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Although the public focus on sustainability revolves mainly around packaging, many plastics industry companies, or those that use plastics in their products, are keenly aware that sustainability encompasses far more than a single end market or issue.
``We formed a team focused on bioplastics materials and lightweighting,'' said Berry Plastics Corp.'s Amanda Holder, a sustainable packaging development engineer at the Evansville, Ind., firm. ``We have learned that sustainability isn't just about the materials used, but about the energy used and the waste materials generated. So we have to look at our projects differently now,'' Holder said at the Sustain '08 conference, held Nov. 5-7 in Chicago.
In practical terms, that means companies are addressing sustainability at the design level, taking a broad look at supply chains; using life-cycle analysis to understand, from beginning to end, the impact of the materials they use and the products they make; and driving their organizations to be more efficient in traditional ways — ways that in the past fell under being mean and lean, said speakers at the event.
``Plastics are at the heart of sustainability,'' said Bill Carteaux, president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., which co-organized Sustain '08 with Plastics News.
``We are all in the business of making decisions that have consequences and we need to keep that in mind as we design products. We need to review the entire manufacturing and distribution process. We have to learn from others and recognize that there are a lot of ways to approach this,'' Carteaux said.
``If you thought sustainability was going to diminish, that is not going to be the case. It is going to continue, and it will actually help your company,'' he said.
Berry reduced its trash volume by 237 tons — or two-thirds — in one year at its plant in Lawrence, Kan., when it launched a program to identify waste materials and determine how to recycle and sell them.
Office furniture maker Herman Miller Inc. reduced the amount of plastics it sent to landfills, from 41 million pounds in 1991 to 2.7 million pounds in 2007, even though the company doubled its production during that period.
``There is no book on how to design environmentally friendly products,'' said Paul Murray, director of environmental safety and sustainability at Zeeland, Mich.-based Herman Miller. ``You just have to get everyone committed to the task. You have to create a structure that allows people to provide their input before you talk to architects and designers.''
Among other things, Herman Miller re-imagines existing products, asks suppliers for the chemical formulations of materials it uses, and designs products with recycled content and for recyclability. ``You have to manufacture products with minimal impact, and so they can be taken apart at the end-of-life,'' Murray said.
Design is just one way to approach sustainability. DuPont Co. is using landfill gas at a soy plant in Memphis, Tenn., to replace natural gas to fuel its boilers, and the firm has achieved a 60 percent reduction in water use at one of its plants in Germany.
``What is good for business must be good for the environment,'' said Eric Beyeler, director of industrial and consumer market development at DuPont Plastics. ``Every business we go into has to be sustainable.''
Like others, DuPont is looking at alternate feedstocks for chemicals, including crops. But its ultimate goal is to use food product waste, not food crops, to make chemicals, Beyeler said.
Sustainability can be as simple as developing a more efficient process or finding ways to use less energy, said Robin Kent, founder and managing director of Tangram Technology Ltd. in Hitchin, England. ``If you reduce your energy use, you've increased your profits and decreased your greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint,'' he said.
For the most part, sustainability efforts have a common component, regardless of what form they take.
``Successful programs save money and are sustainable,'' said Robert Render, president of Maine Plastics Inc., a Zion, Ill., recycler that helps companies identify materials in their plants that can be recycled. ``Once the opportunities to recycle are identified, it is easer to measure what is working and how you save.''
``There are consequences of every action we take and every action we don't take,'' added Valerie Casey, global practice leader with design firm IDEO in Palo Alto, Calif. ``We need to change the way everything is made — from toothbrushes to airplanes — and, ultimately, to change people's behaviors and get people to re-use products.''
``You can't separate the environmental issues from any part of your company,'' Murray agreed. ``You have to ask yourself what do we do with these materials that are not going away, and what are we going to do with these materials in their next life.''
GE Healthcare, for example, has guidelines to help it look at how to improve ``the environmental impact for the entire life cycle of the medical equipment it makes, including end-of-life management,'' said Bayne Upton. Strategic technology leader for nonmetallics, Upton develops and introduces processes and materials, and qualifies suppliers to work with GE Healthcare.
``When hospitals dispose of medical equipment, it is GE's problem, not the hospitals','' he said. ``How to get green is a business imperative. Environmental issues have evolved into sustainability as a business component, integral to everything we do.''
``Sustainability is moving up and down the supply chain, and it is critical to be sustainable and to be seen as sustainable,'' added Cecil Chappelow, vice president of innovation and sustainability and chief innovation officer at compounder PolyOne Corp. in Avon Lake, Ohio. ``Alliances will be won or lost based on sustainability. We need to use sustainability to drive profitable growth.
``The sustainability lens is more of a mind-set in how you look at things differently on the product side, distribution, operations and even how you manage your fleet,'' Chappelow said.
``There is an immeasurable amount of opportunity if you have the right perspective. It gives you the opportunity to be seen as a preferred supplier and creates intangibles in being able to attract talent and who will come to work for you.''
What's also clear is that it is time to ``stop talking about sustainability and start doing something about it,'' said Steve Petrakis, president of Frigel North America Inc. in East Dundee, Ill., a maker of process-cooling equipment for the plastics industry.
Parent Frigel Firenze SpA, for example, has a plant in Italy with solar panels that exceed its energy needs, allowing it to sells excess energy back to the local municipality. Frigel also uses sensor- activated lighting and direct-heating technology in its factory so as not to be heating areas that don't need it, he said.
``It is really up to us,'' Petrakis said. `The government is not going to be the answer. We have to be the answer. We have to be sustainable in our own companies and be sustainable with each other as a team.''
Berry's Holder agreed on the need for collaboration. ``Consumers have sustainability on their agenda and they are evaluating us on it. We need to collaborate with others,'' including resin makers, she said.
``How can resin makers support converters for sustainability?'' she asked. ``We need them to look for better resins with better properties that allow us to use less resin and that we can process on the same equipment.''
Coming up with answers is critical, because consumers are looking at purchases with a ``green'' eye, according to Scot Case, vice president of Reading, Pa.-based TerraChoice Environmental Marketing Inc.
``What your customers are being taught is that every single purchase has hidden human health, environmental and social impacts,'' he warned plastics industry executives. ``They are being told, `You have a choice when you make a purchasing decision.' ''
But he also cautioned companies not to focus too heavily on environmental messages. ``If you present consumers with too much data, they will become confused,'' Case said. ``You have to find a simple way to convey the message, and you are likely to reach more people by focusing on the value of the products, not its green characteristics.
``Green is a bonus, but they won't pay more for green, unless you can show more value.''