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Environmental Measurement: Developing a Measurement System
Table of Contents
Background and Overview
Reasons to Measure Environmental Performance
Developing a Measurement System
Calculators and Tools
Where To Go for P2 Help
Complete List of Links

Essential Links:

Measuring Environmental Performance - A Primer and Survey of Metrics in Use
Primer discusses considerations for designing a metrics program and a compilation of indicators.

This section suggests basic steps and supporting information to develop a tailored measurement system.

Note: This section will not discuss:
- specific technical equipment, e.g., sensors, monitoring or tracking equipment
- information or recommendations on how to measure emissions, wastes, pollutants, etc.

Collecting environmental information can be very simple or extremely elaborate depending on objectives for measuring. Another factor in the simplicity or extremity of measurement is the level at which measurements are needed.

For instance, a single process or product line may only require a few metrics to help understand the inefficiencies or wastes in the process. Alternatively, measuring the effectiveness of a company-wide or agency-wide environmental program may require many parameters, including both outcome and activity measures. And, from a regional or global environmental perspective, understanding the health of a watershed, airshed, or entire ecosystem, requires a collective set of indicators.

Suggested steps for developing an effective environmental measurement system are presented in the following table.


1. Why are you measuring environmental performance?

Review the drivers for measuring. Are the reasons regulatory or compliance-driven? Is management or strategic planning driving the request? Has the organization signed on to a voluntary environmental or business initiative?

Review, understand and prioritize strategic and environmental plans and goals. Meaningful and effective environmental measurement begins with strategic planning and periodic plan updates.

Understand the audience(s) who will be using the results. Is the audience internal or external, or both? Tailor the information toward the audience's understanding.

Know the funding level for establishing and conducting measurement activities.

2. From a big picture perspective, determine what you need to know or verify to satisfy the reasons for measuring

  - Progress over time, toward meeting goals and environmental plan milestones
  - Effectiveness of a P2 program
  - Quantifiable or qualitative improvements in environmental practices
  - Quantifiable reductions in material and resource use, waste streams and releases
  - Reporting achievements to employees, stakeholders, government, and others
  - Justify additional investments in environmental improvement
  - Reduce exposure to toxic materials in the facility and surrounding community
  - Meet a voluntary quality or management standard, or award criteria

3. Set specific, measurable targets which will indicate or confirm progress toward plans, goals and objectives

Quantitative target examples include:
  - Reduce energy consumption by 10% per year
  - Reduce scrap by 20% per year
  - Reduce hazardous wastes to achieve small quantity generator status (or for a P2 program, assist 20 large quantity generators in attempts to convert to small quantity generator status)

More qualitative target examples include:
  - Train and motivate all employees or suppliers to practice environmental conservation
  - Change policy and culture regarding purchase of sustainable products and materials
  - Motivate community members to participate in recycling and city cleanups

In the case of a voluntary quality standard or an environmental award, use their criteria to set specific targets.

4. Brainstorm a list of more specific measures based on your targets; consider types and data sources that will tell you if (and when) you are meeting your targets

Going from target to specific metrics is challenging. Some measures may require many metrics to affirm, and certain metrics may be useful in assessing progress towards more than one target.

For instance, if one target is to reduce toxic exposure to employees and the surrounding community, a few example metrics might include: actual quantity reduction in use of toxic materials, staff training in personal protective equipment, actual quantity release data for emissions and effluents, and reduction in respiratory illnesses in the community. If a second target is to reduce hazardous waste, an example metric might be: actual quantity reduction in use of toxic materials (also included in above example) which in this case, can be used to estimate hazardous waste generation.

Additional considerations in selecting metrics:

What analysis methods will be employed? What existing systems (e.g., inventory tracking, chemical management systems, electronic purchasing programs, total cost accounting systems, etc., ) are already in place? These factors may impact the type of data that will be collected. For instance, specific data points are required to use analysis methods such as risk assessment, materials accounting, or mass balance. (These methods are briefly discussed in the Opportunities section of this hub).

Who is the audience? What data and/or translated data will they understand?

What is the source of the data? Will data be measured, calculated from a measurement, or estimated? Can data be integrated from several different sources?

At what level do you need to measure? Project or process? Program? Organization? Community? Global? Or a combination of measures from several different levels.

Which measures should be absolute, relative, normalized, aggregated in an index? Examples:

Absolute - the quantity of hazardous waste generation per month will tell if you can change generator status
Relative - change in the quantity of hazardous waste generation per month, which compares data from one point in time to another, will tell if you are succussfully reducing hazardous waste generation
Normalized - the quantity of waste per ton of product output will indicate whether you are producing the same level of products but generating less waste
Index - measurement of several production or environmental indicators or measures which have been rated or converted to a unitless scale, for aggretagion into an overall score or rating.

