There is a lot of talk these days about environmental sustainability, global warming, carbon footprints and green house gas. An off shoot of all these “new” environmental issues is the desire to measure them through indices or metrics. In fact, a huge cottage industry has sprung up on developing, refining and re-defining these environmental indices and metrics. If you Google “environmental sustainability index”, you will get over 472,000 web pages! Googling the term “environmental metric” will get you 138,000 pages. Each set of “new” metrics comes with a new glossary of environmental buzz words.
There is the Environmental Sustainability Index of 2005 put out by the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy which ranked the United States 45 out 146 – behind Congo and Botswana. Finland was ranked #1 while North Korea was #146. The same group also issued the 2008 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) which ranked the United States at 39 out of 149 – behind Albania and Uruguay. This time Switzerland was ranked first and the last place went to Niger. It is rather curious that the Yale Center that published these rankings stated emphatically in its executive summary that “the EPI’s real value lies not in the numerical rankings but rather in careful analysis of the underlying data and performance metrics.” If that’s true, why publish the numerical rankings at all?
The EPI does have some intrinsic value in that it looks at the two fundamental aspects, namely, environmental health (impact on humans) and ecosystem vitality (impact on ecosystem and climate change). The term “aspects” leads us directly to ISO 14001 Environmental Management Systems. One of the key elements of ISO 14001 is the requirement to identify all the “significant environmental aspects” of an organization’s operation. The ISO 14001 standard defines an “environmental aspect” as an “element of an organization’s activities, products, or services that can interact with the environment.” The environmental aspects of a company’s operation can be used as practical indices or metrics for its environmental sustainability.
To identify the environmental aspects, you need to look at all the activities throughout your entire operation that could affect the environment – both positively and negatively. Focus on four areas: material usages, energy consumption, water usages and pollutant releases.
For material usages, look at how much raw material you purchase to make your products and how much of it actually ends up in the products that goes out your door to your customers. If a lot of it ends up as scrap or waste byproducts, you have a negative environmental aspect in that part of your operation. If you recycle a lot of your waste by-products, that would be a positive environmental aspect.
On energy consumption, track your kilowatt-hour usages and natural gas consumption. You can track it in terms of unit consumption per unit of goods produced.
On water usages, you should focus on conservation. For example, look at how much water is consumed per unit of production and how much waste water you generate. Pollutant releases include wastewater discharges, hazardous waste generation and air emissions. This is by far the easiest metric to track since most are regulated through environmental laws. Your performance can be easily monitored through your wastewater treatment plant permits, your air permits and hazardous wastes manifests. Every July 1 of each year, the government requires most industries to provide a full accounting of its emissions to the environment during the previous year under the Toxic Release Inventory (commonly referred to as Form R). The TRI is by no means a perfect metric but it does force industry to reconcile its environmental releases.
How do you go about quantifying these environmental aspects?
Many companies use a matrix that looks at the environmental impact from the standpoint of severity and frequency. You can assign a numerical value of 5 to an activity’s severity rating if its environmental impact is severe. If that activity occurs all the time, you also assign it a value of 5 for frequency. The “overall” environmental risk would be 25 (the product of severity and frequency).
For example, if you emit a hazardous air pollutant through your stack continuously, the overall environmental impact of that emission would have a risk value of 25. In general, if you have an activity that is regulated by law or if it impact human or public health, it should carry a high severity rating. Once you go through all the activities within your operation and have assigned an overall environmental risk to each one, you will have either a table or chart showing you which specific activities you should focus on to reduce your environmental risk.
The best way to do this is to involve your line supervisors and have them go through the process of identifying these environmental aspects. Ownership is the key to success in this endeavor. The more people involved in the process, the more ownership your employees will have and you will end up with a more complete and accurate picture of your environmental aspects. An effective EMS always requires bottom-up involvement in addition to top-down support.
One final note of observation on reducing water consumption at a manufacturing plant: I once worked for a multi-national food processing conglomerate. One of its plants was consuming an inordinate amount of water as it performed its daily plant wash down. The cleanup crew was observed to be hosing every bit of food scrap down the drain with excessive amount of water. This lead to hydraulic overloading of its wastewater treatment plant. As it turned out, the factory had only one single water meter that measured the totally water consumption for the entire plant. The shift foremen had no idea how much water their staff was using on a monthly basis. I was able to convince the plant engineer to install individual water meters at various processing lines and to bill the shift supervisors directly for their actual water consumption. The water wastage dropped significantly as soon the supervisors saw their budgets being charged for actual consumption. Their staff began sweeping the food scrap off the floor before hosing it down. This was a clear case where a metric can be used to hold people accountable for undesirable environmental behavior.