Green for Growth

Cleaner Manufacturing for Your Bottom Line

Unless you strongly believe in the idea of making Mars a habitable planet, there really is no Plan B.

Earth is it.

Keeping the planet’s air, water and land clean is vital, not only for your health and future generations, but for the economy.

“The pandemic represents a rare but narrow window of opportunity to reflect, re-imagine and reset our world,” says Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chair of the World Economic Forum.

The payoff for environmentally friendly business practices can result in a boost to the bottom line in a competitive market. With the pandemic pulling the rug from under “business as usual” operations, now is the time to re-think how you do things and look at what can be done better. Opportunity knocks.

For manufacturers (and everyone else), there are serious consequences to the status quo of making goods, using them and throwing them away. U.S. landfills are inundated with 139.6 million tons of waste every year, says the Environmental Protection Agency, including 27 million tons of plastic, 14 million tons of metals and 11 million tons of textiles.

The notion of waste as a resource has been around for some time, but what is being done to actually reuse products? Can such practices actually increase profits for a business? Here are some examples.

Coffee giant, Starbucks, uses its recycled coffee grounds to make coffee tables for its stores.

Nike uses more than 90% of the waste from materials used to make the popular Nike Air soles to manufacture new athletic cushioning systems.

Belgium brewer AB InBev has launched the protein drink Canvas made from the nutritious spent grains from the brewing process that previously were resold as animal feed.

Boeing recycles scrap aerospace carbon composites at 11 of its manufacturing sites, reducing solid waste by about a million pounds per year. Since 2018, the company has partnered with U.K.-based ELG Carbon Fibre that treats the waste material in a special furnace to remove the binding agents.

The super-strong, lightweight material for spacecraft and airplane construction can then be sold to make products like laptop cases and car parts. On that note, Boeing received a 2020 Sustainability Leadership Award from the National Association of Manufacturers for its exemplary efforts.

And you don’t have to be a market heavyweight to go green and reap the benefits.

Start-up food companies, for example, are turning food waste into new products, like Wtrmln Wtr’s bottled watermelon water – made from watermelon that wasn’t attractive enough to be sold in supermarkets – and Renewal Mill that creates a specialty flour out of a by-product of making tofu and soymilk.

The value of greener manufacturing and waste management are also becoming more important to savvy consumers; they’re taking a hard look at what companies are doing to protect the environment. More than 80% of people respect companies and brands that adopt eco-friendly practices, according to an international survey by Engine media on buyer behavior.

The survey found that more than half of respondents boycott companies with unsustainable practices or products. A third of consumers want recycling and composting information to be clear on product packaging, and more information on sustainability to help them make better purchases.

“Consumers want to make responsible ‘green’ purchases, but do not always have the means to do so,” the report says. “For brands, this is an opportunity.”

There’s a wealth of economic data making the case for a green recovery, Forbes reports. Firms that put environmental, social and governmental (ESG) practices into play consistently perform better than their less sustainable competitors. Last year, management consultants McKinsey found that companies with an ESG strategy made considerable gains: improved top-line growth, reduced costs, boosted productivity, and optimized assets and investments.

As it turns out, innovation in the environmentally conscious direction could be one of the most powerful tools available to the modern manufacturer. Many companies are leading the circular economy by developing ingenious ways to reduce, reuse and recycle.

For example, China, India, Thailand, Vietnam and other countries are dealing with vast water consumption and pollution from the textile industry. The Dutch company DyeCoo has come up with a process of dyeing cloth that uses no water or chemicals, except for the dyes themselves. Highly-pressurised carbon dioxide dissolves the dye and deposits it deep into the fabric. Then the carbon dioxide evaporates and is recycled to be used again. With this process, the cloth doesn’t need to dry, reducing production time by 50%, saving energy and adding to profitability.

The City of Edmonton, Alberta reuses about 90% of its waste, saving more than 100,000 tons of landfill every year – thanks to Enerkem’s technology that extracts carbon from garbage that can’t be otherwise recycled.

The Canadian-born company says it takes five minutes to turn the carbon into a gas that’s used to produce biofuels like methanol and ethanol for fuel-cell and battery electric vehicles, as well as renewable chemicals used in everyday products, including skincare and household cleaners.

New Jersey-based TerraCycle works with companies to transform hard-to-recycle items like ocean plastic and turns them into new products. TerraCycle repurposes used batteries, backpacks, coffee capsules and cooking oil, and even partnered with Walmart last year to launch a car seat recycling event designed to divert plastic from landfill and turn components into usable raw materials for manufacturing.

Plastics are shredded, ground, washed, melted and extruded into new pellets for injection molded product manufacturing. Metals are shredded, smelted and formed into sheet and bar stock for new stamped product applications. The foams are densified and used as raw material for new components like crown molding and carpet underlay. Textiles are converted into a material used for insulation-type applications.

“I’ve been doing this waste thing for 16 years, and people have always been aware and in agreement that garbage is a problem,” says TerraCycle founder Tom Szaky in Inc. Magazine. “But in the past 12 months, the world has awoken in a very, very big way. People are looking for alternatives.”

In May, the company launched a new service called Loop, which delivers brand name goods like Tide detergent, Gillette razors and Häagen-Dazs ice cream in reusable packages. Customers pay a refundable deposit and send the empty containers back in a Loop tote to be cleaned and refilled. Tim Hortons coffee chain is set to launch Loop reusable takeout food and beverage containers in a Toronto pilot next year.

Companies as large and diverse as Boeing and GE, and as product-specific as Nike and Red Bull, are making environmental stewardship part of their business strategies, operations, products and corporate cultures.

While you’ll hear more about sustainability at large, high-visibility companies, small businesses and, in particular, small manufacturers, have a huge role to play. They are the critical suppliers to many well-known brands that are sustainability leaders. They also represent the backbone of the economy.

Businesses with less than 500 employees account for nearly 50% of private-sector payrolls, 46% of private-sector output, and 33% of exporting value, the U.S. Census Bureau reports.

Large global businesses use sustainability to differentiate their products and image for revenue-generating growth, along with improving their carbon footprint. They’re also looking to differentiate themselves by working with sustainability leaders within their supplier base and strategic partnerships.

Green is a group effort. Economists and scientists advocate that cleaner manufacturing is the way forward for companies to stay competitive – and turn the planet’s waste problem into a valuable resource.

“Why can’t we summon the ingenuity and courage of the generations that came before us?” says planetary scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson. “The dinosaurs never saw that asteroid coming. What’s our excuse?”

Changing Course

N95 masks. Hand sanitizer. PPE. Respirators. Plexiglass barriers. Social distance signage. Rapid Testing Kits. Contact tracing apps. Vaccine against a previously unknown Coronavirus. In January 2020, who would have thought there was a need for manufacturers to ramp up production of any of these items? Or to deal with the grim reality that more body bags were required? But by March, the need for all these items and more was real, and manufacturers struggled to meet demands amid the growing public health crisis of a global pandemic.

Past Issues

March 2, 2021, 12:16 PM EST