Tuesday, March 11, 2014


Every manufacturing site can be made more
sustainable, and this is NOT only about
Manufacturing sites are but one component of the value chain, in many cases not even the most important part from a sustainability perspective. Often, the suppliers of raw materials, packaging materials, logistical services, water and energy can have very significant life-cycle impacts. For manufacturing companies however, production sites represent the face of operations. Hence they are a natural place from which to start the sustainability journey.

An organisation’s sustainability strategy will include its entire value chain, and an examination of the life cycle impacts associated with individual products. Strategies at the factory level should of course be integrated with this broader organisational strategy, and hence factories should not develop strategies in isolation from the broader business within which they operate. Factory-level sustainability strategies do however require focus, and there are generic areas I tend to look at when I assess factories, in combination with industry-specific issues, which are typically very well known. Examples of industry-specific issues could be persistent organic pollutants arising from bleaching in the pulp and paper sector, hexavalent chromium pollution in the plating industry, food safety in the food processing industry or the water intensity of wet-cooled power generation processes. You will need to fully understand the issues relevant to your industry in addition to the generic sustainability matters I’ll discuss in this post in making your factory more sustainable.

What then does a sustainable factory look like, and what are the key focus areas that senior factory management should have in mind when embarking on a sustainability programme? My views on this issue are that one needs to take a simple, common-sense approach, identifying the broader issues and then taking action in each key area in an integrated way i.e. appreciating the interrelationships between individual aspects of sustainability. Of course, there is an awful lot of technical detail underneath the conceptual approach I’ll outline in this post, but there are many resources on the web and elsewhere that you can access to fill in the blanks. Simple and simplistic are two distinctly different things – incomplete analysis that does not take a systems view will yield incorrect conclusions that if acted upon will not lead to results, or worse, will lead to unintended consequences. However, when sustainability is made overly complicated the risk is that you will spend all of your time over-analysing and not implementing anything. So it’s important to strike a balance.

In line with keeping things simple, let’s step out of the detail for a moment and consider a broad view of the factory as a point of departure. The generic manufacturing site receives resources across its boundary, transforms these into products, and in the process also produces wastes. Sites interface with the environment, the local economy and local communities, but their influence can also extend to other countries, by virtue of aspects such as emissions to air and water and the geography of the markets for their products. At the factory level, sustainability strategy is not about saving the world. Rather, it is necessary to understand the basics of what sustainability means for a factory, and then to reduce that down to the key drivers of sustainable practice for your specific manufacturing site.

In my mind, the following issues represent the bare bones of the characteristics of a sustainable factory.

1.       The work environment would be safe to work in, not just in terms of the minimisation of safety incidents, but also in terms of long term occupational health. If this sounds like a basic issue to you, be warned that it is fraught with complexity. The safety issues are typically straightforward to identify and manage, and while I often see sites where glaringly obvious safety risks abound, it is the occupational health risks that worry me more. What I can tell you is that generally, even where detailed risk assessments have been undertaken, workers can still easily be exposed to hazardous substances. In most cases it is due to a lack of information on the dangers posed, but there really can be no excuse in this information age. It is necessary for you to research the hazards unique to your industry and to find out what the best practices are in terms of their mitigation. Just because something is not regulated in your country does not make it acceptable to ignore it. Not if you are serious about sustainability. It is useful to involve specialists, who can also assist you with measurements.


2.       The products produced should be safe to use and consume. At the site level this typically does not involve product design, though of course nothing prevents the site from giving feedback to the product development team. Manufacturing sites can render well-designed products unsafe to use or consume by virtue of deficient manufacturing processes. A simple example would be the contamination of a food product. The risks at every stage of the manufacturing process should be identified and mitigated, either through process redesign or the institution of robust control measures.


3.       Emissions to air should be understood and managed accordingly. Of course this includes GHG’s arising from local fossil fuel combustion and it is also a fairly simple matter to estimate the emissions associated with electrical energy use. However, other pollutants also require consideration, and are best assessed by investigating individual unit operations. A lot of attention is given to the GHG’s, particulates and sulphur compounds associated with coal combustion, for example, but what of the associated mercury pollution? A detailed emissions inventory is therefore essential. Air emissions are not necessarily a consequence of combustion. Dust, volatile organic compounds, fumes emitted from high-temperature manufacturing processes – all require assessment, and many are linked to occupational health as well as broader environmental issues.


