Making of visible ecosystems

Have you stopped to think about the glass of cold water drawn from your faucet? It may have been purified for you by sand ridges.

The ecosystems in which we live – including the animals and plants interacting with one another and with their environment, and the soils, water, and nutrients that support organisms – provide benefits we often take for granted. The importance of Mother Nature’s warehouse of services to businesses cannot be stressed enough either.

Since companies not only impact ecosystems and the services they provide, but also rely on them, ecosystem degradation is an issue that needs to be managed.

ESR in the Swedish context

Since it was developed in 2008 by the World Resources Institute, the Corporate Ecosystem Services Review (ESR) has been used by over 300 companies worldwide to identify impacts and dependence on ecosystem services.

In 2012, when the tool was tested in a Swedish context, results showed that there was a need for a version to fit the ecosystem services that are most relevant to the country’s steel industry.

The findings also revealed that there was a need to examine how such a review can help improve other management processes. “At Avesta, where we first studied the tool in 2014, it turned out that it was quite an interesting exercise – too interesting to be left on the shelf,” says Gunnar Ruist, By-product Developer at Outokumpu Avesta, the company’s production facility in Sweden. The plant is one of the most productive in the world.

When Jernkontoret, the Swedish steel producers’ association, approached them with the idea of a new yearlong research project to be started in 2016, Outokumpu decided to participate. After all, their prior experience with the ESR made them aware of its potential, and how it can be of use to them.

‘Life outside the gates’

“It was interesting to make the connection between our operations and how we affect life outside the gates. Normally, when you evaluate your environmental impact, you only look inside the gates. You look at what the mills do – what their energy demand is and what kind of waste we create, among others,” continues Ruist.

The ESR presents a broader perspective. “How does Outokumpu connect with the world outside? What do we depend on and what do we affect? That view was a bit new for us,” he says.

Conducted in collaboration with Jernkontoret; IVL, the Swedish Environmental Research Institute; consultants Enetjärn Natur; and Albaeco, an independent group communicating the latest in sustainability science, this experiment aims to probe how the method can be used so that ecosystem services will become part of steel companies’ business development.

The importance of sand ridges

The 2014 survey established that water supply was the area’s most critical ecosystem service. “Having large volumes of water available through the Dalälven River in Sweden, we use and reuse a lot of water. Every person in Avesta drinks water that comes directly from Dalälven. And that drinking water is of a very high quality because of the filtering power of sand ridges,” shares Ruist.

Society is putting that filtering capacity under threat by digging out large volumes of sand. “What we discovered is that we can make several projects with the by-products we get. For instance, steel slag, we found out, can be used to replace sand in various applications, like concrete-making. By promoting slag utilization, we can minimize high-volume uses of these sand ridges,” he states. “If you close the circle, if we use slag for other purposes where the properties of the slags are equal or superior to those of the natural materials, we can decrease the use of sand. It then becomes possible to preserve the ridges.”

An additional benefit

Taking part in this ESR is set to bring about another plus for the company. While Outokumpu’s management systems are already certified to ISO 14001, Avesta’s system has to comply with a new standard – ISO 14001.2015 – in late 2017. By their third party audit in August 2017, which is also the ESR project’s end date, Avesta will have already ticked a lot of boxes. “It fits very well when we start to look at the requirements of the new system standard. By then we can answer several questions and say, ‘Yes, we did the ecosystem service review and by doing that we’ll have various answers to cover the new ISO 14000-standard requirement,” concludes Ruist.

By conducting this ecosystem services review, Outokumpu Avesta is leading the way for other Outokumpu units in Sweden. Its outcome, moreover, will most likely be of interest to other Swedish steel companies as well.

The study is partly financed by Sweden’s Innovation agency Vinnova, within the strategic innovation programmes “Metallic materials” and “STRIM”, which is a common programme from Swedish Vinnova, Formas and Energimyndigheten.

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May 24, 2018