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Shaping a Sustainable Future: Innovations and Transparency in the Product Supply Chain

Updated: Mar 13

The quest for transparency and sustainability has never been more critical in global manufacturing and supply chain management. The journey of aluminium production, from bauxite mining to smelting, serves as a pertinent example of the industry's environmental challenges and innovations. This article explores these processes, highlighting the energy equation and efforts towards sustainable practices, focusing on New Zealand's aluminium industry, which stands as a beacon of New Zealand's innovation and manufacturing capability.


The Process of Aluminium Production

The production of aluminium begins with bauxite mining, a process that, despite its importance, poses significant environmental risks, including deforestation, soil erosion, and water contamination. Following extraction, bauxite undergoes the Bayer process to produce alumina, a precursor to aluminium. This stage is energy-intensive, contributing to the industry's substantial carbon footprint.

The culmination of this process is aluminium smelting, requiring vast amounts of electrical energy, traditionally sourced from fossil fuels. High CO2 emissions mark this phase, spotlighting the aluminium industry's role in global energy consumption and environmental impact.


bauxite mine | DPS Consulting NZ
Negative impacts of bauxite mining

Innovations in Sustainability: The New Zealand Model

New Zealand has two unique offerings in the market for aluminium smelted in New Zealand. We have the New Zealand Aluminium Smelter (NZAS) at Tiwai Point and McKechnie Aluminium, which offer a contrasting narrative to the traditionally high environmental costs of aluminium production. NZAS, leveraging hydroelectricity, showcases how renewable energy sources can significantly reduce carbon emissions associated with aluminium smelting, setting a global benchmark for low CO2e emissions in the industry. Meanwhile, McKechnie Aluminium's focus on remelting used aluminium presents a formidable case for the circular economy, demonstrating that remelting can save up to 95% of the energy required for new aluminium production.


Manapouri hydrodam | DPS Consulting NZ
Manapouri hydrodam feeds electricity to NZAS

The Challenge of Waste and Ecological Impact

Despite these strides towards sustainability, challenges still need to be addressed, notably in waste management and ecological conservation. While the NZAS smelter contributes to economic growth, it has also been associated with environmental issues requiring significant ecological cleanup. These include air and water pollution, habitat destruction, and extensive energy consumption.


The Crucial Role of Transparency in the Supply Chain

The key to addressing these ecological challenges lies in transparency throughout the supply chain. We know about NZAS's environmental issues because the smelter is on our doorstep. Yet, the global nature of supply chains often clouds the ecological impact of production processes, making it difficult for consumers to make informed choices and support local industries. While New Zealand's aluminium industry exemplifies strides towards sustainability in emissions reductions, the global context remains complex. What is crucial, is transparency and accountability in reporting environmental impacts, including those from manufacturing processes outsourced to regions with less stringent regulations.


What can we do?

To truly tackle the environmental consequences of global manufacturing, there needs to be a concerted effort towards greater transparency and accountability. Simply moving the problem offshore by sourcing or manufacturing elsewhere does not solve the problem. However, the construction industry can move towards a more a sustainable and responsible future by requiring detailed reporting on environmental impacts and encouraging consumers to make informed choices.


The Importance of Including International Transport in Environmental Documents


In the context of globalisation, the construction industry increasingly relies on materials and products transported over long distances, including across international boundaries. Failing to account for the environmental impact of this transport can lead to a significant underestimation of the total ecological footprint of construction projects and materials. BPIR documentation and EPDs are essential tools for architects, engineers, builders, and consumers aiming to make more informed, environmentally friendly decisions. 


container ship | DPS Consulting NZ
Container ship

BPIR and EPDs

You may assume that the BPIR requirements or Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) already provide enough environmental transparency. Some transparency is available, as these two processes offer frameworks and standardised methods for assessing and communicating the environmental impact of products, including materials used in the construction industry. However, understanding how international transportation impacts are accounted for within these documents can show their comprehensiveness in achieving global sustainability goals.


BPIR

With BPIR documentation, the explicit inclusion of international transport emissions largely depends on the specific frameworks and guidelines adopted by projects or organisations. This means that if you don't ask for the inclusion of international shipping emissions, you won't be shown the global impact of shipping the product to New Zealand.


EPDs

The country of origin of an EPD is critical to understand. Suppose a supplier produces an EPD for their European market; the product is then repurposed in New Zealand using the same EPD. Will the EPD include international shipping and packaging of that product to New Zealand? 


Therefore, including international transport in environmental assessments like BPIR and EPDs allows for a more accurate and transparent representation of a product's environmental impact, supporting more sustainable decision-making within the industry.


Transparency in global shipping | DPS Consulting
Transparency in reporting for international shipping, transport and packaging

Transparency of global shipping and packaging emissions

Including the impact of international transport in BPIR documentation and EPDs is crucial for transparency to provide a broader view of a product's environmental footprint. By requesting international shipping and packaging emissions, you acknowledge that the sustainability of building materials and products is not just a matter of how they are produced but also how they are distributed and delivered to the site of use. This comprehensive approach enables New Zealand consumers to look at locally manufactured or internationally sourced products and compare "apples with apples" regarding environmental impact. 


The aluminium industry's journey from bauxite mining to the finished metal illustrates the broader challenges and possibilities within New Zealand manufacturing and sustainability stewardship. New Zealand's initiatives in using renewable energy for smelting and promoting aluminium remelting stand as commendable strides towards reducing the environmental impact. However, there is work to be done to address the issues of waste management, ecological degradation, and the need for transparency in the supply chain, which are vital steps towards minimising the environmental tradeoffs of the construction industry. However, we know about these environmental issues because of the transparency of New Zealand's environmental reporting requirements. 


What now?

As we advance, fostering innovation in sustainable practices and enhancing transparency in global supply chains will be pivotal in our quest for a more sustainable and accountable supply chain for the construction industry. By requesting (responsibility of the consumer) and including (responsibility of the supplier) international shipping and packaging emissions for transport to New Zealand, we can more accurately assess and mitigate the ecological footprint of building projects in our increasingly interconnected world. As the construction industry moves towards greater sustainability, EPDs and BPIR documentation is vital. However, these documents must include international shipping and packaging emissions to provide a fairer, more transparent reporting structure to allow manufacturing companies located in New Zealand to compete against imported products with a less transparent ecological footprint. 

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