How Sustainable Manufacturing Could Help Reduce the Environmental Impact of Industry

Yves here. While no one could argue against a concept like sustainable manufacturing, as in making much more resource-efficient plants, it’s an open question as to how widely this approach could be deployed. A big issue is that while new facilities could be built to these standards, retrofitting existing operations will only have at best limited impact. This has long been the case for airborne emissions, for example, and I thus have to believe that it is generally true.

By Nabil Nasr, Associate Provost Academic Affairs and Director of GIS, Rochester Institute of Technology. Originally published at The Conversation

Nabil Nasr is the associate provost and director of the Golisano Institute for Sustainability at Rochester Institute of Technology. He is also the CEO of the Remade Institute, which was established by the U.S. government to conduct early-stage R&D to accelerate the transition to circular economy, which is a sustainable industrial model for improved resource efficiency and decreased systemic energy, emissions and waste generation. Below are highlights from an interview with The Conversation. Here, Nasr explains some of the ideas behind sustainable manufacturing and why they matter. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

How would you explain sustainable manufacturing? What does the average person not know or understand about sustainable manufacturing?

When we talk about sustainable manufacturing, we mean cleaner and more efficient systems with less resource consumption, less waste and emissions. It is to simply minimize any negative impact on the environment while we are still meeting demand, but in much more efficient and sustainable ways. One example of sustainable manufacturing is an automotive factory carrying out its production capacity with 10% of its typical emission due to advanced and efficient processing technology, reducing its production waste to near zero by figuring out how to switch its shipping containers of supplied parts from single use to reusable ones, accept more recycled materials in production, and through innovation make their products more efficient and last longer.

Sustainability is about the proper balance in a system. In our industrial system, it means we are taking into account the impact of what we do and also making sure we understand the impact on the supply side of natural resources that we use. It is understanding environmental impacts and making sure we’re not causing negative impacts unnecessarily. It’s being able to ensure that we are able to satisfy our demands now and in the future without facing any environmental challenges.

Early on at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, emissions, waste and natural resource consumption were low. A lot of the manufacturing impacts on the environment were not taken into account because the volumes that we were generating were much, much lower than we have today. The methods and approaches in manufacturing we use today are really built on a lot of those approaches that we developed back then.

The reality is that the situation today has drastically changed, but our approaches have not. There is plenty of industrialization going on around the globe. And, there is plenty of pollution and waste generated. In addition, a lot of materials we use in manufacturing are nonrenewable resources.

So it sounds like countries that are industrialized now picked up a lot of bad habits. And we know that growth is coming from these developing nations and we don’t want them to repeat those bad habits. But we want to raise their standard of living just without the consequences that we brought to the environment.

Yeah, absolutely. So there was an article I read a long time ago that said China and India either will destroy the world or save it. And I think the rationale was that if China and India copy the model and technologies used in the West to building its industrial system, the world will see drastic negative impact on the environment. The key factor here is the significantly high scale of activities needed to support their very large populations. However, if they are much more innovative and come up with much more efficient and cleaner methods better than used in the West to build up industrial enterprises, they would save the world because the scale of what they do is significant.

In talking about how these two countries could either ruin or save the world, do you remain an optimist?

Absolutely. I serve on the the United Nations Environment Program’s International Resource Panel. One of the IRP’s roles is to inform policy through validated independent scientific studies. One of the panel’s reports is called the Global Resources Outlook. The last report was published in 2019.

The experts are saying that if business as usual continues, we’re probably going to increase greenhouse gas emission by 43% by 2060. However, if we employ effective sustainability measures across the globe, we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a significant percentage, even by as much as 90%. A 2018 study I led for the IRP found that applying remanufacturing alongside other resource recovery methods like comprehensive refurbishment, repair and reuse could cut greenhouse gas emissions of those products by 79%–99% across manufacturing supply chains.

So there is optimism if we employ many sustainability measures. However, I’ve been around long enough to know that it’s always disappointing to see that the indicators are there; the approaches to address some of those issues are identified, but the will to actually employ them isn’t. Despite this, I’m still optimistic because we know enough about the right path forward and it is still not too late to move in the right direction.

Were there any lessons we’ve learned during the COVID-19 pandemic that we can apply to challenges we’re facing?

