Sustainable Manufacturing: a beginner’s guide

Climate Change Protest

With demand for sustainability rising and plastic firmly in the crosshairs, now’s the time for industrial businesses to explore what sustainable manufacturing means to them, their operation and their future.

Our guide will help you to understand:

Sustainable Manufacturing: what is it?

Sustainable manufacturing goes well beyond turning off idle machines and recycling materials. Becoming more sustainable offers hard benefits such as increased efficiency, product sales and market share, as well as softer benefits like enhanced brand value and greater employee satisfaction.

There are many ways a manufacturing operation can become more sustainable, ranging from the relatively simple such as switching to motion-activated LED lighting and undertaking a site energy audit, to the more complex, like measuring the total carbon footprint of your supply chain and identifying environmentally positive suppliers to partner with.

Sustainable manufacturing also doesn’t solely apply to your production environment, it touches on every business function. Using injection moulding as an example, sustainable manufacturing starts in the R&D lab with trialling alternative materials including bio-based polymers and post-consumer recycled content to understand how they behave in the tooling and processes.

Sustainable product design will consider the entire lifecycle from raw material and manufacture to the end of the product’s useful life. Production itself is conducted in such a way as to minimise energy and material usage, water consumption, emissions and waste, and utilises energy-efficient all-electric and hybrid presses. Finished goods are distributed via a supply chain that prioritises optimised routing to achieve shorter, less frequent movements.

Packaging is kept to a minimum, is easily disassembled and uses standard materials compatible with established recycling processes. Shipping finished goods in smaller, more form-fitting packaging also eliminates the need for filling materials such as polystyrene blocks or packing peanuts, both of which are increasingly being phased out in favour of more biodegradable alternatives.

Essentra logo on box

Sustainable Manufacturing: what to do

Expectations on manufacturers to adopt sustainable manufacturing processes has put substantial demands on teams. As a result, many businesses have appointed dedicated sustainability champions to consider the scope of the issue and initiate relevant actions as needed.

These individuals identify opportunities to become more sustainable, keep abreast of new regulations, and help to balance financial priorities with environmental imperatives.

Perhaps most importantly, they educate and encourage the wider workforce to understand the impact their decisions and behaviours have on a local and global scale.

Sustainability professionals aim to embed sustainable business value and decision making into every department’s activity. In doing so, the efforts of one person can translate into positive, more sustainable outcomes on a much larger scale.

Making improvements to internal operations such as installing low-energy lightbulbs, and recycling waste material are the minimum requirement and are no longer impressive in the eyes of key stakeholders including employees and investors.

Businesses should look to adopt three key strategies, according to Professor Steve Evans, Director of Research in Industrial Sustainability for the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) at the University of Cambridge.

  1. Understand where resources are being wasted and where opportunities are missed for creating value. “Better use of resources is frequently a source of improved profit margins.”
  2. Deploy simple, easy-to-use tools to make initiatives more visible and actions more straightforward and measurable. “The results from our [Zero Loss Yield Analysis] are often enormously illuminating – a recent manufacturer we worked with discovered that its actual waste was 14-times greater than expected and was able to take steps to reduce it.”
  3. Scale those findings and resulting action(s) across your factory, group and wider industry. “Change can be achieved more effectively if organisations collaborate and learn from each other… and by understanding how other companies are making efficiency improvements.”

To gain useful insights and network with like-minded businesses, it may prove beneficial to join a relevant organisation such as the Plastics Industry Association and Association of Plastic Recyclers in the US, the British Plastics Federation, the European Commission’s Circular Plastics Alliance (CPA), or the China Plastics Processing Industry Association (CPPIA).

Sustainable Manufacturing: How Essentra is helping

As a signatory of the European Commission’s Circular Plastics Alliance (CPA), we are dedicated to increasing our use of recycled polymer raw materials and contributing to the CPA’s aim of boosting the European recycled plastics market to 10 million tonnes by 2025.

Our pledge to the CPA is just one of the ways in which we are aiming to be the world’s leading, responsible, hassle-free supplier of essential industrial components. We are on a sustainability journey and we know that many of our customers are too.

The sustainable manufacturing of our industrial components is very important to us and we now have ambitious targets to boost ongoing energy-saving and waste reduction projects, which include:

  • Committed to setting science-based targets for emissions reduction, targeting net zero in our direct operations by 2040, and in our supply chain by 2050
  • Targeting all of our sites to achieve Zero Waste To Landfill by 2030 at the latest
  • Supporting a circular economy by ensuring 100% of our packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2030
  • Aiming for 50% recycled content in our packaging materials by 2030

Alongside the roll-out of energy efficient LED lighting, site insulation, and ongoing energy reduction and conservation measures, we are exploring innovative, energy efficient projects, such as all-electric and hybrid presses.

We have already made great progress, including:

  • Our direct emissions have reduced by 27% and emissions intensity 35% against our 2019 baseline
  • We have established a baseline for Scope 3 emissions and are developing our Scope 3 science-based target
  • Our waste intensity has reduced 25% against 2019 baseline

Sustainable Manufacturing: the key questions to ask

Our customers often have questions for us as a supplier, whether researching products and materials or purchasing them. These questions include:

  • What’s the difference between biodegradable and compostable?
  • How does industrial composting differ from home composting?
  • How do circular economy principles fit into our journey towards sustainable manufacturing?
  • What applications are best suited to different bio-plastics?
  • What alternatives are there to single-use plastic for a given application?