4.       Water pollution risks should be understood and dealt with. Industrial sites can pollute both surface and groundwater resources, and can do so through a wide range of mechanisms. These problems are not necessarily localised, albeit that many arise from point sources. While the obvious control point would be to carefully monitor effluent discharges from the site, other pollution transport mechanisms could include:

·         Airborne pollution that is deposited in surface water bodies

·         Seepage of contaminants into groundwater

·         Site runoff, which can find its way into rivers or to municipal effluent treatment plants that are not designed to handle industrial pollutants


5.       Land pollution risks should be identified and managed. These are generally to do with spills, runoff and localised fumes that can result in deposition onto land. The nature of site surfaces plays an important role. Paving is attractive, but does not form an impermeable barrier between potential spills and the land underneath a site, as a simple example. Be wary of effluent streams that are discharged into un-lined dams or onto open fields.


6.       Resources should be used as efficiently as possible. The resources of interest on industrial sites are raw materials, energy and water, all of which have significant life-cycle impacts, and hence offer significant leverage for the reduction of an organisation’s footprint through actions taken at the site level. The cost reduction impacts associated with resource efficiency are generally high, providing good incentive to pursue this aspect of sustainability vigorously.


7.       Wastes should be recycled as much as possible. The first prize in terms of resource efficiency is to tackle problems at source, thereby limiting the amount of waste produced. While “zero waste” should be the intent of a sustainable manufacturing site, in most cases the production of some waste is unavoidable. Where possible, these wastes should be recycled. If waste can be employed in production processes, this is ideal, but where this can’t be done, supply chains should be set up to process the waste such that it becomes an input to downstream production processes, either for use elsewhere in the business or for sale on the open market. This is often a way to generate additional revenues, reduce the amount of waste diverted to landfills and create jobs. Where waste is recycled internally, take care that your ability to recycle does not divert your focus from the minimisation of this waste at source. Recycling is certainly not free.


8.       The local economy should be supported as far as possible, particularly where it makes sound financial sense to do so. This means providing locals with jobs and also procuring goods and services from local suppliers. This helps to ensure that the site is not an island of economic prosperity in an otherwise impoverished area, but also helps to build rapport with local communities, who are important stakeholders in the site’s sustainability initiatives. This can be particularly important for industrial sites in outlying areas, since a vibrant local economy attracts more residents, who may in turn contribute to economic and social upliftment. This may even support local demand for the organisation’s products.

9.       Social programmes should be in place to support local communities. While these could include charities, the idea is to make these programmes sustainable, and to structure them such that they help people to help themselves, while also contributing directly to the sustainability of the business. For example, a bursary programme could be instituted to assist students to finance their studies in skill areas critical to the site, thereby creating a pipeline of skills while also empowering local communities.


10.   Operational management systems should be well developed and continuous improvement should be part of the culture on the site. In general, good business practice contributes to sustainability. Maintaining productive assets effectively, managing operational risks, ensuring quality standards are met, developing a solid skills pipeline, instituting transparent management systems and all of the various aspects of operations management necessary for efficiency and effectiveness are integral to sustainable operations, not least because they help to ensure economic sustainability. The sustainable factory is hence not a goal requiring reinvention of every aspect of the enterprise. While operational excellence does not necessarily translate into sustainability, it certainly does support it. And hence, in organisations that are leading the way, the lines between operational excellence and sustainability are becoming increasingly blurred as sustainability is integrated into operations.

Is there really such a thing as a “sustainable factory”? To some this may sound like an oxymoron. Of course, this concept is something to aspire to rather than to treat as an end goal, since as I have mentioned many times in previous posts, sustainability is a journey rather than a destination. But as long as we humans are here on earth, the products we consume will continue to impact on the planet, and manufacturing can be considered to be a “hotspot” in this regard. Making factories more sustainable is an opportunity to be taken advantage of by forward-thinking organisations.