The big opportunity

Posted on 18 Feb 2008 by The Manufacturer

Brian Davis explains how innovation into sustainable products can boost the bottom line, and make your competitors green with envy

I rresistible pressure from the general public, combined with increasingly stringent ‘green’ legislation is forcing manufacturers to make their products more environmentally sustainable. And it’s not just a matter of improving recyclability. This often requires a radical rethink of the materials being used, designing specifically for disassembly or re-use, and a campaign to improve energy efficiency. Like most key initiatives, change has to be driven from the top. A substantial number of chairs of FTSE 250 companies now list sustainability as a priority in annual reports and for the Carbon Disclosure Project (see Developing more sustainable products and low carbon operations requires a champion who commands respect at all levels, with a well defined strategy and a business case for change.

Going green is no longer just flavour of the month. White goods manufacturers such as Electrolux have been committed to sustainability for over a decade. Indeed, consumer research shows that ‘high energy efficiency’ often comes top of the appliance shopping list. Karl Edsjo, project manager of environmental and European affairs for Electrolux explains: “Electrolux is focused on environmental issues in all stages of production and design, and goes far beyond what is required by law.”
Maybe it was a reaction to those alarming mountains of old fridges and cookers pictured in the press a few years ago, but Electrolux recently won the European Commission Sustainable Energy Award for longstanding environmental commitment. And Electrolux president and CEO Hans Straberg says, “the way we handle sustainability and environmental issues is key to success.”

The real key to success comes in having a well defined strategy. The group has a strongly worded environmental policy and code of conduct for management, production personnel and suppliers, which covers all parts, service and production from concept to disposal. Moreover, the company sets ambitious targets and objectives for continual improvement and sustainable development.

The Electrolux green range now accounts for about 10 to 15 per cent of the product lines, and they are not just catering for the green wellington brigade. “Our products need to look good, be innovative and more energy efficient with every model introduced,” remarks Edsjo. Consequently, the energy efficiency of Electrolux appliances has improved 40 per cent over the last decade, with strong incentive programmes to stimulate replacement of older appliances with new energy efficient ones, like the green range of energy-class A++ fridges.

Design is governed by teams in the European headquarters, with process improvement encouraged at a local level. David Burton, health, safety and environmental co-ordinator of the Electrolux cooker plant in Spennymoor explains: “We always have to keep an eye on environmental improvement at the process level as well as new product design.” Cookers have been revamped with cavity glass to replace single plate doors improve energy efficiency and fast grills installed. Suppliers have also developed new enamels which can be sprayed directly onto steel, so the production line can avoid pre-treatment, minimise water use and eliminate toxic chemicals. Recycling is still a challenge, as white goods account for over half of WEEE returns. “We try to ensure that third party recyclers can use as much material as possible,” says Edsjo. But he admits there is a limitation on which components could be re-used. “Most major appliances have a 10-year lifecycle or more. So the consumer is unlikely to want a refurbished motor a decade or so from now in their new appliance.”

However, some experts reckon disassembly has serious potential for fast moving consumer electronics, laptops and mobile phones. Nokia and other major electronics firms have spent millions on research into products that could be disassembled in a controlled fashion at the end-of-life. Joe Chiodo is founder and CEO of the Active Disassembly Research Company, and has tested thousands of prototypes that can be disassembled using super heating, flash cooling, microwave induction or laser.

Most producers prefer to shred their products rather than disassemble them at the end-of-life. “Shredding is not that environmentally friendly,” he complains. “Though precious metals and high value components may be extracted, the rest is often thrown away to landfill, which is not compliant with good sustainability practice.”

Critics argue that disassembly is often too costly and labour intensive. To the contrary, Chiodo suggests: “Non-destructive disassembly has tremendous potential. The introduction of new engineering polymers means batches of 10,000 candidate products could be disassembled in minutes.” Furthermore, disassembly offers a platform approach to new model introduction, which could save massive investment in new plant. Three or four model changes could be redesigned and upgraded on the same PCB platform for a new mobile phone, for example, using disassembled parts. The challenge lies in getting major corporations to agree to take back their products and disassemble them, rather than send them to third parties for recycling/shredding. Here again, the key driver is likely to be strong legislation, as the current WEEE directive is flexible and open to interpretation.