As vital as it is to question suppliers, you should first be asking your own organisation – what is it you want to achieve and what are your key drivers?

A different material or solution might be recommended depending on whether your goal is to reduce waste or carbon emissions or increase the recyclability or biodegradability of a given product, for example. Knowing which plastic is best suited for a particular use-case is just one of the challenges regarding how to make the industry more sustainable.

Green plastic pellets

Sustainable manufacturing: what are the challenges?

Plastic is one of the most widely used materials on the planet. In Europe, 57.2 million metric tons were produced (Plastics Europe, 2021). Post-consumer recycled plastics and bio-based/bio-attributed plastics respectively accounted for 10.1% and 2.3% of the European plastics production. Yet, in 2020, only 35% was recycled.

Increasing recycling rates and availability of recycled content is both a challenge and an opportunity for industrial plastic producers, converters and recyclers.

Although the focus to date has largely centred on plastic packaging, attention is steadily turning to all plastics, including injection moulded industrial plastic components. In order to stay on top of new legislation, customer demand and the competition, it’s important to plan today for what tomorrow may bring.

Increasingly, responsible B2B purchasing decisions consider a product or material’s environmental impact, including the cradle to grave carbon footprint and end of life disposal.

Manufacturers are well versed in continuous improvement, minimising waste and maximising output – these are the very foundations of the lean production method and have been widely employed for decades.

However, there is no denying that the global manufacturing industry is responsible for taking huge volumes of raw material and turning them into an equally large amount of finished goods. The quantities involved and the potential for waste to be created has attracted both attention and concern, leading to the creation of ever-more stringent regulations and hefty fines for non-compliers.

But it’s not just legislation driving change. Increasingly stakeholders – including employees, customers, suppliers, investors and communities – are prioritising those businesses which have a positive impact on the environment, and they are voting with their wallets.

The number of available plastics continues to grow, with bio-based materials one area of significant focus for researchers and manufacturers. On the surface, that’s a good thing. Bio-based materials come from natural, renewable feedstocks such as corn and sugar cane and different end of life options are possible. Some bio-based materials are recyclable but aren’t biodegradable or compostable. However, other bio-based materials aren’t suitable for recycling but are biodegradable or compostable.

However, by attempting to overcome one problem, we risk others being created. For example, we must ensure that an abundance of biodegradable or compostable alternative material shouldn’t be used as a free pass for our throw-away society to persist. Recycling is an important part of the waste hierarchy but prevent, reduce and reuse all come before it.

Additionally, for a suitable plastic to compost, it requires a carefully controlled oxygen-rich environment where the matter is regularly turned over. This is what an industrial composting facility provides. It doesn’t happen at a landfill where material is buried in an oxygen-poor environment and infrequently turned, if at all. Materials designed to biodegrade in more open, less controlled environments largely aren’t suitable for industrial composting.

This highlights the importance of raising awareness among manufacturers and the need for clear labelling on different materials regarding how they should be disposed of by the end user, as well as improving our systems for waste material recovery, sorting and separating.

Waste hierarchy graphic

Sustainable Manufacturing: what happens beyond the factory?

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation means that the manufacturers who import and sell goods are accountable for their end of life environmental impact.

These regulations aim to reduce waste, promote product design that minimises material use and enhances reusability and recyclability, and ensure that waste products meet recovery and recycling targets.

Both the UK and the European Union have EPR Regulations which cover packaging, waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), batteries and end of life vehicles (ELVs). If your business falls under these regulations, you will need to register with the appropriate authority, meet their recovery and recycling obligations, and submit evidence of compliance annually.

In the US, several states have introduced, or are in the process of introducing, EPR bills, including California, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon and Washington. However, no federal laws have been introduced to date.

What has been introduced is the Realising the Economic Opportunities and Values of Expanding Recycling (RECOVER) Act, which allocates $500m over five years to invest in improving state-level recycling infrastructure, programmes and education efforts.

Responsibility doesn’t solely lie with producers; governments must also provide adequate waste collection and recycling infrastructure. Outside of legislature, we must all take individual responsibility for what we buy, consume and dispose of.

Sustainable Manufacturing: what does the future hold?

Sustainable manufacturing isn’t a trend or buzzword, it’s a fundamental change in the way industrial businesses operate and rather than fading away, it’s only going to become more important.

Contracts are increasingly including references to sustainability, and orders may be lost if a business can’t deliver against them. Customers, investors and employees have become more vocal about the importance of making eco-friendly choices and actively seek organisations who can enable them to make a positive impact.

Today, regulations predominantly focus on plastic packaging because it’s widely used and easier to both separate and recycle compared to more highly engineered plastics. However, more and more of the plastic portfolio will be incorporated into them as time progresses, particularly if we are to achieve the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (13) by 2030 and curb global warming.

All the challenges and issues the industry faces shouldn’t mean we write plastic off completely. Plastic is lightweight, strong, transparent, waterproof, hygienic, and for many applications is the ideal material.

Ultimately, our aim should not be to use sustainable manufacturing as a way of differentiating between it and regular manufacturing, they should be one and the same. It should be how all industrial businesses aspire to design and produce goods, and Essentra is proud to be building for the future, responsibly.