5 Products, 5 Supply Chains, 5 Carbon Footprints

Individuals, corporations, even governments have adopted carbon emissions as an indicator of our impact on the environment.  As part of the Earth Day 2010 series of articles, this article will explore the “carbon footprints” of 5 common products: Tropicana Orange juice,  a Big Mac, iPhone 3GS, Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket, and Nika Bottled water. A carbon footprint of a product measures the total amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that it produces from “cradle to grave.” This typically includes the amount of CO2 produced in the extended supply chain: from the extraction of raw material, to the manufacture, transport, and use of the product; ending  eventually in the disposal and recovery of the product. Of course, other greenhouse gases (such as Methane) are produced but are converted to its “CO2 equivalent” weight so a single CO2 number can  represent the environmental impact of the product. Read, share, and enjoy (and yes, next time you buy something, take a look at its carbon footprint).

Calculating the carbon footprint  and interpreting it is difficult  for many reasons. First, there are no established standards for footprint calculations.  Even those that exist, like the UK’s PAS 2050 and the  EPA’s guidelines for Green House Gas (GHG) inventory in the USA, have yet to be widely adopted, making it difficult for the average consumer to compare footprints of competing products. Second, there is little agreement on what or how much to include in a footprint. For example, If you’re looking to calculate the carbon footprint of bottled water, do you consider only the emissions directly created in its production, transportation, and disposal? Or do you include the greenhouse gas emissions created during the mining of metals, which are used to make the machinery, which are then used to create bottles, purify water, and package it for sale?

It is also unclear how a customer should use the footprint. Take for example the “paper or plastic” question millions of shoppers get asked everyday. Would it surprise you that paper bags have a much higher footprint than plastic ones ? According to the National Resource Defense Council, paper bags use up 14 million trees per year while 12 million barrels of oil are used to make plastic bags. Manufacture of paper bags pollute the air more but plastic leaves four times as much solid waste.  Does this mean we choose plastic over paper? Of course not. Ironically, footprint calculations have pointed us in a new popular direction – “reusable bags” – to reduce our impact on the environment.

Finally, footprints  do not resolve how policy makers can regulate for a better environment. It turns out that in many industries such as electronics and automobiles, the biggest part of the footprint comes from the use of the product. For example, half of Apple's MacBook Pro’s (this article was typed on one) comes from customer use. So, should there be incentives for me to use my computer less? Or for Apple to design a more energy efficient computer?

These are tricky questions, and each firm approaches the problem in a unique fashion. Some address the issues more thoroughly than others, as you will discover. A good carbon footprint will provide a map of the supply chain that will lead the way to identifying areas for improvement and suggesting ways to reengineer the process in order to reduce carbon emissions;  and the resulting impact on the environment.

For better or worse, carbon emissions is now the de facto surrogate for environmental impact. The  caveat is that the “carbon footprint” is only one of many indicators that businesses, customers, and policy makers should use to improve processes, lifestyles, or regulations to reduce man-made impact on the planet. Following are 5 common products, their supply chains, and the CO2 footprint. All are self-reported. Follow the links, decide for yourself how much impact these products have.

Tropicana Orange Juice

Tropicana ’s footprinting exercise showed that cultivation of orange trees and the energy required to squeeze, pasteurize, and pack the juice makes up about 60% of the footprint.   The biggest challenge in the production stage comes  from fertilizer production and application, which accounts for more than half  the energy required to grow trees and  squeeze juice from the fruit. Turns out that a great deal of nitrogen fertilizer is applied to orange trees to boost their yield; and a lot of energy is used up making nitrogen fertilizers. Pepsi Co which makes Tropicana, is working with its suppliers to reduce the carbon emissions during this stage.

Once packaged (about 15% of the footprint), the cartons are shipped by train throughout the country. Though train-travel is more efficient than shipping by truck, 22% of the CO2 emissions are produced during the distribution phase.

All told, one half gallon of Tropicana not-from-concentrate orange juice is estimated to result in the emission of approximately 3.75 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent.

A Cheeseburger

But if you thought your daily glass of orange juice at breakfast was somewhat of an environmental concern, imagine this: that cheeseburger you had for lunch has a footprint of about 13.4 pounds.

