How Innovative Materials Developer Bemis Uses LCA to “Ground Our Decision-Making in Science and Facts”
The pursuit of impact reduction across a product’s life cycle can be a complex task, even for companies with a deep-rooted culture of innovation and problem-solving. One example: Bemis Associates, which has a 110-year history of tackling materials-related challenges for specialized applications, including waterproofing seam tape. Bemis’s line of waterproofing seam tape for two-layer fabrics, 2L Seam Tape, is an integral element in a wide range of high-performance products, including outdoor gear, protective industrial clothing, tents and packs, and military equipment.
As part of its long-term Social and Environmental Responsibility strategy launched in 2017, Bemis recently partnered with EarthShift Global on a screening life cycle assessment (LCA) of the seam tape to identify impact hotspots and possible opportunities for improvement. The resulting data and insights have already proved valuable.
“Introducing LCAs and analysis into our business, and using them to think about our products and operations, is a relatively new approach for us. This is the first major one we’ve conducted,” says Ben Howard, Bemis’s Director of Sustainability. “One of challenges we have noticed is that it’s easy for people to have different opinions and assumptions about where our impacts come from and what we should be working on. LCA is helping to ground our priorities and decision-making in science and facts, so that we can focus on driving change to make the greatest impact.”
Greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction has been a priority in Bemis’s efforts to date, with a 25 percent cut from 2017 levels already achieved in Scopes 1 and 2. The company is also working in parallel on better chemistries and waste reduction, including significant increases in internal recycling of the thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) material that comprises the bulk of the seam tape. LCA work is contributing to strategic analysis of options for potential scope 3 reductions.
One screening LCA finding Howard calls “really eye-opening” is the contribution that transportation, particularly air transport, can have on the Seam Tape’s impacts. The assessment found greatly increased climate change and abiotic depletion impacts when air freight was used for both TPU shipments from Europe and packaged Seam Tape shipments to Asia, and a substantial increase in eutrophication impact as well.
That means, says Howard, “if we can produce the product closer to the customer, or make sure it goes on a boat rather than a plane, it makes a huge difference. Reducing air freight is usually a priority anyway for cost reasons; this visibility into the environmental impacts adds another major incentive for reducing it.”
Another possibility that is being widely explored is the opportunity to incorporate other materials into the Seam Tape product, whether that be different chemistries, recycled materials, or bio-based materials. The assessment clearly pointed out the impact the material has in multiple environmental categories and gave some recommendations on promising alternatives.
This type of fundamental material change to a product that provides a crucial function can’t be undertaken lightly, due to the costs and risks involved. But as Howard put it, “it gives a mission to our R&D team, to see if they can develop a new technology. Lowering the carbon footprint of the materials we use can drive huge impact reduction, especially when scaled across product lines and supply chains.”
Since the screening LCA was a “Cradle to Grave” assessment, the team was also able to look more broadly into the use phase and the end products in which Seam Tape is used. This systems perspective helps provide context to the overall impact a product or material can have when it is a part of something much larger. In this case, an end garment has much larger environmental impact than just the seam tape alone so it’s important to think about how a specific material may impact the end product overall. For the Bemis team, that means thinking about how changes to Seam Tape may be able to impact the end product’s durability, repairability, and reusability.
Looking at the context of Bemis’s overall sustainability efforts, Howard says the screening LCA provided an important learning experience. “In the grand scheme of things it wasn’t that big of a commitment, and the lessons from doing the first one will make subsequent studies much more quick and efficient,” he explains. “We’ll know who needs to be involved and what data is important, where we need to go deeper, and where we can use estimates.”
The process also sparked “a ton of curiosity and interest internally,” says Howard, tapping into a widespread sense among Bemis employees of wanting to participate in positive environmental change. “People were able to make the connection between their day job, the things they make decisions about, and the long-term impacts of the product,” he notes. “We spoke with the EarthShift Global team about this, and how LCA data can help shift the culture and add purpose and meaning.
“Without LCA, you’ve really just got assumptions,” adds Howard. “If you make tweaks, how do they impact the end product, and where are the tradeoffs? It’s complex. Making the impacts more visible before making decisions is really helpful in finding that balance.”