Monday, January 23, 2012


"Cleaner" rather than "Clean"conveys the concept
that the journey to sustainability is never complete.
Cleaner Production (CP) has been around for a few years now, but has not gained significant traction in industry, at least not among the industries I have been exposed to in  South Africa. Could misunderstandings regarding this discipline be behind its poor uptake?

The word “cleaner” suggests that it is about there being less harm to the environment, and immediately conjures up images of reduced emissions to air, land and water. Reduction of impacts is indeed one of the goals of CP, but the discipline also incorporates powerful opportunities for resource efficiency. Properly applied, CP can therefore provide competitive advantage and represents one of the most practical ways for organisations to implement environmental sustainability. So what is CP then? 

The United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) defines Cleaner Production as “the continuous application of an integrated preventive environmental strategy to processes, products and services in order to increase their overall efficiency and to reduce risks to human life and the environment”.  This carefully chosen wording needs to be unpacked to better understand CP:

CONTINUOUS – Becoming a cleaner producer is an ongoing process of measurement, evaluation and implementation rather than a one-off project. There are always better ways of doing things and part of adopting CP is to continuously scan the environment to identify best practice and to always be developing improvements inside your organisation. This is a journey. Think of your organisation as housing a portfolio of CP opportunities which you can develop and evaluate on an ongoing basis, choosing the most attractive ones (in terms of both financial and environmental impact) for implementation.  You can work on this portfolio on an ongoing basis, using it to feed into your capital investment plans and integrating it with other performance enhancement programmes you may have. Identifying and documenting every opportunity is a good way to map your CP implementation and prioritise your actions. This is also a good way to document why certain opportunities may not be feasible.

INTEGRATED – True CP cannot be implemented outside of organisational routine. It should touch every aspect of your business. At the heart of CP is a life cycle approach to an organisation’s products, which means that from the time a product is conceived until the time it is ultimately disposed of by its consumer, the goals of CP need to be front of mind. It is easy to then see how CP needs to be incorporated into product design, procurement, manufacturing, distribution, consumption and disposal, and how impacts on the environment, workers, local communities and the consumer are integral to the philosophy. Note also that the integrated nature of CP means that it is not only about technology, but also about management systems and work practices.

PREVENTIVE – Like all problem solving approaches, CP seeks to design risks out rather than deal with them after the fact. This means an “at-source” approach to pollution prevention rather than an “end-of-pipe” one and a “point-of-use” approach to resource efficiency. A life cycle approach takes this concept even further upstream. In other words, don’t spend the money on that expensive effluent treatment works, rather attack the source of waste across the product life cycle and reduce the need to treat it, saving money in the process.

ENVIRONMENTAL – CP is a sustainability strategy which places the environment (which of course includes all living things including humans) at its core. Economic and social issues are however part of CP considerations and the implementation of CP does not mean that these issues should be compromised. This is after all what makes CP “integrated”.

PROCESSES, PRODUCTS AND SERVICES – CP applies not only to manufacturing and industry but also to service industries, which often have a significant environmental footprint. Every manufacturing business will also contain a service element. CP seeks to consider these issues as a system. Individual processes can be optimised to reduce waste. Products can be designed such that waste is inherently reduced during their manufacture, and from materials which have a reduced impact. Products can also be designed such that the services associated with them have a reduced impact. A simple example would be the use of packaging which stacks in a way that facilitates the delivery of larger loads, thereby reducing transport impacts. Again, a life cycle approach is essential.

INCREASE OVERALL EFFICIENCY – Some of the easiest opportunities to implement lie in increasing the efficiency of individual processes. Energy-efficient lighting, insulation, improved control of air-to-fuel ratios for boilers and furnaces, changes to moulds in order to reduce runners and risers – the implementation of these changes is indeed part of cleaner production and should be pursued. However, the use of the word “overall” here has subtle yet powerful meaning and should never be overlooked. This is where the true power of CP lies. For in taking a systems view, the opportunities are often many multiples in magnitude when compared to those gained from an assessment of components of the system.  A metal recycling plant I consulted to used water as a medium for the separation of metal, metallic sludge and plastic. The quantity of water used did not constitute a major cost driver in itself, and understandably, water conservation did not receive significant focus. Reducing the amount of water used did however have enormous benefits, since it reduced the moisture level of the sludge fed to the reduction furnaces used to convert the sludge to usable metal. This reduced gas consumption at the furnaces, improved the consistency of the furnace operation (which helped to increase metal yields) and also alleviated problems that the excessive moisture was causing in the bag filter system used to recover particulate matter from the furnace flue gases. In addition, sludge carryover into the effluent treatment system at the separation facility was reduced. By taking a helicopter view of your supply chain, much larger CP opportunities than the one mentioned here can be highlighted.

RISKS TO HUMAN LIFE AND THE ENVIRONMENT – It is important to appreciate that the safety of employees, local communities and consumers is integral to CP, along with resource efficiency and pollution prevention.

Becoming a cleaner producer makes for a compelling business case. Potential savings are very large. Your organisation will benefit from an enhanced reputation, environmental impacts will be minimised, your employees will have a safer work environment and your consumers will also enjoy safer products. Risks identified from the analysis of your operations can be incorporated into your quality management systems, enhancing overall business performance. The business benefits are many, and to make it even more attractive, it is also the responsible thing to do.