5 min read

We need to talk about the Ecological Rucksack!

Chloe Picture
Feb 18, 2022

Nope, it’s not the latest hipster backpacker brand, but it has a crucial meaning when it comes to sustainability. It is a wonderful concept to assess the carbon footprint estimation and resource consumption of consumer goods.

Our startup is working on offering B2B e-waste and circular economy solutions, so we had to investigate this. Knowing your impact is key before taking actions!

Oh, and I actually love the name because it’s super easy to represent, and it’s so accurate (the main reason I love English, such an actionable language, am I right?)

• Definition & Consequences

Basically the Ecological Rucksack — let’s call it E. R. to save me a couple hours of writing! — is the calculation of the environmental impact of a “good/service” based on the reckoning of all resources that are needed to its production.

The expression was “created” in 1994 by Friedrich Schmidt-Bleek from the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy (Germany). You probably never heard of him before but he is an authority on the topics of resource productivity, dematerialisation and industrial sustainability. History lesson set aside, technically it is;

  • The total quantity (in kg) of materials moved from nature to create a product or service, minus the actual weight of the product.

This definition has several consequences;

  • E. R. is a calculation, so it requires inputs
  • E. R. is applicable for goods AND services
  • E. R. is bound to technology. The more efficient technology is, the lighter the E. R.
  • E. R. counts the quantity of resources displaced because of the product as a whole. Thus, the E. R. rucksack takes into account the materials necessary for production, use, recycling and disposal of a product, but not the materials used in the product.
  • E. R. is supposed to reckon the “consequences” of the provision of goods/services and provide details about life cycle assessment. We can talk about a “cradle to the grave” approach
  • E. R. is different from carbon footprint because it takes into account “Resources” , not only CO2. Most importantly it’s focused on “Consumption” VS “Emissions”. However, both are intricate!

For math lovers, I found some funny equations here, enjoy!

• Examples are worth million words

Now, let's see some examples;

> Standard gold ring; E. R. = 2,000 kgs (Association of Cities and Regions for Recycling)

> 1 aluminium drink can; E. R.= 1.2 kgs (Association of Cities and Regions for Recycling)

> 1 high-def TVs manufactured in 2003; E. R. = 7,700 kgs (study here)

The iconic example of smartphones;

Everybody has a smartphone and knows that it weighs approximately 150–225g. Accordingly to this 2012 study by Julia Nordmann, a standard smartphone’s E. R. is roughly 45kgs;

> Around 29kgs for raw material extractions, 6kgs for its manufacturing, 10kgs for its usage and 0.1 for its recycling.

> Hence, the ratio is 0.2 to 45. Not a superb performance!

Casual reminder; the study is almost 10 years old and smartphones are WAY MORE complex now. Their E. R. are definitely heavier now (estimated to 150+ kgs), especially since they pivoted towards tactile & high performance features.

45kgs time A LOT!

The (old but gold) example of steel in Singapore

Our startup is based in Singapore so I had to find an example for our foster country. I managed to find a study related to steel’s industry E. R. in Singapore. That’s a good example because it’s both about goods (steel itself) and services (all required human activities needed to extract, thermoform, ship, …). The full study is available here if you want to deep dive into the methodology and data. But the main conclusion is to show that policies in favour of climate change and a better control of production can drastically decrease goods/services’ E. R. if made consistently.

If you want to go in-depth of daily goods’ E. R., you can also read this document (good luck with that!).

  • Not a silver bullet, still a good shot

But hey, here we are, the limits of E. R. ! Sustainability is very complex and nothing’s ever easy. That’s the same for E. R. actually. This is a very useful toold to estimate environmental weight but keep in mind that some limits below do not make it the silver bullet to go green;

  • Scope 3 impacts are not really taken into account — and that’s a huge problem (definition here for those who don’t know the concept). Back to the steel example, let’s imagine you want to extract 100t of steel. To be 100% exhaustive, you need to calculate all the suppliers’ E. R. as well and it cascades to all their goods/services along the process. Sounds like an eternal quest…
  • There is no common methodology yet. As a consequence, some studies, depending on their analysis, might deliver very different results.
  • Some resources are harder to reckon and weigh; air, water, rare earths (for high-tech) especially. Some new concepts emerged to complete E. R. like Virtual Water
  • Last but not least, E. R. requires traceability and access to information. And most brands/companies do not want — yet — to face the reality when it comes to carbon emissions and resource consumption. First, they are not comfortable with the reality, and second, they probably don’t even know actually!

So, E. R. is not the silver bullet that will turn your company into a Sustainability Champion. But, it’s great to start with. It does not have to be 100% accurate but it should help you understand your impact and assess where you should improve first to make a greater impact. As we always say in our startup; do good by doing better!

Our mission is to help companies deploy the power of a realistic sustainable approach. With our SaaS, assess the impact on the planet of your equipment for sustainability purpose. If you want to know more, please reach out on LinkedIn or drop us a line on our website!

Sustainably Yours,