So why 13.4 pounds? Because there are many, many moving parts in the production of a single cheeseburger each with their own energy requirements. Here’s a quick breakdown of many of the points of energy consumption from farm to table (3.6 MegaJoules (MJ) = 1 Kilowatt Hour (Kwh). A 1500 square ft. home in the US on average uses about 50 Kilowatt hours per day):

  • Bread - 3.2 megajoules (MJ), including crop production, milling, baking, storage, and transportation.
  • Hamburger - 10 MJ, which includes energy for producing cereals and protein for cattle, building use for stabling, slaughtering, and cutting, electricity for grinding and freezing, as well as energy for transportation and frying.
  • Lettuce - 4.36 MJ for crop production, storage, and transportation.
  • Onions (freeze dried) - 0.12 MJ, including energy used for agriculture, freeze-drying, storage, and transport.
  • Cucumber (pickled) - 0.056 MJ for growing, storing, pickling, and transportation.
  • Cheese - 0.9 MJ for growing crops, producing cattle feed, producing the cheese, then transporting and storing it.

When added together and converted to carbon dioxide equivalents according to one estimate, all of these energy drains combined result in up to 6.8 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions.

But these numbers only take the direct energy inputs into consideration. There’s also the matter of the emission of methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 21+ times more potent in its heat-trapping capability than carbon dioxide. Livestock (cattle in this case) emit huge quantities of methane during their lifetimes through the normal digestion process (that’s  “farting” and “burping”), putting the per-burger impact of this portion of the chain somewhere between 7.9 pounds to 13.4 pounds. That brings the total emissions per burger potentially to 20.2 pounds per sandwich.

We Americans consume approximately 195 million burgers annually. Think about this: that’s equivalent to approximately 19.6 million SUVs-on the road!

Patagonia’s Nano Puff Pullover Jacket

My new favourite piece of clothing is Patagonia’s  Nano Puff jacket. Light-weight and warm, I have been using it lately for everything – from rock climbing to taking kids to the park.  Patagonia publishes the “Footprint Chronicles” on their web site, that tells us the carbon footprint for most of their products.

The energy used to create this jacket is rather small. Patagonia estimates that it consumes about 43 MJ, which is equivalent to burning an 18W light bulb for 28 days straight (24 hours per day). The activities in the extended supply chain is included in this number, including pick-up of the original fibers to manufacturing power consumption through its 12,545 mile journey to the Reno, NV distribution center in the US. This translates to a CO2 emissions of 6 pounds. That’s about 11 times the weight of the finished garment. They also calculate manufacturing waste production to be about 3 ounces (about one-third the garment’s finished weight), and since it is fully recyclable when it is no longer wanted, that should be the extent of the waste.

Not included in this footprint is the energy required to keep the jacket clean  (if you are like me thats only a few times a year).

iPhone 3GS

As an energy-using gadget, the iPhone 3GS will produce greenhouse gas emissions over the entire life of the product—from manufacture to daily use to end-use recycling. Apple produces Environmental Reports for its products in which they breakdown all of the energy used and how they are working to minimize the energy costs in order to shrink the iPhone’s carbon footprint.

Apple has categorized the iPhone 3GS’s greenhouse gas emissions as follows:

  • Production - 45%
  • Customer use - 49%
  • Transport - 5%
  • Recycling - 1%

About half  of the 121 pounds of carbon dioxide (equivalent) are attributed to customer use. The consumer influences the final carbon footprint of each individual device.

Apple has implemented several programs to shrink the overall carbon footprint of the iPhone 3GS. The power adapter is ENERGY STAR qualified, raw materials used for production are limited through innovative  design, packaging is minimized and is almost 100% recyclable, and the components and software of the iPhone 3GS are configured to use energy as minimally as possible. The iPhone 3GS’s additional environmental achievements include reduction in toxic materials such as arsenic, brominated flame retardants, mercury, and PVC.

NIKA Bottled Water

NIKA, a bottle water producer, discovered were the following per-bottle CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) emissions:

  • Raw materials - 73 grams
  • Materials manufacturing and transport - 43 grams
  • Product manufacturing and transport - 105 grams
  • Consumer use - 2 grams
  • End of life - 3 grams
  • Total - 226 grams (about half of a pound)

Producing the plastic bottles is one of the biggest energy uses of producing bottled water.

NIKA is now working on localizing their bottled water production facilities. By sourcing, purifying, and bottling their water in a handful of geographically differentiated locations throughout North America, they are able to minimize the use of transportation for their product.

Working with Carbonfund.org, NIKA now offsets their product’s carbon footprint by contributing to a reforestation project in Nicaragua. As a result, they have achieved “CarbonFree” certification from Carbonfund.org, allowing them to claim that they are a carbon neutral company—the first of its kind in the bottle water industry in the US.