UNSW’s IELab helps manufacturers improve environmental footprint

Photo: UNSW

Taking account of the whole of an industrial process’s environmental impact is the focus of the Industrial Ecology Virtual Laboratory (IELab).

As more businesses seek to account for their carbon footprint, tracing inputs that come from outside the individual factory is becoming more important.

Tommy Wiedmann, from UNSW’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is attempting to take a more holisitic account of a business’s actions.

“When we look at an individual’s or a company’s activity, we’ll look at the direct impact their activities have, such as machinery used, fuel consumed, whether they add waste products to the environment, and even whether they generate noise,” Prof Wiedmann says.

“But there will be an indirect impact as well: Where did the materials come from, what energy did the supplier of those materials expend, did they negatively impact their own local environment, how sustainable are their practices?

“In other words, your footprint goes well beyond your own consumption and practices in your local area, it includes the footprint of your suppliers and partners.”

Wiedmann and his colleagues at the IELab have developed tools which can enable companies to understand the impact of each of their products, even that which across national borders.

“With the IELab tools that we have developed, we have now a method that allows us to assess environmental impact for any product at any time,” he said. “We call this the total footprint. So if we sum up all the impacts along the production and supply chain of a product, this gives us the total environmental footprint of that product. And we then have a measure that we can compare to different organisations and different products.”

These efforts have been particularly applicable to industries such as clothing manufacturing, which involves international supply chains, often with varying levels of traceability.