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Posted: Jul 18, 2012

Analysis and strategic management of nanoproducts with regard to their sustainability potential

(Nanowerk News) As part of the current debate on the opportunities and risks of nanotechnological applica-tions, the debate on possible contributions to sustainable development is becoming increasingly controversial. It should rather be conducted on a more objective level. This objectification, however, can only be achieved on a case-specific basis, performing – as quantitatively as possible – a risk-and-benefit analysis targeted towards the total life-cycle. The methodological basis for such a systemic view, however, is still largely lacking.
Against this background, the Öko-Institut, with the Nano-Sustainability Check, provides an instrument offering a systematic grid for an integrated approach relative to sustainability aspects of nanotechnological applications. The approach chosen allows the Nano-Sustainability Check to serve as a strategic radar system for the management of opportunities and threats, in order to be able, for example, to anticipate beneficial effects for the environment and to identify new markets on the one hand, and on the other to strive to avoid bad investments and dangers to the society.
With the help of the Nano-Sustainability Check, companies that develop or produce nanotechnological products and applications can carry out a self-evaluation of their own business activities.
The aim of the Nano-Sustainability Check is to examine the sustainability of products and applications involving nanomaterials in terms of their practical advantages. The most important feature in this context is an evaluation grid by means of which nanoproducts (i.e. products that are produced with nanomaterials) can be analysed by comparison with an existing reference product that has been manufactured without the use of nanomaterials. In addition, the evaluation grid is able to address any possible threats.
In terms of methodology, the Nano-Sustainability Check is based on PROSA (Product Sustainability Assessment), a tool for strategic analysis and assessment of product portfolios, products and services which has been developed by the Öko-Institut. PROSA takes into account the entire life cycle and analyses and assesses the environmental, economic and social opportunities and risks of future development paths. With its underlying integrated view, PROSA helps to identify system innovations and options for action in line with a sustainable development, and structures the decision-making processes necessary to this end.
The aspects investigated within the Nano-Sustainability Check are represented in the form of a total of 14 key performance indicators. The focus is on aspects of environmental and climate protection, which are – as far as possible – considered from a quantitative point of view. In addition, questions relating to the fields of occupational safety and health are examined, as well as benefit and socio-economic aspects. Due to the complexity of the issue, in many cases only a qualitative assessment is possible with view to these aspects. Even in such cases, however, the use of specifically formulated criteria and key questions enables a transformation of the qualitative approach into a semi-quantitative, comparative assessment between nano- and reference products.
The results of the individual key performance indicators are combined into a single representation. To this purpose, the "SWOT analysis" originally derived from business administration is taken up and adapted for the purposes of the Nano-Sustainability Check. The established tool of strategic management combines an inward-looking strength / weakness analysis with an opportunity / threats analysis which is related to environmental factors.
In the framework of the Nano-Sustainability Check, the strength / weakness analysis refers to the intrinsic properties and potentials of the product, for example in terms of the product carbon footprint, user benefits and life-cycle costs. Complementarily, the opportunity / threat analysis takes into account external conditions such as employment effects, societal benefits and risk perception. When comparing nano- and reference product, each individual key indicator is assigned to one of these two levels. If, for example, the nanoproduct as compared to the reference product performs better in terms of the product carbon footprint, this key performance indicator constitutes a strength. If, however, the employment effect is lower than that of the reference product, there is a threat according to this key performance indicator. If the indicator is on par with both products, it is regarded to be indifferent and is reported separately. In this way, a "SWOT matrix" is created as a central tool in the communication of results. A more extensive aggregation of the results, as through a one-point assessment, will not take place, as this would involve an excessive loss of information.
Based on the SWOT matrix, recommendations for a strategic optimisation of the investigated application can finally be developed. Their goal is to maximise the positive potential of strengths and opportunities with regard to sustainability while minimising potential negative effects of weaknesses and threats.
Besides the description of the methodical approach, this report contains the results of two case studies in which the Nano-Sustainability Check was first applied as part of a pilot survey. These cases concerned a surface coating of glass with high UV protection (pro.Glass® Barrier 401 by Nanogate Industrial Solutions GmbH) and a concrete catalyst (X-SEED® by BASF SE).
Based on these case studies, it could be shown that the Nano-Sustainably Check allows for a differentiated consideration of sustainability aspects when comparing a nanoproduct to a reference product. Although in both cases, the products under consideration were still in the phase of market introduction, the data required for the key indicators could be determined. The case studies also show that nanoproducts with significant leverage effects in the CO2 savings potential are currently under development. Both large companies such as BASF as well as small and medium businesses like Nanogate are thus provided with a development-accompanying tool that enables them to quantify and systematically harness the existing potentials of nanotechnological applications. Moreover, knowledge gaps and risks, where they exist, can be identified at an early stage, and appropriate problem solving strategies be developed. The Nano-Sustainability Check offers users the facility of an early warning system and thus provides an important indication as to what direction should be taken in the innovation process of nanoproducts.
Source: Federal Environment Agency Germany
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