Understanding your carbon footprint can be a great way to determine the environmental impact within your industry’s value chain. By implementing various strategies, you can reduce your carbon footprint and potentially mitigate the effects of climate change.
In this article, we’ll explore those strategies by defining what a carbon footprint is, ways to reduce it – including using certain technologies, sustainable raw materials, and recycling – and how to calculate your results.
What is Carbon Footprint?
Carbon footprint is defined as the total amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) – primarily carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide – that can be emitted into the atmosphere from various processes in the value chain (Nature Conservancy). Examples include sourcing of raw materials , polymer manufacturing, transportation of final products, and consumer usage and disposal of final products. But how big of an environmental issue are these GHG emissions? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests that over the past 50 years, carbon emissions have increased by 90%. If they are not contained once emitted, they can store heat within the atmosphere – typically leading to drastic weather changes that can result in a number of environmental and economic repercussions. If you would like to learn more about how Avient defines carbon footprint, check out this infographic.
Carbon footprint emissions are categorized into three scopes that can occur within the value chain:
- Scope 1: direct emissions that are typically the most manageable for polymer manufacturers. Examples of these emissions include greenhouse gases created through polymer production and equipment, on-site utilities, or transportation methods to the brand owner or original equipment manufacturer (OEM) in the value chain.
- Scope 2: indirect emissions for polymer manufacturers – typically involving energy produced, such as steam or electricity during manufacturing.
- Scope 3: indirect emissions associated with upstream or downstream activities – such as the sourcing of raw materials, shipment from polymer manufacturer to the OEM, and the consumption of final products.
There are two methods used to calculate these scopes of carbon emissions:
- Cradle-to-gate: calculates how much carbon is emitted from the raw material sourcing to the end of production at the polymer manufacturing site. This calculation is generally standard for business-to-business organizations.
- Cradle-to-grave: calculates carbon emissions for the entire duration of a final product – from sourcing, manufacturing, transporting to the consumer, and even consumption. This calculation is generally standard for business-to-consumer organizations.
In conclusion, defining your carbon footprint can help you establish short-term and long-term carbon emissions goals. These can be beneficial to include in your sustainability commitments to stakeholders, as 88% of consumers are more loyal to organizations that support environmental issues (Perillon).
Next, we will explain the strategies to consider when trying to meet those carbon reduction goals – once established – and the details of calculating your carbon footprint results.
Strategies to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint
There are several strategies that can help reduce your carbon footprint, including collaboration across the value chain, manufacturing technologies, and using sustainable raw materials in your products. We’ll explain how each of these strategies can then result in reducing your environmental impact.
1. Collaboration across the value chain: a polymer value chain generally involves three organizations: raw material supplier, polymer manufacturer, and the brand owner or OEM. Eliminating greenhouse gases can take all organizations involved in the value chain.
- Raw material supplier: those dedicated to sourcing bio-based and recycled raw materials typically have a greater impact on reducing carbon emissions. That is why it can be beneficial to ensure that polymer manufacturers and raw material suppliers are aligned on sustainability commitments.
- Polymer manufacturer: efforts that contribute towards a reduced carbon footprint include efficient manufacturing equipment, renewable power sources, and recycling waste that can occur through manufacturing.
- Brand owner or OEM: as the last part of the value chain, adjustments to reduce carbon footprint could include eco-conscious changes to the production of the final product, the transportation of final products to your distributors, and the disposal or usage of the product by customers.
Amongst all of these activities in the value chain, the EPA states that the highest account of emissions derives from the transportation of goods (28%), electricity (24%), and manufacturing (12%). Reducing the carbon emissions from these activities can help meet your carbon reduction goals.
2. Carbon footprint technologies: across the value chain – whether it be raw material sourcing, polymer manufacturing, or with OEMs – two main technologies can help reduce your product carbon footprint:
- Green manufacturing: a strategy for polymer manufacturing sites that typically involves being powered by renewable resources and reducing waste during production. Scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions can be reduced if sites are powered via renewable sources, such as wind or solar energy. Green manufacturing can also involve reducing waste. This entails placing purge or polymer scraps back into production or using them to provide electricity, which typically helps offset any carbon emissions that can occur during the manufacturing process. With these environmental practices, the intent is generally for manufacturing sites to continue increasing their production without increasing energy usage.
