produced using secondary materials alongside primary materials, so that, in the future, we could regard these material flows as assets.

Päivi Kivikytö-Reponen VTT

Päivi Kivikytö-Reponen
Senior Scientist
Twitter: @PaiviKivikyto

[1] https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/circular-by-design

[2] https://www.eea.europa.eu/

[3] https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/publications/EllenMacArthurFoundation_Growth-Within_July15.pdf

[4] http://www.closeloop.fi/

Beware of greenwash! Reliable indicators exist for sustainable innovations

Now, at the beginning of Sustainable Development Week, is the ideal time to recount how we can best ensure the sustainability of innovations and projects. Companies can unintentionally slide into greenwashing which, in today’s business environment, can jeopardise an entire innovation breakthrough. Scientifically approved methods of assessing sustainability help firms to communicate transparently on environmental impacts.

The rise in temperatures is forecast to accelerate most in the northern hemisphere’s land areas during winter. According to some estimates, current emission trends will lead to warming by up to six degrees in Helsinki. Few Finns are enthused by a vision which sees us ‘enjoying’ temperatures hovering around zero from October to May. Only the light levels will distinguish April from December. And this is the most minor of issues compared to the effects of global warming on world food production, water sufficiency, the distribution of insects and plants, health-related problems and other issues related to extreme phenomena.

The challenge is huge but action is being taken

The mitigation of greenhouse gases and taking other action promoting sustainable development are now among the key strategic objectives of more and more states and companies. A total of 17 international objectives are listed in the UN’s sustainable development action plan for Agenda 2030. These goals include global themes such as clean water and sustainable production. The aim is to limit the global average temperature rise to a maximum of two degrees, in accordance with the Paris Climate Agreement.

During European Sustainable Development Week, we will explore the theme of the aforementioned Agenda 2030. Finland is implementing the programme in a number of ways. You can make your own commitment to take action via the Prime Minister’s Office, and challenge others to do so.

Companies still ahead of governments in taking practical actions

Innovation and risk-taking are more effective than regulation. Change is accelerating via the circular economy, cleantech and the bio economy, in which VTT is playing a major role as a developer of solutions. However, it is easy to be misled, since not all businesses that increase recycling or use biomaterials are sustainable. The processing of side and waste streams for reuse or the manufacture of biomaterials can require complex and energy-consuming processes, energy-intensive or harmful chemicals, or long transportations, and the availability of raw materials is not always guaranteed. A growing group of stakeholders, including national leaders, financiers and corporate customers are becoming more interested in environmental and social impacts alongside economic issues.

How is sustainability measured?

Science-based indicators are needed when assessing and communicating on the real impact of products and business models. These indicators include life cycle and system-based methods of measuring environmental impacts, such as LCA (life cycle assessment), which examines the overall effects. This approach ensures that sub optimisation does not lead to the shifting of problems from one part of the value chain to another, or exchanging them for others. It also enables us to communicate transparently on the impacts and avoid greenwashing.

LCA is already widely required in product development and communications. The next Horizon PPP-SPIRE call demands the transparent sustainability assessment for all projects, based on life cycle thinking and the most standardised methods possible. The European Commission is preparing an LCA-based guide for calculating product environmental footprints, or PEFs, in order to create an internal market for green products. The Commission recommends the future use of the footprint when measuring the environmental impact of products and in corporate communications.

Companies using LCA in product development will benefit at the customer interface, where responsibility has become a key issue and knowledge of the entire supply chain is important. For example, such companies find it easier to participate in the newest way of demonstrating corporate responsibility, the Science Based Target (SBT) initiative, and to define emission reductions in their operations accordingly. Targets under the SBT initiative are based on the emission reductions set by the Paris Convention on Climate Change and require consideration of the entire value chain. Almost 300 companies are committed.

