Time for Earth Class Manufacturing

April 22, 2014

If there were as many US manufacturers working to Earth Class standards of environmental performance as we have working on world class efficiency, the results might get very exciting very fast.

Mike Bacidore, Plant Services’ editor in chief raised an interesting question as we were discussing the impact of Earth Day 2014. “How about Earth Class Manufacturing?” he said.  Clearly Mike has a point. If there were as many US manufacturers working to Earth Class standards of environmental performance as we have working on world class efficiency, the results might get very exciting very fast.

So what would an Earth Class manufacturer be doing to earn the title? It’s not a simple question to answer, because material and energy demands of different industries vary by a lot. If Earth Class catches on, consultants will undoubtedly have a field day creating benchmarking tools for it, but before that happens, here are a few measurements that are already in use by ecologically-minded manufacturers:

Zero landfill operations are a great starting point. A surprising number of heavy industry plants are achieving this goal. One is Subaru of Indiana Automotive (SIA), an auto assembler in Lafayette, Indiana (http://www.plantservices.com/articles/2013/12-plant-profile-subaru/).  Another is a Toyota Industrial Equipment Manufacturing (TIEM) plant that builds forklifts in Columbus, Indiana (http://www.plantservices.com/articles/2013/06-plant-profile-toyota/). How about it, Big Three, anyone ready to ante up?

Even zero net landfill operations are worth mentioning. This isn’t new, either. Most US breakfast cereal manufacturers package their products in boxes that are made from recycled newsprint. They have done so since the beginning of the industry. Somebody probably knows how much forest has been saved by this strategy; I don’t. But the point is that when an industry begins by using a huge amount of somebody else’s effluent, they have a right to include, say, waxed paper (not plastic) bags inside the boxes without being branded polluters. My mother-in-law used to use the waxed cereal bags religiously to protect her baked goods and other foods that needed to be hermetically sealed. In today’s homes the cereal boxes can be recycled again to make other paper products. As the amount of newsprint used decreases in the next few years, maybe there will be an opportunity for a closed-loop cycle for these paper products.

The cereal packaging decision was probably more economically driven than a conservation policy, and that’s just fine. The US steel making industry was completely overhauled twenty or thirty years ago for economic and environmental reasons as well. Over 90% of US steel is now recycled. The result has been lower steel prices, more breathable air in the Midwest and a lot fewer auto graveyards littering the landscape everywhere. Also the smaller mills mean that steel doesn’t need to be hauled nearly as far is it did in the 1950s before being used (http://www.plantservices.com/articles/2013/03-plant-profile-nucor/).

Plants are treating and recycling cooling water that they used to discard; they are recycling packaging materials, even for international shipments; and they are growing wild grasses and other low-maintenance natural flora and fauna in unused spaces. Once the momentum builds, it becomes apparent that good stewardship is usually good economics, too.

Are the materials you purchase and discard worth a look? Of course the opportunities from process heat recycling, elimination of compressed air leaks and electrical energy savings are all still available. Could we make Earth Day a reminder to stop buying things we can’t sell (or resell) for a profit? We just might make Earth Class manufacturing the next big thing, economically and morally. The grandkids will thank you. Okay, they won’t, but they should.

Read Stanton McGroarty's monthly column Strategic Maintenance.

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