How to find (and fix) the blind spots in your sustainability data

Known unknowns, unknown unknowns, and data blind spots can make understanding environmental impact difficult. On-the-ground, data-driven resources like the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute (NYSP2I) are helping businesses and nonprofits measure their impact and put in place successful plans.

It’s not impossible to run a zero-waste hospital, just nearly impossible. But that didn’t deter Mike Waller. In 2017, he set an ambitious target for tackling the waste produced across the whole of Rochester Regional Health’s (RRH) network of five hospitals and smaller clinics.

His goal as RRH’s director of sustainability was to achieve “zero waste to landfill”—a term with no single, standard definition. Though many certification programs exist, each one works on different criteria. Some require just 80% of waste diverted for a minimal qualification, while others accept no less than 99% to qualify at all. The existing standards, Waller found, didn’t account for a hospital’s uniquely complex waste streams. He realized that a zero-waste strategy for RRH would need to be highly sophisticated and customized. But to build that plan, he needed a baseline to start from. And that meant getting data—lots of it.

Setting a baseline through LCA

RRH is like many businesses that want to lessen their environmental impact. They might decide to pursue sustainability to improve their overall productivity and efficiency, to meet consumer demand, or because they feel it’s just the right thing to do. Most likely, it’s a mix of all three of these reasons. However businesses come to take this first step, they soon discover that it’s difficult to take the next step without hard data about their current operations. Data blind spots quickly become apparent. For example, a grocery store’s general manager will know that a store loses money through “shrink” (food waste). But if the store decides to go zero waste, the manager will need to quantify shrink not only as cost, but in terms of weight and product type (e.g., produce or expired packaged items). That’s because each type of waste can be diverted in a different way. 

Just by considering its environmental impact, a business will look at what it does and how it does it through a fresh lens. Thanks to growing awareness, many grocery stores, like the chain Price Chopper, are using advanced data analytics to track food waste within their operation to reduce, divert, or recycle it.

The best method for uncovering data blind spots is a life-cycle assessment (LCA). A standard for sustainability professionals, an LCA is performed by a specialist, typically an LCA-certified professional (LCACP). The type of LCA and its focus depends on the business and its specific needs. It might be done to assess a manufacturing process, the life cycle of a single product line, or the impact of an entire business in terms of its facilities and supply chain. Two of the most tangible metrics that an LCA can provide a business to measure its environmental impact are waste and greenhouse gases (GHGs).

Rochester General Hospital 

To put realistic goals to his ambitious sustainable waste strategy for RRH, Waller decided to set a baseline by measuring waste generation at its busiest facility, Rochester General Hospital (RGH). The data would provide a practical foundation for creating a global strategy for RRH. Lacking internal resources to carry out the research and analysis, he approached the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute (NYSP2I).

Through on-site assessments and data analysis, NYSP2I engineers found that the test hospital generated over 5.5 million pounds of waste in 2017 alone. Only 14% of that total was reused or recycled. They benchmarked their findings against national averages to discover industry leaders reuse or recycle 26.6–51% of their waste. With this data, Waller was able to set a clear target for what RRH would need to achieve in order to meet or exceed industry standards. 

The NYSP2I team also gave Waller a financial picture of RGH’s waste practices. Eighty-nine percent of the hospital’s waste disposal costs were spent on incineration and landfilling. Seventy-five percent of its waste was solid. Through NYSP2I’s research, Waller learned that, if RGH was able to divert its waste into sustainable waste pathways (like recycling or reuse), the hospital would not only reduce its environmental impact, but save valuable budget money. 

Phase Innovations LLC

Long-established organizations aren’t the only ones that face unknowns when it comes to measuring their environmental impact. Startups experience this too, especially those bringing sustainable technologies, products, or processes to market. Any claims such entrepreneurs make about the sustainability of their offering need to be verified by a third party and backed up by data. 

Startup Phase Innovations LLC’s ventilation product, PureAtmos®, is fitted into a window to bring fresh air into a home throughout the year. In the winter, it recovers heat from inside the house to warm incoming air. In the summer, it removes heat from the air outside to keep the interior cool. While the company’s engineers knew theoretically that the design contributed less to climate change than conventional climate-control systems, they needed to test that claim and determine by what amount. To find out, the company contacted NYSP2I to measure the product’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The NYSP2I team set a benchmark for PureAtmos® by measuring its performance when used to ventilate a newly constructed, 2,400-square-foot, single family home with four bedrooms. The data generated was compared to the GHG impact of a whole-house ventilation system with an energy-recovery ventilator (ERV) in the same setting. Using this model, NYSP2I calculated that a PureAtmos® product displaced 992.6 kilowatt-hours of energy and reduced GHG emissions through fossil-fuel consumption by an estimated 93.3 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Putting impact into real terms

Sustainability can’t happen unless businesses, nonprofits, and municipalities alike can visualize their environmental impact in a meaningful way to inform strategic action. Most organizations don’t have the internal capabilities to do that, which is why resources like NYSP2I are so important. Publicly funded, they give organizations large and small access to dedicated technical engineering and data-analysis expertise.


Sustainability in Practice Corporate Sustainability Life Cycle Assessment


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About the author

The New York State Pollution Prevention Institute (NYSP2I) works with government programs and Empire State businesses, communities, and nonprofits to give them the practical resources, tools, and solutions needed to realize the benefits of sustainability for our economy, environment, and our society as a whole. 

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