Metrics that your sustainability plan needsThis article is part of ERA’s five part series, Sustainability: Going Beyond Compliance. Part four gives you an overview of the best metrics to use when measuring your sustainability efforts.

    One of the biggest struggles in putting your sustainability plan into action is knowing which metrics you should track and measure.

    In fact, in a recent sustainability study of the Aberdeen Group, surveys showed that the number one challenge was to accurately measure the return on investment (ROI) of sustainability projects, with 42 percent of respondents listing that as the biggest hurdle.

    When it comes to sustainability, you could measure every environmental input and output, and still never have enough information to know 100 percent how sustainable you truly are. The secret is to focus your attention on the most important metrics that can tell you the most about your performance.

    The same Aberdeen Group study showed that the most successful sustainability plans had a few common elements when it comes to data management:

    • A centralized repository of compliance laws
    • Automated EH&S data collection using an EMS
    • Easy accessible real-time and historical data to decision-makers

    As we explained in part one of this series, Defining Sustainability, sustainability is about striking the balance between what you take out of the environment and what you contribute back. Therefore, the most important metrics are the ones that focus on your inputs and outputs.

    Your inputs are the resources and materials that you use to manufacture your final product. This includes the energy sources you use to power your processes as well as the materials that go into your products. Although all manufacturing requires resources, sustainable manufacturing aims at using less, and from more renewable resources.

    Managing your outputs isn’t just about giving back to the environment, but also making sure you aren’t generating or releasing substances that can harm the environment or our health. When it comes to toxic emissions, you want your output to be as close to zero as possible.

    In the next sections, we’ll outline the most useful and usable metrics you should start measuring today to help achieve your sustainability goals.

    Measuring Inputs

    In order to know exactly how much you take in and use during your processes, you will need to measure:

    1. Energy consumption from non-renewable sources

    Every process requires some form of energy. The problem comes when you rely strictly on non-renewable resources. Eventually these will run out, and if you haven’t already made the move to become more sustainable, it’s time to start.

    2. Energy consumption from renewable sources

    You want this measurement to be as high as possible. Using renewable energy is the best way to ensure the long-term success of your business.

    3. Water use

    You should be quantifying both the amount of water you use in your processes (for example, to cool a boiler) and how much your facilities use in general. You’ll always need to use water, but you should try to reduce this as much as possible.

    4. Raw material and processed material usage

    Everything that comes into your site as a raw material eventually comes out either in the form of a finished product or as waste. You’ll need to know how much comes in so that you can compare it with how much comes out. If your materials are sustainably sourced, it doesn’t matter how much you are using, as long as they are used to create a product instead of waste.

    5. Toxic material usage

    Sometimes the raw materials you use might be considered toxic or hazardous to human health. You should differentiate between your toxic materials and other materials so that you can try to reduce the amount of toxics entering your facility. Toxics are more likely to end up leaving your site as harmful waste.

    Measuring Outputs

    Perhaps more complex is quantifying your outputs. Outputs can be harmful to the environment in some cases, and they’re often the most difficult to reduce. This makes them even more important to be able to measure. Ideally, you want your emissions to be as close to zero as possible.

    As part of your sustainability plan, you should be measuring:

    1. Hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) & Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

    The most common emissions from sites are air emissions. They can occur during a variety of processes and have a wide range of effects on the environment and health. You’ll need to measure not only your air emissions, but also how effective your control technologies are from preventing air emissions from escaping your facility.

    2. Greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs)

    GHG are a hot topic right now and a big part of modern sustainability practices. So much that consumers expect businesses to be actively reducing their GHG emissions. Many counties require you to measure and report your GHG emissions, and most others have a voluntary GHG reporting structure in place.

    3. Toxic & hazardous waste generation

    Measuring your waste and toxic waste generation is essential because it tells you how efficient (or inefficient) your processes are. It will also give you the data you need to create recycling projects and benchmarks for proper waste handling.

    4. Water emissions

    Although not every manufacturing process uses water, you should be measuring any water outputs you release. Are you sending the water out for treatment? Or is it entering the environment untreated? Are you within acceptable limits? All of these factors matter for reaching sustainability.

    5. Production tracking

    This means quantifying how much production you can get out of your raw materials. Unlike the other outputs, you don’t want this to be close to zero. You’ll be able to use this value alongside your raw material inputs and waste outputs to determine exactly how effective your processes are. Your goal should be to get the maximum production possible from your raw materials, thereby creating less waste.

    Using these metrics, you will be able to get a comprehensive picture of how efficient your environmental performance is, and whether your inputs and outputs are in balance. While each individual piece of information will only give you a partial picture, combined you can use them to discern trends in your performance.

    In the final part of ERA’s five part ”Going Beyond Compliance” series you’ll learn how to maximize your bottom line with sustainability projects.

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    Image credit: stevenharris

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    Alex Chamberlain
    Post by Alex Chamberlain
    March 4, 2013
    Alex Chamberlain is a writer for ERA Environmental Management Solutions.