Thursday, March 28, 2013

AVOID A SILO MENTALITY WITH SUSTAINABILITY ISSUES

Industrial sites are complex systems and should be analysed
as such. Look for linkages within and across the various
dimensions of sustainability and operational excellence.

"Connectedness" is a fundamental principle of sustainability. At the plant level, this theme is enhanced by the very real linkages between water, energy, materials, safety, product quality, plant reliability, pollution and other elements which can broadly be grouped as operational excellence issues. Understanding these linkages and rendering them explicit is vitally important, since ignoring them can lead to a false economy in which individual sustainability initiatives will be viewed as saving money, but in which the collective basket of projects saves less than the sum of its parts, or worse, actually runs at a loss. Alternatively, an initiative might lead to cost savings but may have negative long-term occupational health impacts, or may simply fix one environmental problem, but cause another. If you are in the business of piecemeal sustainability projects which do not take a systems view, beware of falling into this trap.

Let me give you a few simple examples to illustrate the point:
  • A scrubber system is installed to deal with an air quality problem, but generates a hazardous effluent which results in water pollution problems
  • The solvent-to-paint ratio is increased in a paint shop to reduce paint consumption, but exposes workers to higher levels of volatile organic compounds
  • Cheaper raw materials are purchased in a “coup” for the procurement department, but the materials result in lower process yields, increased effluent charges and higher manufacturing costs overall
  • Variable speed drives are fitted to cooling tower fans to reduce motor speeds and hence power consumption at a power generation plant, but the increase in cooling water temperature supplied to the condensers decreases turbine efficiency and increases the amount of fuel required for a given electricity output
  • Contaminated condensate is recovered in a bid to increase energy efficiency and reduce water consumption, but this leads to increased boiler blowdown and increased cleaning frequencies, with accompanying  downtime

How then do we get around problems of this nature? One of the most important tasks when developing sustainability projects is to conduct a holistic and detailed risk assessment. This assessment must examine the specifics of the intervention in terms of its local benefits, but must also interrogate every touch point at which it interfaces with upstream and downstream processes and the wider environment. Only once you have satisfied yourself that there is a benefit to the system overall should you proceed.