We learned a lot from the COVID crisis. When the risk became known, even though not all agreed, people around the globe took significant measures and actions to address the challenge. We accepted changes to the way we live and interact, we marshaled all of our resources to develop vaccines and address the medical supply shortages. The bottom line is that we rose to the occasion and we, in most part, took actions to deal with the risk in a significant way.

The environmental challenges we face today, like climate change, are serious global challenges as well. However, they have been occurring over a long time and, unfortunately, mostly have not been taken as seriously as they should have been. We certainly have learned that when we have the will to address serious challenges, we can meet them.

Final question. Give me the elevator pitch on remanufacturing.

Remanufacturing is a process by which we bring a product that has been used back to a like-new-or-better condition. Through a rigorous industrial process, we disassemble the product to the component level. We clean, inspect and restore it, qualifying every part. We then reassemble the product similar to what happened when it was built the first time. The reality is that by doing so, you’re using anywhere from 70% to 90% of the materials recovered from the use phase. This has significantly far lower impacts on the environment when compared to making new products from raw materials.

You don’t mine virgin material for that. You’re saving the energy that made those parts; you’re saving the capital equipment that made those parts; you’re saving the labor cost. So the savings are significant. The overall savings are about 50%. For example, a remanufactured vehicle part in the United States requires less than 10% of the energy needed to make a new one, and less than 5% of new materials. That means lower costs for the producer while providing the consumer with a very high-quality product. Examples of commonly remanufactured products are construction equipment, automotive engines and transmissions, medical equipment and aircraft parts. Those products are similar to brand-new products, and companies like Xerox, Caterpillar and GE all have made remanufacturing an important part of their overall operations.

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  1. The Beeman

    I am familiar with William McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle.

    from their site:

    “In their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart presented an integration of design and science that provides enduring benefits for society from safe materials, water and energy in circular economies and eliminates the concept of waste.

    The book put forward a design framework characterized by three principles derived from nature:

    Everything is a resource for something else. In nature, the “waste” of one system becomes food for another. Everything can be designed to be disassembled and safely returned to the soil as biological nutrients, or re-utilized as high quality materials for new products as technical nutrients without contamination.

    Use clean and renewable energy. Living things thrive on the energy of current solar income. Similarly, human constructs can utilize clean and renewable energy in many forms—such as solar, wind, geothermal, gravitational energy and other energy systems being developed today—thereby capitalizing on these abundant resources while supporting human and environmental health.

    Celebrate diversity. Around the world, geology, hydrology, photosynthesis and nutrient cycling, adapted to locale, yield an astonishing diversity of natural and cultural life. Designs that respond to the challenges and opportunities offered by each place fit elegantly and effectively into their own niches.

    Rather than seeking to minimize the harm we inflict, Cradle to Cradle reframes design as a positive, regenerative force—one that creates footprints to delight in, not lament. This paradigm shift reveals opportunities to improve quality, increase value and spur innovation. It inspires us to constantly seek improvement in our designs, and to share our discoveries with others.”

    1. Tom Pfotzer

      Beeman: I hope you continue to educate us on this line of dialog.

      My definition of “sustainable manufacturing” is based on these principles:

      a. Design for re-use first, functionality second, rent-extraction 99th.

      b. Decentralize final assembly; put it into the hands of the local economy, so that materials recovery, refurbishment of existing products, and re-assembly of “new” products is done by many people locally. “Local” is where the product materials _are_ at the end of their lifecycle, so that needs to be the capture-point

      c. Design products for a very long useful lifespan. Right now, most products have a very short lifespan. It costs more to fix them than it does to buy a new one. That fact – and it’s a fact – is a vital, fundamental flaw in our current economy’s design

      d. Use the global supply chains, and their highly desirable scale-economies to build the components that require scale, and move the rest (a considerable portion) of the mfg’g out to local-scale players. Assembly and repair often doesn’t need big-scale. If we push final assy and repair to the locales we don’t need to mine, smelt, distribute nearly so much. It makes it possible to “eliminate waste streams”.

      e. Enable the public to create and share open-source designs for most household manufactures, and build local fabrication plants that can produce most of the parts (except the stuff that really does require scale, like computer chips, castings, so forth) to outfit these publicly-owned, standardized designs. That tilts the playing field toward equal-access to the wealth stream, and slows down the concentration effect of centralized production.