Recycling offers many opportunities for new product introduction and material substitution. Manufacturers need only look at the innovative recycling initiatives demonstrated by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) with Boots, Marks and Spencer, Coca Cola and outfits of all sizes, for inspiration.
“Boots now has a holistic approach to sustainability across the lifecycle of health and beauty products from cradle-to-cradle,” says sustainability manager of products, Andrew Jenkins. Boots didn’t simply label shampoo bottles for recycling, but opted to test whether customers would prefer to buy ‘green bottles’ made of recycled PET.

As a major retailer and manufacturer of bottles, Boots decided to put the theory into practice in a vertically integrated supply chain. Initial stability studies were carried out at their Nottingham plant with the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany to ensure no contaminants would migrate from post-consumer recyclate into health and beauty products. “Bottling operations on Aoki single stage ISBM machines needed only slight adjustment for rPET, and the bottles were virtually indistinguishable from those produced using virgin material,” says Jenkins. Since late 2005 Boots has produced over five million rPET bottles for shampoos and conditioners, liberating significant cost savings, cutting the use of virgin PET materials, reducing energy use and waste to landfill, and reducing the carbon footprint by 30 per cent across the total product lifecycle. Marks and Spencer had similar success developing rPET packaging, working with Reynolds Packaging for their ‘food-to-go’ range.

Manufacturers need look no further than the EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) and UK universities for advice on countless environmentally friendly material substitutes. The Government’s Sustainable Technologies Initiative also offers dozens of thought provoking projects that are now ready for commercial exploitation.

Sometimes it’s a matter of taking the most mundane source as inspiration for new products. Chip manufacturer McCain and others produce a mountain of waste every year, which goes to fatten up farmyard animals. The packaging sector, however, is hungry to improve its image and replace plastics, which typically go to landfill, with more biodegradable products. Researchers at Aston University teamed up with Europackaging, chemicals manufacturer Robinson Brothers, Thermoprism and GSK, to develop a
biodegradable plasticizer.

Consequently the team developed potato-starch–based packaging trays, which are now manufactured by Potato Pak and others, using the waste from potato processing. “This could be big business,” explains Alan Amass of Aston University. “UK chip manufacturers currently produce about 17,000 tonnes of waste a year which is normally sold to the animal feed industry.

But far higher returns could be achieved in this new biodegradable packaging market.”The auto-industry is also particularly innovative when it comes to creating more environmentally friendly products. About 84 per cent of old vehicle material content is recycled. Used carpet is converted into air conditioning assemblies and engine fan modules. Daimler Chrysler transforms recycled tyres into radiator air baffles. Ford famously used over 50 million plastic drinks bottles to manufacture grille reinforcements, window frames, engine covers and trunk carpets.

UK automotive component suppliers are also pioneering greener products. Faced with environmental concerns, brake pad manufacturers eliminated toxic lead compounds when the EU End-of-Life Directive came into force. Now they are seeking an alternative to antimony sulphide as a friction stabiliser. Brake pad manufacturer European Friction Industries linked up with Dr Paul Cusack of Tin Technology and PDW Metal Products of Rochdale. Together they created a novel tin-based sulphide compound, marketed by PDW as Enviro-Lube, which offers a safe and cost effective alternative to traditional brake materials.

Brake pad manufacturer EFI is considering introduction of Enviro-Lube, and Federal Mogul has expressed interest. “Though some OEMs want to replace antimony, this is not a common concern yet in the aftermarket which we supply,” admits EFI R&D manager Eddy Blackburn. However, price and material performance are broadly similar and the OEMs are looking at potential substitution.Nick Morley of waste reduction consultant Oakdene Hollins emphasises the need to harness technological innovation for sustainability throughout the entire product lifecycle, from manufacture to disposal at end-of-life. “Leading companies like carpet manufacturer Milliken focus on improving the sustainability of their products at all stages.” The firm takes back used carpet tiles and remanufactures them for re-sale in a successful line called Earth Squares.

“Building in sustainability by recycling, working towards zero emission processes, using more sustainable material resources, recycling, re-use or disassembly can improve profitability by capturing added value in different parts of the product lifecycle,” reflects Morley. Developing more sustainable products and processes not only limits climate change, but can improve the bottom line, raise corporate profile and make competitors green with envy.