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Opentrace puts a number to a product's greenness

Calculate your beer's carbon footprint

Everyone wants to go green when they shop, but calculating the CO2 impact of everything that went into the manufacture, transportation and packaging of one box of cereal versus another in your head is not in the realm of possible.

Enter Rinen, Inc., a Tokyo-based, garage-based, startup premiering at TechChrunch50 today with, a web app which calculates the environmental cost of a product and can boil that down to a single comprehensible number. Want to get a rough approximation of that box of cereal's environmental load all the way back to the processing of the oats in it? Scan the bar code with your cell phone and crunches the numbers and come back with a single score.

"Everybody wants to be green, but there's no easy way to trace the impact we have everyday," said Hiroaki Shimachi, one of the founders of Rinen, the company behind OpenTrace. "We can trace the environmental impact of anything from an SD card to a 747 or even something as simple as home-made bread."

The infrastructure behind this environmental magic is part public wiki, so that product manufacturers can enter exact data and part innovative database which can be visually navigated. There's a strong incentive for manufacturers to provide the data, they get a printable OpenTrace number and a 2d bar code which could be read by a cellphone (such 2d bar codes are commonplace in Japan where mobiles are used for everything from paying train fares to grabbing information.)

The real magic is how OpenTrace can whip through all of the components of a product you'd buy and derive a score. For example, calculating the relative "greenness" of a six-pack of beer in aluminum cans vs. a six-pack of glass bottles. OpenTrace not only takes into account the first order environmental costs of aluminum versus glass, a domestic product versus an import, but the second order costs of processing foodstuffs like rice and wheat, manufacturing hydrocarbon-based materials and transportation costs.

OpenTrace goes one giant step past just settling once and for all what's the right answer to "Paper or Plastic?" the next time the bagger asks you at your local store: it let's you track your cumulative CO2 impact as the ultimate product of the things you buy and the miles you fly. For example, here's Hirofumi Manganji's OpenTrace after flying from Tokyo to San Francisco, buying a new laptop and having lunch:

Bob Walsh

According to Shimachi, the alpha version (from which the screen shots in this post were taken), will be up soon at the site, but since this is still very much an alpha product, visitors will be able to view, not enter new data.

Unfortunately, before can go from an alpha that impressed more than a few people today to competitive advantage for more environmentally-friendly manufacturers, they need to find funding, boil the technology into a marketable web app and frankly overcome the language barrier.

Back in June I happened to meet these proverbial two guys in a [Tokyo] garage who demoed under non-disclosure OpenTrace to me and three other American bloggers. They had all the passion and drive a startup based anywhere needs to succeed. I'm glad today they got the exposure and validation they need to go from brilliant technology to, hopefully, a shelf near you.