What associated costs and savings data will be helpful?

External measures may include performance information on suppliers, community participation rates, and environmental condition indicators/indices describing systems such as air, water or soil quality, and ecosystem health.

Note: Definitions and additional examples of these types of measures are discussed in the Background and Overview section of this hub.

5. One-by-one, go through the list of specific measures, for utility, feasibility, and necessity

Data must be sufficient enough and of high enough quality to be relevant and credible. Keep in mind that one measure may not fully answer any one question or objective, nor will any one measure necessarily be applicable to every relevant target, goal or objective. For each metric, ask if it:

   - Is accurate and representative enough to be credible, e.g., variability ranges and collection and sampling methods produce quality data
   - Is tangible
   - Is able to be collected and tracked in a timely and cost-effective manner
   - Gets to the root of what you need to know per steps 2 and 3 above
   - Will drive future improvement rather than just measure performance

If a metric does not meet this criteria, discard or refine it until you have a useful and viable set of metrics. Try to minimize the total number of individual metrics while maximizing the value of the information.

6. Determine frequency of data gathering for each selected metric

Data acquisition systems must consider the range of timing needs with respect to the data collection. Frequency of data gathering may vary from metric to metric, budget allowance, level of automation, or other factors. It is best to have a system that allows for different recording time frames.

7. Design the collection, sampling, and tracking methods for each measure and/or the whole collection of measurements

(See Opportunities section for more details)

Data collection and tracking can be as simple as recording absolute values on a manual logsheet or electronic spreadsheet for use by a few staff. At the other end of the spectrum, a fully automated system can collect real-time, monitored data and automatically upload it to a sophisticated database or software tool with versatile reporting and analysis capability. For multiple facilities or agencies tracking similar information, often a web-based database is best, to allow multiple user access from different locations.

8. Simultaneous with Step 7, evaluate costs and benefits of the proposed measurement system

Do budget and resources accommodate the proposed measurement system? If not, can it be streamlined and maintain the level of attention required? Are the perceived benefits of the information worth the investment?

9. Implement a trial period operation of the system

  - Publish and discuss the benefits of the system to seek buy-in from users, managers, employees or other stakeholders.
  - Test and refine the system.
  - Train users.
  - Ensure backup copies will be and are consistently saved.

10. Collect historical data (if desired)

Gather data to make a baseline or historical case. Sources of historical data for industrial facilities can be gleaned from:
  - Utility bills and purchasing records
  - Monitoring and release reports
  - Assessment, audit, or checklist records (conducted internally or by third-party)
  - P2 plans, progress reports, and budgets
  - Certification documents to an EMS, ISO 14000, ecolabeling program, or other
  - EMS or ISO 14000 reports
  - Permit and compliance reporting requirements, e.g., RCRA manifest data

P2 programs by agencies and technical assistance providers can collect data from above (if available), and:
  - Environmental award applications
  - Electronic databases, reports, and case studies, including web-based
  - Surveys or interviews with businesses
  - Grant reporting requirements
  - Indicator data collected by other organizations, (e.g., # wild salmon returning to spawn)
  - National databases and reports such as National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permitting database, Toxics Release Inventory (via TRI Explorer),, or emissions inventory, including greenhouse gas emissions, from municipalities, states, or federal agencies.

11. Collect new data

Collect data based on the selected metrics and collection methods and timeframes previously established.

12. Interpret, use and communicate the data

(See Opportunities section for more details)

Often, measurements taken need to be analyzed, normalized, graphed, and/or otherwise converted to help understand and make better use of the information. Perform the calculations, trending, statistical analysis, or other analytical methods on the raw data as necessary to translate measured results into further action.

Another important facet of information interpretation and reporting is to verify, to the extent possible, whether the resulting impacts and positive changes can be attributed to environmental efforts. In certain circumstances, this can be difficult, especially for facilities that have frequent process or material changes, and for agency efforts where the results are due wholly or partially to efforts initiated projects by clients or businesses.

Communicate pertinent results with employees, customers, and suppliers as deemed useful and/or motivational to each audience.

For any environmental or social phenomenon, there are many variables that cloud direct cause-and-effect relationships. For example, a program seeking reduced discharge of chromium probably should not represent that the reductions will restore Puget Sound's population of orca whales. There must be a demonstrable link between the program's achievement and the advertised result.

13. Evaluate the system

A measurement system will likely need to evolve and adapt to maintain utility. Changes may be needed as the learning curve lessens, and as plans and strategies change over time. Plan for change!


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Hub Last Updated: 5/7/2013