Global Organization Documents Best Practices, Examples of Sustainable Manufacturing

So you want to pursue sustainable manufacturing. Congratulations, you made a good decision. Now comes the hard part: What exactly does that mean, and how do you do it?


The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently published a summation of some best practices, collecting examples of how companies are incorporating sustainable manufacturing principles in their day-to-day operations. The OECD has identified three areas where sustainable manufacturing best practices have been successfully implemented: reducing inputs for production, improving the efficiency of facility operations and improving products to reduce impact in use and at the end of life. One point the OECD makes is that sustainable manufacturing isn’t just for huge firms that can afford to retool their operations but is well within reach for firms of all sizes.

Here is a look at the three areas, summarizing the OECD’s write-up for each one.

1. Reducing Inputs for Production

The idea here is that if you can find ways to reduce non-sustainable materials during production, you’re on the way to the goal of sustainable production. The OECD primer gives the example of Isothane, a modest-sized British manufacturer of products used for insulating buildings, providing buoyancy for boats, protecting bridges and reinforcing roads.

With about 30 employees and annual revenues of $14 million, it’s a successful small business. Recently, Isothane officials decided to eliminate flammable materials from its product lines to reduce solvent emissions and comply with legislation, according to OECD’s report. Most of this was accomplished through material substitution, the OECD report noted, adding that “a few product lines were discontinued. The company’s research and development team spent two months researching less-hazardous alternatives to find substitutes.”

And we’re talking about a fairly substantial reduction in solvent use, from “165 U.S. tons of three types of flammable solvent to just 24 U.S. tons a year of only one type of non-flammable solvent.” Given that the only real cost of the material substitution was the R&D involved, the OECD said Isothane is achieving savings of about $400,000 from not having to upgrade the electrical equipment in the factory and warehouses to comply with the legislated flameproof standards. Other benefits include reduced amounts of hazardous waste.

Another approach was taken by Wausau Tile, an American company that makes architectural products such as plastic site furnishings, precast concrete and metal site furnishings and precast terrazzo. The company reduced the use of natural raw materials and saved costs by finding alternative aggregates to mix with concrete.  “Where gravels are normally used,” the OECD reported, Wausau Tile “found a process to treat glass for that purpose.”

This is particularly noteworthy since glass recycling is still one of the most difficult challenges; there’s a whole lot of glass in landfills. Yes, it costs a bit more, but Wausau Tile figured out that the “extra cost could be offset by the decorative value of the material.”

The company is pleased with the results, so much so that it has redesigned a number of products to incorporate an aggregate using glass, including benches, tables and planters. We’re talking a pretty significant amount of glass aggregate: up to 56 percent of the total product weight or volume in some products. A couple of years ago, the company was using 500 U.S. tons of post-consumer/post-industrial glass, and it has successfully incorporated post-industrial porcelain in its aggregate for bathtubs and other fixtures.

2. Improving Facility Operations

It’s amazing how much simple efficiency can save. Take Calstone, an Ontario-based family-owned company that designs and makes metal furniture products. Selling more environmentally sustainable furniture products is actually a competitive advantage in certain markets, Calstone discovered, so about five years ago, it found ways to reduce the environmental impact of its manufacturing plant.

For instance, a vapor spray system reduced harmful emissions by lowering the number of chemicals used for degreasing metal components; according to Calstone, its chemical use has since been reduced by 60 percent compared with 2005 levels. Also, the company collects rainwater for use in flushing the toilets in its plant, while a separate tank holds rainwater that is used for equipment cooling,  significantly reducing water usage in both of those operations.

Meanwhile, a heat exchanger was made from an old car radiator and automatic heat control units, and the company hung large pieces of polystyrene foam from the plant’s ceiling to cut down on the amount of plant space it needs to heat. Calstone buys hydro and wind power and has installed solar panels, reducing operating costs by U.S. $20,000 a year. That’s a significant savings for a company with an annual revenue of $7 million a year.

Sanden, a Japanese manufacturer of vending machines, refrigerated display cases and car air-conditioning compressor components, as well as other products, built its manufacturing site as a “factory of the 21st century in harmony with nature,” according to the OECD report, which noted that only half of the site is used for the actual factory, as about half of the 650,000-square-meter property is simply left as forest.

To build the complex, Sanden used what the OECD called “large-scale, close-to-nature construction methods.” This included biotope ponds as reservoirs, and even the use of stones and timbers from the site itself for the construction.

The company can afford a certain number of such grace notes as maintaining forest on half of its land, being a $380 million a year operation, but company officials said the reductions in concrete use and waste management costs have saved over $6.5 million. Sanden has even committed to increasing the number of species in the local ecosystem, aiming to increase the biodiversity past levels in 1998, when construction started.

Improving your plant is a good way to reduce energy costs, as well. Rapid-Line, a $15 million a year metal fabrication and tooling company in Grand Rapids, Mich., faced “significant” increases in natural gas costs between 2002 and 2005. This was especially significant since the company uses natural gas for heating and parts washing, as well as fueling its powder coat curing oven.

So the company set about capturing and redirecting excess heat from paint-line ovens back into the plant. This eliminated the need for furnace heating of the plant in cold weather and increased oven efficiency, according to the OECD report, which also noted that Rapid-Line installed ceiling fans and baffles to increase the heating and cooling efficiency of the building.

Adding extra insulation and automated controls raised the operating efficiency of systems, the report said, while noting that monitoring external temperatures of curing ovens to locate and repair heat leaks has helped save money, as well. Company officials estimated that Rapid-Line has saved $46,000 a year.

3. Improving Products to Reduce Impact

PortionPac Chemical, a $20 million a year manufacturer of high-concentrate, pre-measured cleaning and floor finish products, is credited with creating the concept of a pre-measured product in 1964. The company played up the cost savings of shipping concentrates, as being green wasn’t a concept back then — efficiency and profits were.

Forty years later, the company assessed the life-cycle impact of its products and got third-party green certification for its various cleaners, and spiffed up its packaging to reduce waste and save on disposal and freight and other costs. As a result now, PortionPac can also market its products as being green, after receiving sustainability credentials. It has raised its bottom line, too, as PortionPac officials reported that the company has saved $40,000 each year through materials reduction in its packaging.

That’s not all, as PortionPac found a commercial user for some of its production by-products, diverting waste materials from landfills and saving on haulage costs. All of the sustainable methods have contributed to greater profitability; company officials said that they’ve been able to reduce costs to the point where they can afford to create new jobs.

Meanwhile, Henkel, the German producer of such global brands as Somat, Right Guard and Pritt, decided to reduce the impact of its products during use. Company officials said studies found that Henkel’s products, during their life cycle, are a part of a negative impact from the use of energy to heat the water run in a dishwasher or washing machine.

So Henkel sought to make products that work at lower temperatures, such as a new dishwasher detergent that does as good of a job at 104 degrees F as other detergents at 122 to 131 degrees F — a 20 percent energy savings on average.

New formulations in some Henkel products benefit consumers, as well as reduce environmental impact. The company, for example, improved a spray valve to reduce spray losses of deodorant by 20 percent.

And the company has a renewed focus on high-renewable and biodegradable materials. As an example, the housing of a correction roller was reconfigured to consist of almost 90 percent plastic made from plants.

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