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Sustainability has various connotations, so how do we understand what it means to be a “sustainable” manufacturer? What’s the hype? What’s the reality? This past year we tried to sort it out, and we bet that you’re already greener than you think you are.

Clare Goldsberry

December 8, 2009

9 Min Read
Greening moves from option to opportunity

Sustainability has various connotations, so how do we understand what it means to be a “sustainable” manufacturer? What’s the hype? What’s the reality? This past year we tried to sort it out, and we bet that you’re already greener than you think you are.

Most processors probably don’t think of themselves as “sustainable” manufacturers, but whether they recognize it or not, every company is engaged in some activity that qualifies as sustainable. That’s the opinion of Larry Buck, president of IML Solutions LLC (Minneapolis, MN), who spoke in October at the IMLCON conference on inmold labeling and decorating. Buck noted particularly the resin recycling trends and the large amount of plastics that’s being recycled, but noted, “We have to develop more recycling streams to handle the amount of materials that is available for recycling.”


Cascade Engineering’s Eco-Cart uses the coinjection process to mold a sturdy trash bin that withstands many pickups by automated collection trucks, and offers a great way to recycle its in-plant scrap.

Buck said the two major goals for recycling plastics are reducing material usage through both lightweighting and thin-walling processing technologies such as MuCell and using additives for strength; and simply reusing products. “Many products can be used for other than what they were originally intended,” Buck said.

Additionally, there is recycled content to consider, but with some caveats. Postconsumer recycled materials have to be sorted and many cannot withstand commingling. Some technologies make recycling more complex, such as inmold labeling and decorating. “You can use postconsumer recycled content, but if you mix your products, you complicate the recycling stream,” Buck told attendees at IMLCON. “Your label must be the same as the package material.”

Molders are becoming more aware of most of those goals, and customers are working with them to drive out costs and enhance recyclability through a variety of processing technologies, such as coinjection. Cascade Engineering (Grand Rapids, MI) launched its Eco-Cart in mid-2007 through the company’s Container Div. The Eco-Cart is a durable solid waste recycling container made with 30%-50% PCR content, said Samia Brown, director of marketing for Cascade. Using the coinjection process, Cascade was able to solve the problem of incorporating a high amount of recycled content into the containers, while still making them rugged and durable enough to withstand weekly pickups by automated garbage trucks (search for “Cascade of green products slated” at plasticstoday.com/imm for an initial report).

Many molders already engage in a variety of recycling efforts—everything from office papers to water and soft drink bottles. Jatco Inc. (Union City, CA), for example, began a company-wide recycling program nearly two years ago that involved all of this custom injection molder’s 200 employees. Funds garnered by selling everything from recycled office paper, shrink wrap, and gaylord straps, to corrugated packaging materials and more were returned to the employees. Jatco’s goal: to become a zero-landfill company. “We think that’s entirely possible,” said Steven Jones, Jatco’s executive VP.

For some molders, sustainable manufacturing has been as simple as changing out the lighting used throughout the plant or installing skylights over areas such as the production floor and the warehouse to let in more natural light. Buying newer, more energy-efficient equipment to reduce electricity use is also popular. As recently as 10 years ago, it was nearly impossible to get a molder to pay much attention to energy costs. As a percentage of the finished product, they were small compared with resin costs. Recent plastics trade shows, however, have been dominated by ways to cut the molder’s ever-growing energy bill.

Molding companies want to manufacture in a sustainable way for many reasons. Not only does it help them reduce overall costs to manufacture and make them more competitive in the global marketplace, but also their efforts make them attractive to OEMs looking for green suppliers to help them reduce their own carbon footprints. More big-box retailers are following Wal-Mart, using score cards to track their suppliers’ sustainability. Increasingly, more OEMs (molders’ customers) are actively seeking out suppliers (molders) that can support these efforts.

Another advantage to the efforts being made by U.S. OEMs and molders is that they allow more “Made in the USA” labels. The entire retail supply chain—from OEMs to retailers to consumers—is becoming conscious of the efforts being made to reduce the carbon footprint, resulting in some OEMs bringing manufacturing back to the United States from offshore. Shipping distance correlates directly to carbon footprint size and, we should add, to cost and time.

Nypro Inc. (Clinton, MA), the well-known global contract manufacturer of custom plastic components (1500 presses, 49 locations, 16 countries), began nearly two decades ago putting manufacturing plants near its customers—wherever the customers needed them to be. Richard Moore, Nypro’s global director of technology, said in a recent presentation, “We are seeing a shift now, from everything going toward Asia to [OEMs] wanting to manufacture more products locally for the large U.S. consumer base. Not that it’s all coming back from China, but with respect to the issue of sustainability, there is a lot of concern by the big brand-name companies [about] carbon footprint, and consumer concerns are driving this.”

