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FEATURE:
Green Manufacturers Examine Their Impacts

Factories are no longer the smog-belching waste generators they once were, thanks to economics, new standards, and a growing demand for green products.

July 2011

By Tristan Roberts

It’s a story that Interface founder and chairman Ray Anderson tells with pride. A consulting client was meeting at the company’s LaGrange, Georgia, manufacturing facility, becoming versed—fairly uncooperatively—on the ins and outs of Interface's legendary approach to eliminating its environmental impact. Visitors to Interface's plant are invited to talk with anyone they cross paths with, and during a break she stopped a forklift operator and asked him what he did there. “I come to work every day to save the planet,” he gushed. Asked what he meant, he described to the stunned manager how his role in the company helped reduce waste and save raw materials, and ultimately made the planet better for his children. Then he said, “I don't want to be rude, but if I don't get this roll of carpet to that next machine right now, our efficiency numbers are going to go way off.” And off he went.

Illustration by Tien-Min Liao
Factories are no longer the smog-belching waste generators they once were, thanks to economics, new standards, and a growing demand for green products.

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Employee engagement is one area that leaders in greening their manufacturing consistently identify as important. So are scrutinizing the production process for significant areas of impact, tracking progress, and looking for innovation throughout the process.

Targeting the Largest Impact

For Steelcase, the biggest environmental impact from its furniture manufacturing has historically been wood and metal finishing, according to David Rinard, director of global environmental performance. When Rinard started at Steelcase in the 1970s, solvent-based enamels were the coating of choice for metals, and they consisted of 70 percent solvents and only 30 percent solids. In the mid-’70s that ratio was flipped, with a new wave of products allowing a dramatic reduction in emissions along the way. From the mid-1980s to today, the shift has been to powder-coating of metals, with “essentially zero solvents,” he says. “In the early seventies we were emitting on the order of 3,000 tons of solvents a year just from our Grand Rapids, Michigan, facility. Today Steelcase emits somewhere less than 50 tons globally.”

Rinard states that by using a management system based on ISO 14000, the company has focused on evaluating its environmental impact, and has then rated them in terms of significance. It can then continuously reevaluate impacts in key areas and reduce them.

The move away from solvent-based paints also netted huge benefits in another impact area: hazardous waste. According to Rinard, Steelcase was capturing 15,000 to 20,000 gallons of hazardous waste per week in the 1970s and 1980s, primarily from painting. Today, he says, that’s somewhere less than 200 gallons per month—a level that not only reduces direct environmental and financial impacts, but that also decreases the company’s regulatory burden.

Water is the issue watched most closely by Patty Grossman, cofounder of O Ecotextiles, a contract textiles supplier. “The fabric industry is the number one industrial polluter of water in the world,” she says. “There are 2,000 chemicals used in fabric processing, most of which do not have a benign toxicity profile.” Grossman calls releasing untreated water from fabric processing into the environment “a total disaster”—and not only because of the impact of those chemicals. Water may be released at a different temperature than is present in local streams, or at a different pH due to dissolved salts or other chemicals, and these changes can be very harmful to local flora and fauna.

“We use some toxic chemicals,” Grossman said, noting that it was virtually unavoidable, “but we have thorough water treatment: We recapture the solids and return the water to the local ecosystem at the same temperature, same pH, and to drinking water standards.”

Lean Manufacturing

According to Lindsay James, director of strategic sustainability at InterfaceFLOR, raw material extraction represents the largest environmental impact of the company’s carpets over their life cycle, in terms of carbon emissions. Sixty-one percent of emissions are traced to extraction, while only two percent are attributable to transportation. Based on this analysis and other factors, the company has put a strong focus on reducing raw material use through recycling and other efforts.

Recycling of its PVC-based carpet-tile backing is old hat for the company, which has stuck with PVC despite environmental and health issues, in part due to how easily it recycles. Postconsumer recycled content in InterfaceFLOR carpet tile backing ranges from 45 to 65 percent as a result. The nylon face fiber, however, is very energy-intensive to produce—out of proportion to its weight in the finished product—and InterfaceFLOR has recently been making strides in integrating postconsumer recycled content from carper fiber (in a process it has playfully dubbed “reinyarnation”).

Rinard, at Steelcase, says that the philosophy of “lean manufacturing,” in which yield from raw materials is a key focus, has taken on an influential role in the company when it comes to waste reduction. “We’re looking at steel, textiles, and other inputs,” he says, “and looking at how much of what we buy leaves here as product, as opposed to what we’re sending out as waste.” He says that worker engagement has driven improvements in this area: The company established recycling teams in every facility, and told them to check the dumpsters and bring back samples of what they found large quantities of. “Then we went to work and started to find homes for those things,” he says. Solid waste production has dropped close to 50 percent in the last five years, Rinard states.

Thinking through to the end of product life, Steelcase has embraced “design for disassembly”—most prominently in its Think Chair, which can be 98 percent disassembled in five minutes with common household tools, with the components then being ready for recycling or even reuse. However, according to Rinard, it’s difficult to make product disassembly work economically, and the future may lie in more traditional shredding, but with improved separation technology.

Being Green—And Proving It

Green standards and certifications are an ever-increasing part of business—as is demonstrating greenness to clients, says Rinard. “When we see bid requests, 98 or 99 percent of them have some kind of environmental requirement baked in. If you can’t demonstrate environmental performance you don’t get to bid.” Obtaining green labels has become a key way of getting that recognition, although the proliferation of labels is confusing on all sides, he reports.

O Ecotextiles’ Grossman says that the evolution of green standards has been a great tool in providing leverage for the company to get what it wants from manufacturing partners. “When we started a few years ago it was a lot harder” to get textiles meeting the company’s high standards, she says. “Now, suppliers can download the Global Organic Textile Standard. You can call people up and they know how to do it.”

These examples are only a few of the countless ways in which “green” product manufacturers are trying to reduce their impact, in what is increasingly recognized as a critical effort. Many experts are saying that deep greenhouse-gas emissions cuts are needed before 2030, and our carbon-intensive building products are a growing focus of that effort.

 

This article appeared in the July 2011 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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