      Each of those principles can be instituted on a gradual, evolutionary basis, and can be effected by choices made at the individual, household and village level.

      Top-down authorization and resource-allocation isn’t necessary. Nice to get, but not necessary.

      1. Susan the other

        There really is a natural geographic limit to “efficiency.” Beyond that limit, usually some long distance, efficiency requires too much energy. Maybe that’s a no-brainer to an ecologist – certainly explains why one species of tree didn’t take over the world. This is all such encouraging stuff. More please.

  2. Jason

    Here’s some low-hanging fruit: how about mandating that Android phone operating systems should get 7 years of quarterly security updates?

    More broadly, the problem with sustainable manufacturing has never been the technology, but the incentives. Can one provide the incentives to overcome planned obsolescence?

    1. jonboinAR

      —-More broadly, the problem with sustainable manufacturing has never been the technology, but the incentives. Can one provide the incentives to overcome planned obsolescence?—–

      I agree. That’s probably always been the real problem. For example, the recycling of most plastics has probably always been technically fairly trivial. It’s always been an incentive issue. It would be a big hassle for someone to actually accomplish, so all kinds of excuses are made. To relieve the foot-dragging issue, institute a very significant tax or tariff to the manufacturer on the waste product that’s redeemable when it’s proven that the product has been successfully recycled (or something sort of like that). I’d bet a whole lot more plastic would be recycled were it much more seriously mandated somehow. Proper recycling or sustainable manufacturing is not done now because it’s not profitable unless mandated. But again, I’d “bet my bottom dollar” that the technical aspects are trivial compared to many things. It’s just not done because it would cost someone something and they haven’t yet been forced to.

      1. chuck roast

        In the early Pleistocene when I was doing trash, there was a lot of discussion about developing a regional waste exchange. It seemed like a very promising endeavor to us worker bees and lower management. But as usual, the problem was funding…compounded by the existing lucrative arrangements surrounding rubbish collection and disposal.

        I wanted to design a wine bottle collection, cleaning and distribution facility as a my graduate project. The major hurdle was that wine bottles are of many different sizes which makes separation and ultimately distribution infinitely more complex. Require national and international wine bottle producers to produce glass bottles to a particular industry standard…and, perish the thought, with reusable boxes? Not gonna happen.

      2. RonR

        Some costs are out of control. Some local car dealerships charge out rate for repairs is $165.00/hour.

    2. Susan the other

      Well, now the incentive is that the sources of energy are going to become too expensive to pay for proper maintenance for elaborate “irreconcilably complex” (but massively profitable lack-of-responsibility) enterprises. I’m thinking extractive monopoly business plans – pretending to be “productive.” Maintenance engineering will be an expanding field of employment in a more decentralized economy. One based on maximum use of energy, so remanufacturing, recycling, etc.

  3. jefemt

    I often wonder whether leasing (with a duty to return the product) and obligation to receive the product back (by manufacturer’s) wouldn’t help alleviate the waste and demand sides- both.

    Might be every bit as easy that outright purchases also be mandated to be returned and accepted.

    It would be a shared burden, but also elevate the notion that a ‘throway society’ is no longer allowed, not to be celebrated, but should be eschewed and espit out.

    1. Tom Pfotzer

      ” but should be eschewed and espit out.”

      Ha, ha, ha……that was great. Made the thread.


    2. Jeff in upstate NY

      Going back a few decades, Xerox made its fortune by renting/leasing copiers. These machines came off rent/lease, were refurbished or remanufactured [a more intensive process], and replaced on lease. The demise of Xerox, and its process, started with the invasion of cheaply made, cheaply priced machines that were sent to a landfill at the end of their useful life. Xerox could not compete with companies that ignored the cost of “end of life cycle” processing.

  4. Alice X

    I’d add personal computers to the list of things to re-manufacture.

    But alas, there is the prime directive of Madison Avenue’s mantra:

    New and Improved!

  5. Mike Smitka

    If we’re to talk about sustainable manufacturing, then metal smelting and cement loom large. Both are intrinsically energy-intensive, and while hydrogen reduction of iron ore is in pilot production, existing plants that use coking coal (pure carbon) as the active reducing agent can’t be retrofitted. Of course there’s not (yet) much green hydrogen, either.

