An expert’s view on how it can be done
Nowadays mankind is facing several environmental challenges such as climate change, air pollution, the preservation of biodiversity and scarcity of resources. Switzerland is affected by the global environmental challenges as well.
As Evi Vanakari, a consultant on environmental management and sustainable development, assesses the situa-tion, climate change can have negative impacts on the Swiss tourism industry, especially if there will not be enough snow in the winter sports resorts. Agriculture could also be influenced by climate change, she adds, and another environmental issue that will become increasingly important is air quality.
Transport contributes significantly to air pollution in Switzerland, according to Vanakari, and with the growing importance of mobility the problem will become even more acute. She says that policymakers should find ways to combine attractive public transport with incentives that encourage the use of “cleaner” vehicles such as electric and hybrid in order to reduce air pollution in city areas.
She emphasizes that when facing all these challenges, it is important not to underestimate one environmental problem versus another in order to move towards sustainable solutions and sustainable products.
Evi Vanakari defines “life-cycle thinking” as a process that evaluates “all possible consequences and impacts that a product or a service will have through its life cycle”. By “life cycle” she means from the extraction of raw materials to manufacturing until the end fate of the product, the disposal phase.
For Vanakari, the importance of life-cycle thinking lies in the holistic approach that enables moving towards more sustainable solutions, which take into consideration environmental, economical and social criteria in a balanced way without compromising innovation and development.
Vanakari is convinced that life-cycle thinking helps to avoid shifting from one environmental problem to another. This is particularly important with regards to water and energy, two resources that are often linked in daily life.
In her opinion, the production of agrofuel is an example that illustrates this dilemma. Agrofuel is an attempt to move away from oil depletion, but through the life-cycle thinking approach, it becomes clear that water consumption increases. This rise is due to the fact that farming and the growing of crops for the fuel requires much water. There is therefore a potential risk of the environmental problem shifting from oil depletion to water depletion. In addition, there is a concern with regards to the land use related with the growing of these crops.
Vanakari advocates that these risks can be identified and possible solutions found through the life-cycle thinking approach.
Evident solutions not always appropriate
Water is very often overlooked as other challenges and resources catch our attention. Vanakari exemplifies this by yet another case: the intent of trying to reduce solid waste in businesses and public administration.
In many companies, plastic cups are used to drink coffee and are thrown away afterwards. To reduce waste, an evident solution is to replace the plastic cups by porcelain ones, which can be washed and used again; however, companies that switched to porcelain cups had an increase in water consumption. A shifting from the waste problem to water consumption has occurred. For that reason, the most evident solution – in this case substituting plastic cups with porcelain ones – is not always the most appropriate.
Also, in Vanakari’s view, there is no standard sustainable solution for one environmental problem, but each case has to be analysed individually depending on geographic area con-straints and case specifications.
The tools are here
Every concept needs its application to achieve reality. Life-cycle assess-ment tools are the bridge between theory and practice. Environmental experts use them to make quantitative and qualitative assessments.
According to Vanakari – who contributed to the European expert’s panel CHAINET (European Network on Chain Analysis for Environmental Decision Support) with regards to en-vironmental and life-cycle Assessment tools – there is a large pallet of environ-mental tools that should be combined to address efficiently environmental concerns.
Switzerland has a long history of activity in environmental research and developments. Most of the large Swiss universities, such as the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology in Lausanne and Zurich, carry out extensive environmental work. The Swiss Agency for the Environment, Forests and Landscape provides high-quality data-bases that have been widely used by consultancies, institutes and companies not only in Switzerland but also in other European countries, for instance in the UK, France, Germany and Holland.
All of these tools are much solicited and appreciated by environmental experts and the companies they advise.
Multidisciplinarity leads to desired results
Vanakari believes that in the environment domain, multidisci-plinary thinking is essential in order to come up with sustainable solutions. To find these solutions, she is convinced that, on the one hand, environmental expertise is needed and, on the other, the collaboration of everyone involved in the life cycle of a product or service is important.
For Vanakari, the development of a new design for the package of a product is a good illustration of how a multidisciplinary team should work. The designer is concerned about the functionality of the package and the safety of the product. If the designer works together with the environmental expert from the beginning, a much more sustainable package is the result. This is due to the fact that the environmental expert brings the environmental matrix to the designer, who then takes this into account in assessing the product before developing the package. Vanakari stresses that by considering the environmental aspects at an early stage, investment in non-sustainable solutions can be avoided.
Finding good solutions is excellent but only useful if they are applied. In Vanakari’s view, this can be achieved if there is good collaboration between environmental experts and the top management who have the power to make commitments and to implement solutions.
No panacea for all environmental concerns
Vanakari emphasizes that no standard solutions exists for our environmental challenges; instead, every case has to be considered indi-vidually. She adds that many tools are at our disposal. Clean technologies and cleaner production are part of these. They include the use of renewable resources and life-cycle thinking, and therefore present valuable solutions with respect to water use and energy consumption.
Clean technology is a concept that, when applied in manufacturing and processing industries, avoids pollution and waste at source. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) defines cleaner productions as “the continuous application of an integrated, preven-tive environmental strategy applied to processes, products and services in order to increase overall efficiency and reduce damage and risks to humans and the environment”.
In Vanakari’s view, the aim of clean technology and cleaner production is to optimize operations, minimize waste and water and energy consumption, and risks, targeting “zero” emissions and a minimum of resources consumption.
Summing up, Vanakari explains that the key to environmental solutions is “to use anything possible in the knowledge acquired so far to drive to our aim”. She adds that, “We have environmental management best practices, life-cycle thinking and environmental tools, clean techno-logies and cleaner productions concepts.” Accordingly, all of these instruments and expertise can be combined “in order to address future environmental challenges success-fully”.
Evi Vanakari is a consultant on Environmental Management and Sustainable Development. She is a chemical engineer with a Master of Science in Clean Technologies – Environmental Management. With her broad experience from Procter & Gamble in the UK, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, she assists her clients in addressing their concerns in the areas of environmental performances, safety and sustainability decision-making and environmental management systems.