- Carbon sequestration, or carbon capture: the idea of polymer manufacturers using a supplier that provides plant-based raw materials, as plants capture carbon dioxide during their growth – rather than it being emitted into the atmosphere.
Investing in a Virtual Power Purchase Agreement (VPPA) can also be beneficial to lowering your carbon footprint. This investment generally represents a contribution towards building up the infrastructure of renewable energy sources, such as solar panels or wind farms. The carbon emissions saved from this investment can also be used as carbon emission credits to your organization when calculating your footprint.
3. Sustainable materials: typically bio-based or recycled – these sustainable raw materials provide an eco-conscious alternative to traditional petroleum-based raw materials.
- Biopolymers: these are derived from various renewable sources such as corn, wheat, straw, sugarcane, and even food or agricultural waste. Polymers with bio-based content, specifically with raw materials derived from plants, are typically shown as negative carbon emissions because of the carbon dioxide consumption that occurs.
- Recycled raw materials: polymers – containing post-industrial recycled (PIR) or post-consumer recycled (PCR) content – that start as petroleum-based and are placed in either cut-off or open loop recycling streams. Cut-off streams are typically for raw materials that are recycled and manufactured again to make the same polymer. Therefore, the carbon emissions are allocated to the raw material supplier. Open-loop recycling streams typically consist of raw materials that are recycled and manufactured to make a variety of new products – splitting the allocated carbon emissions amongst the raw material supplier and the polymer manufacturer.
There are a number of options available when using sustainable raw materials in your final formulations. If you would like to explore possibility of using bio-based or recycled raw materials in your products, read our article on Making Plastic Parts More Sustainable.
Calculating Your Product Carbon Footprint
Product carbon footprint calculations are generally an efficient method of estimating the total amount of GHG emissions that can occur across the value chain. There are three steps that can help provide a framework for determining what your footprint entails:
- Goal & scope: starting here can help to align your sustainability commitments with guidelines on what to achieve when calculating the carbon footprint. Are you focused on cradle-to-gate or cradle-to-grave? Is there a benchmark of carbon emissions you need to reach? Are you more concerned with your manufacturing site emissions or sourcing emissions? Answering these questions can help provide guidelines to measure success when reducing your carbon footprint.
- Inventory analysis: based on your goals in the step above, it can then be helpful to determine inventory that is currently in your value chain that will be included in the calculation. Examples of inventory can include the quantity of raw materials, production sites, or even methods of transport that will impact the carbon footprint calculation.
- Product carbon footprint calculation: the inventory you choose to include in your calculation will be evaluated for carbon emissions. Typically, carbon emissions are calculated with the unit – carbon dioxide equivalent. Other GHGs, like methane and nitrous oxide, still contribute to the carbon footprint calculation. However, the emissions are transferred to carbon dioxide equivalent units. This is done so that all emissions are calculated as the same unit, which then provides an accurate calculation of total GHG emissions.
Globally, as of September 2023, almost 3,400 companies have set science-based goals – with 2,400 of those being net-zero commitments – in order to address greenhouse gas emission concerns (Science Based Targets). Avient’s support teams can help with calculating and reducing your carbon footprint to help bring your organization closer to achieving sustainability commitments.
Evaluating the carbon footprint within your industry’s value chain can help mitigate climate change – and can help meet certain sustainability goals.
- A product carbon footprint is the calculation of greenhouse gases that are emitted into the atmosphere as a result of various processes in the value chain.
- There are three scopes of carbon emissions that can be produced. Scope 1 and 2 are typically associated with the polymer manufacturer – and include utilities of the production site, equipment, and transportation to the brand owner or OEM. Scope 3 emissions are more indirect than Scope 1 and 2 because they include upstream and downstream activities.
- There are two ways of calculating a carbon footprint: cradle-to-gate and cradle-to-grave. Business-to-business organizations typically use the cradle-to-gate method whereas business-to-consumer organizations use cradle-to-grave.
- Reducing your carbon footprint can help reach carbon neutrality commitments to your stakeholders. The strategies that can be impactful in reducing carbon emissions include collaboration amongst organizations in the value chain, implementing reduced carbon footprint technologies, incorporating sustainable raw materials into your products, and improving recycling efforts.
Avient can help support your carbon neutrality efforts with our material science expertise. If you would like to explore strategies or technologies to reduce your carbon footprint, contact us.