    So some low-hanging fruit is being addressed, but getting greenhouse gas out of large swaths of manufacturing is pretty difficult. Then there’s developed-country residential energy consumption. Again, there’s still plenty of low-hanging fruit, and (as an economist) that’s something we should prioritize, whatever the sector.

    1. Tom Pfotzer

      Yeah, Mike, those energy-intensive spots in the production part of the economy are obvious points to address.

      For iron and aluminum, recycling makes a lot of sense, because they’re relatively easy to pick out of the waste stream, and the energy to melt, as contrasted with smelt (separate from ores) is much less. Glass is less of a “good deal”, but still somewhat attractive.

      For cement mfg’g, I’m out of my depth on that one. I haven’t heard of any decent way to recover cement from say, concrete. I’d love to hear from others on the subject. It’s entirely possible to supply energy for cement mfg’g from renewables, but that doesn’t address how much energy the mfg’g takes, nor whether it’s a candidate for mat’ls re-use.

      Materials re-use and doubling the life-span of manufactures would do the main job of wringing out GH gas from manufacturing. Things like refrigerators, washer / dryer, HVAC gear really haven’t changed very much over the last few decades in terms of what parts are used, and what those parts do. Some components are way better than they used to be, but the function is the same, and the interconnect between the part and the rest of system is relatively stable. The computer industry has gotten really good at design-for-upgrade; the part interconnects are standard, the forms (size) are standardized, and the components are “free to innovate” while still fitting into the general design.

      That technique has a lot to recommend it, and should get adopted elsewhere.

      I’d like to second your point re: residential energy consumption, which is mostly for HVAC, and then throw in commercial HVAC as well. Even now, after all this time struggling with energy costs, our buildings just broadcast, bleed and otherwise fritter away energy. They’re an embarrassment.

      I’ve seen some really energy-efficient buildings, homes in particular, that look perfectly fabulous to live in, and didn’t look like they cost all that much more to build.

      And to the points made above by jeffemt re: incentives, I think the good ol’ tried-and-true deposit plan might be adapted to work. Consumer, at point of purchase, pays a deposit equal to the cost of recovery of the materials embedded in the product.

      At the point the consumer finishes with the product, they present it at the local county materials recovery center, a place that was once a landfill, but has since been radically re-positioned as major profit and production center. At presentation of end-of-lifecycle product, the deposit is refunded to the consumer.

      That “deposit” would provide a massive incentive for mfg’rs to make products easily recoverable, or they’d suffer price disadvantage .vs. other mfg’rs who did. It would also provide a very significant incentive for the consumer/owner to present the end-of-life product for recovery, and if they did not do so, others would strongly incentivized to do so in order to collect that deposit.

      The “deposit” idea could be phased in over 20 years, providing enough time for mfg’rs to get it together, and start with products easily recovered, and work outward. The easier stuff like appliances, packaging, containers gets done first, and move later into building mat’ls.

      The main thing is to get the design mindset budged out of the ice toward design-for-recovery, and get landfills headed into the direction of recovery-and-remfg’g centers, with lots of cool jobs and decent wages, and a general feeling of “we can do this”. A place young folks would be excited to become part of.

  6. Lex

    There’s talk that electric cars have significant potential for remanufacturing. ICE cars are generally built on shared platforms (e.g. the Ford Escape, Bronco Sport and Maverick truck) but it’s still a conversion. Most new electric cars are being built on “skateboards” so that the structure of the cars contains the batteries and brings all that battery weight as low as possible. These present a lot more opportunity to refurbish cars, including the exterior.

    But there’s no financial incentive for car manufacturers to do that, just like there is no financial incentive for companies to package with easily and efficiently recycled material. Which means no incentive for the same companies to figure out how to reuse/recycle the “consumer” waste they generate.

  7. Glen

    This was a very common practice for the more capital intensive equipment used in manufacturing, but has become less common over about the last twenty years. Large CNC machining centers would be periodically re-furbished to up grade the controls and servo motors and re-new or replace the ways (boxed ways or later linear rails).

    Robots, in particular, wear out and get sold in large lots:

    HGR Industrial Sales (Robots)

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