The bottom line on the effectiveness of sustainability in manufacturing is, after all, the bottom line. As Cascade’s Samia Brown pointed out, “Fred Keller [Cascade’s CEO] has always believed in sustainability, and while business should always do the right thing, it has to make good sense from a business point of view.”

Jatco’s Steven Jones agrees, commenting, “You have to do the right thing for the right reason, and when we did that we were rewarded with benefits we didn’t anticipate.”

Cardboard, paper, plastic . . . everything goes
Recycling is old hat, but successful recycling in a manufacturing plant takes leadership and focus. That’s what’s making Steinwall Inc.’s recycling program a success in many areas, and especially in plastics.

“Everybody is doing recycling,” says company president Maureen Steinwall. “This isn’t new, but you have to make it a focus at your plant for it to be successful.”

Nov. 15 was America Recycles Day, an annual event that puts renewed emphasis on recycling. Steinwall’s engineering group has taken a leadership role in making recycling at this custom injection molding company an increasingly important issue, with plastic materials an increasing part of the company’s efforts.

Steinwall recycles cardboard, paper, and plastics, which amounts to 40% of all waste that’s generated at the company’s Coon Rapids, MN facility. Jeremy Dworshak, materials engineer, has taken a lead in the efforts to recycle plastic scrap on the production floor. The good news is, Dworshak explains, despite recent gains, demand for recycled plastics typically exceeds available supply.

Dworshak noted that Steinwall had been at the 40% recycle level long before he joined the company three years ago. To increase the percentage of recycling, Dworshak says the company has started recycling the purge piles, which it used to throw in the dumpster.

“A local polymer recycling group—Genesis Poly Recycling Inc. in Maple Grove, MN—was recommended to us by the city of Coon Rapids,” explains Dworshak. “I’ve been meeting with them and setting up a purge pile recycling program. We do have large presses here at Steinwall, so our purge piles can be very large. Genesis supplies the containers, we’ll fill them up with purgings, and then they’ll pick up the containers. They’ll then grind the purgings, and make new products from them such as landscape edging and other products.”

The purgings must be homogeneous, and Steinwall is starting out with polystyrene (PS) because that’s the material used most at the plant. “We have to do some due diligence when putting purgings in the containers and make sure that PS goes in the PS container,” Dworshak says. “They don’t really care about color or any additives such as glass fill, or even dirt in the material. They can reprocess it no matter what the filler type.”

The city of Coon Rapids has offered the company a tax rebate of some type if Steinwall gets to a 50% recycling rate. While the details are still being worked out, depending on what the company is recycling and its current tax rate, “We’re hopeful the purging will push us over the limit so we can start capitalizing on our recycling efforts,” Dworshak adds.

Maureen Steinwall says the company is pushing its recycling efforts under the SPI Ambassadors program. “The efforts have to come internally from the people, where it needs to come from,” says Steinwall. “This is incredibly important and always has been to us. We didn’t need an initiative to make us recycle, but we’re bringing awareness to sustainability, environmental cleanliness, and just being good community citizens. This just puts a title to a behavior that has been part of the Steinwall culture forever.”

Report: Sustainable production is a priority
The number one focus of sustainability in manufacturing operations, according to a November 2009 report from the Aberdeen Group (Boston, MA), is “energy efficiency.” Of the 177 respondents to Aberdeen’s survey, 94% said that energy efficiency is their top focus. “One of the reasons energy is on the top of the mind is because it directly impacts the company’s bottom line,” stated Mehul Shah, one of the report’s authors. “This is especially critical in an energy-intense plant where energy cost is a large percentage, often upwards of 25% of the total operation costs of the plant.”

Molders understand this cost, since molding machines and other auxiliary equipment draw a significant amount of energy. Many are choosing newer, more energy-efficient equipment to realize greater energy savings, or retrofitting older equipment with energy-saving devices.

Waste reduction and environmental impact were the next most selected focuses for manufacturers among 78% of respondents in each category. Reuse and recycling came in third, with 72% of respondents saying that’s a focus at their manufacturing facilities. Employee safety was a focus among 70% of respondents, and the Aberdeen survey showed that companies are “expanding their sustainability initiatives to holistically manage the safety of employee, process, and product.”

Aberdeen reports that one area growing in importance over the past few years is that of governance, compliance, and reporting. “The emergence and evolution of regulatory mandates in a growing number of geographies related to the trade, reporting, and/or disclosure of emissions has compelled companies to make governance, compliance, and reporting an integral part of their sustainability strategy,” said the report.

Over the years, Aberdeen has tracked a trend among manufacturers in which sustainability has changed from being a management philosophy that is “nice to have” to one that is core to the success of the organization. Evidence of that trend came in the most recent survey, in which only 10% of respondents said their companies are focusing on sustainability because their competitors are. This “me too, because I have to” mentality is fading, concluded the report. —Clare Goldsberry

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

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