Sustainability should be a priority for all manufacturers. In addition to protecting the environment, it can increase profits, as 85% of consumers worldwide have changed their buying behavior to be greener. However, sustainable manufacturing can seem like a distant, challenging goal for many organizations.
Ecological footprints are complex, and many of today’s key manufacturing practices rely on often carbon-intensive processes. Becoming entirely carbon-neutral involves substantial obstacles to overcome, but not all sustainability steps are disruptive or daunting. These five methods offer fairly straightforward paths to sustainable manufacturing.
1. Use Renewable Energy
The most important factor to address is power. Industrial energy usage accounts for 24.2% of all emissions, so reducing fossil fuel reliance in energy can yield substantial improvements. The most straightforward way to achieve this is through renewable energy infrastructure like solar panels and wind turbines.
Factories’ wide, flat roofs provide the ideal space to place solar panels, powering much of the facility’s internal processes. Energy audits can reveal how much energy facilities can draw from these panels. If they don’t produce much electricity in their area, manufacturers can also consider funding solar projects elsewhere to offset their emissions.
Despite the high upfront costs, solar power is the cheapest form of electricity in the world today. The savings manufacturers achieve from reducing their energy bills will make up for the initial installation costs over time.
2. Swap Electronics for Energy-Efficient Alternatives
Another power-related step manufacturers can take is to use energy-efficient electronic appliances. The individual savings from efficient electronics may seem insignificant, but they add up over time. As manufacturers use less electricity, they’ll produce fewer emissions from fossil fuel-derived power or can run more processes on renewables.
Lighting fixtures are an easy and effective area to address here. The fluorescent lighting in many factories requires double the amount of watts to produce the same brightness as LED bulbs. Switching to these lights would incur higher upfront costs, but the energy savings would make up for the difference before long.
Manufacturers should aim to move away from all fossil fuel energy eventually. However, achieving that goal will be a long, multistep process. Reducing consumption through efficient electronics will provide immediate environmental benefits in the meantime.
3. Minimize Waste
Lean principles also play a crucial role in sustainable manufacturing. Reducing waste in all its forms can help manufacturers use fewer resources, lessening their impact on the environment. Applying lean techniques to sourcing and production can also free up extra capital to spend on environmentally friendly infrastructure.
It’s important to remember that materials and time aren’t the only wastes in question. Energy waste is a significant consideration for sustainable manufacturing. Internet of things (IoT) devices are one of the best tools for addressing energy waste.
Just as air sampling technologies measure air quality to inform changes, IoT devices like smart thermostats analyze real-time data to adjust and use as little energy as possible. Instead of operating on a schedule, they’ll work according to current conditions, maintaining temperatures without needless electricity consumption.
Manufacturers will still have some waste even after applying lean techniques and IoT devices. However, they can mitigate it by recycling it back into processes, minimizing its overall impact. Melting metal shavings to form new sheet metal is the most obvious form, but there are other ways to recycle.
One area that may be easily overlooked is energy recycling. Many industrial facilities lose two-thirds of their power through heat loss. Manufacturers can turn this waste back into electricity by capturing steam and other exhaust gasses to convert back into electricity for the building.
Adjusting some equipment cycles can also recycle energy. For example, skewing metal press cycles allow one press's deceleration to provide regenerative power to another. This principle is common in hybrid and electric car braking systems, and it can work in industrial settings, too.
5. Work With Eco-Friendly Partners
Businesses can embrace sustainable manufacturing by partnering with other green companies. The indirect emissions from transportation, logistics partners or raw material mining contribute to a manufacturer’s overall carbon footprint. These indirect emissions will fall if companies only work with eco-friendly partners.
Green partners may be more challenging to find in some areas than others, but manufacturers can typically locate a few places to reduce third-party emissions. One helpful strategy is waste trading. Instead of sourcing new raw materials, manufacturers can partner with companies in different industries or sub-sectors to use their refuse as materials.
One Dutch manufacturing group has reduced its carbon emissions by 635,000 tons annually through waste trading. This collaborative approach also provides a convenient way to manage refuse since it’s sent to another company.
Sustainable Manufacturing Is Possible
Following these five steps can help any company embrace sustainable manufacturing. Even marginal improvements in each section can add to impressive progress together.
Companies should aim for larger, carbon-neutral or negative goals but understand that these take time. Implementing these easier, smaller steps in the meantime can reduce emissions and protect the environment as manufacturers work toward more dramatic improvements.