Handprint as well as footprint

A range of indicators are needed for different situations and industries, to ensure that account is taken of the key aspects of sustainability. For over 20 years, VTT’s experts have been pioneers in developing LCA-based assessment methods and indicators. These methods are being developed further as information and the need for it increases. For example, we are launching a so-called handprint alongside various kinds of footprint. Due to their manufacturing processes, all products have an impact on the environment, i.e., a footprint, which should be minimised. In addition, many products can be used to reduce the environmental load elsewhere (e.g., water treatment chemicals), in which case the product also has a positive environmental impact. To enable the measurement and communication of such impacts, VTT has begun a Tekes development project to define an environmental handprint.

We are applying sustainability assessment methods to evaluating solutions at the product development stage, as well as finished products and their development potential. We will be delighted to help you if you are seeking the right indicators and intend to refine them for a clearer view of sustainable development.

Further reading:

Tiina Pajula VTT

Tiina Pajula
Principal Scientist

Where will new bioeconomy innovations come from?

Population growth, urbanisation, and growing prosperity use up more and more natural resources. This poses social challenges and a problem for the planet’s carrying capacity. Jussi Manninen, EVP of Solutions for Natural Resources and Environment, explains what solutions the bioeconomy offers for these challenges.

Jussi Manninen EVP SONE VTT

We need to adopt a circular economy in order to ensure the sufficiency of natural resources. There is a simultaneous drive to promote the efficient use of all materials and to substitute renewable natural resources for non-renewable ones.

Traditional means of increasing resource efficiency, such as recycling, are not enough to solve the challenge relating to the sufficiency of natural resources. We need to question

  • how and which materials to use to design and build our products and services,
  • how to increase the circulation and value generation of natural resources, and
  • how to replace traditional, ownership-based business and behavioural models.

Finland fares well in the bioeconomy

The bioeconomy based on renewable natural resources is especially exciting for Finland, as we have a competitive edge over many other countries. Our competitiveness stems from our raw material resources, our know-how, and the structure of our industry.

The bioeconomy is often viewed specifically from the perspective of raw material resources. Our forests are a growing resource, so why not make use of them? In my opinion, the question should be reworded: How can we use the bioeconomy to promote well-being, growth, and employment with the help of our know-how and new innovations? This widens the perspective beyond Finland’s borders and highlights the importance of technological solutions and services.

Where will new bioeconomy innovations come from? Despite its renewable nature, biomass is not an infinite resource. In fact, biomass is limited compared to oil and the other non-renewable natural resources that it needs to replace. This is why we are trying to develop technologies for the efficient use of biomass as well as value-added products that keep their value for as long as possible.

New biomaterials, such as nanocellulose, have opened our eyes to all the possibilities they offer. Solutions for the problem of raw material sufficiency are being sought with the help of rapidly growing biomass, such as algae, and by making use of waste as well as carbon dioxide. Renewability and circular economy principles are combined in an excellent way in a carbamate technology developed by VTT, which turns waste cotton into new fibres.

VTT has solid bioeconomy know-how

VTT has been investing in new bioeconomy innovations almost throughout its existence. Our first patent in 1945 concerned the manufacture of lignocellulose sheets. In the last few years, we have conducted bioeconomy research as part of our Bioeconomy Transformation research programme, the final report of which was published on 15 February. We also launched a campaign called Making of Tomorrow at the same time, which will showcase bioeconomy innovations and how they affect our daily lives.

What makes the bioeconomy especially exciting and also challenging is the fact that bioenergy and biofuels play a big role in current and future renewable energy portfolio. A good question is how much of biomass should be converted to energy instead of using it as materials and chemicals.

VTT will be publishing findings from a research project that involved using scenarios to understand different kinds of bioeconomy development paths until 2050 during the spring. Each scenario had a different development path for energy technologies and bio-based products, and the results were analysed relative to the realisation of national economy and climate targets. It is already clear on the basis of the first results that the growth of the gross domestic product and total productivity can be accelerated and energy and climate targets met by investing in new value-added bioeconomy products.

There is no patented solution for ensuring the sufficiency of resources. It is nevertheless certain that the use of natural resources needs to be considerably more efficient than now and that renewable resources need to be substituted for non-renewable ones. VTT helps businesses and the entire society to succeed in these challenges and opportunities.

Jussi Manninen, Executive Vice President, Solutions for Natural Resources and Environment
Twitter: @jjmanninen