Closing the loop, creating demand for green

I had the opportunity to hear William McDonough speak at Greenbuild in November. McDonough is credited with co-creating the cradle-to-cradle concept. Meeting him in person was a $1,000-a-plate proposition, however. Suffice it to say that I did not meet Mr. McDonough.

Essential to cradle-to-cradle implementation is the creation of demand for the “second cradle” so to speak—the repurposed product.

Finding ways to create that demand requires some in-depth examination of the material composition of products and manufacturers’ willingness to flex a little when selecting raw materials. And it requires imagination.

TerraCycle, featured in our July/August 2012 issue, is the poster child company for repurposing. The company’s imaginative and upcycled products are a wonder to behold (www.terracycle.com).

Two articles in this issue address the challenge of finding outlets for powder coat waste (see “Office workspace-maker finds cradle-to-cradle resolution for powder coat waste,” p. 16, and “Dispersing the powder coat waste problem on journey to zero landfill,” p. 22).

Particularly for manufacturers pursuing zero-landfill goals, powder coat waste can be a real drag.

VOC-free, but Powder-bound

As you may recall, many manufacturers adopted powder coating as a low-VOC replacement for hazardous wet painting processes. The conversion from VOC-laden wet painting processes to dry, VOC-free powder coating processes heralded triumph and a win for the environment.

However, material utilization is fairly low. Fifty to 70 percent of the powder coat adheres to the component, which means 30 to 50 percent falls to the paint booth floor as waste.

Although some can be reapplied as powder coat, much of it cannot, and far too much is dumped in landfills.

Material, Specs Scrutiny

An ecosavvy group of west Michigan manufacturers—some competitors—have collaborated to try to find a resolution to the problem.

One breakthrough occurred upon close examination of the powder’s properties and characteristics. Powder coating is essentially a hydrocarbon byproduct, a plastic, or a resin. As such, it can be repurposed as a plastic injection-molded product, a binding agent, an aggregate additive, and a plastic product. Some development is under way to return it to its petroleum origins to be used as a fuel.

Call for Imaginative Action

“Powder waste still is a problem, and part of the problem is that there are not enough people who are making other products out of it,” said Bill Gurn, Haworth Inc.’s facilities maintenance manager and this issue’s cover subject.

Gurn said he believes part of the solution to finding outlets for waste powder coat lies in easing manufacturers’ expectations about color specs on some functional products, and more willingness to use recycled materials.

“None of us walk into a discount store and go “Gee, honey, I think the black on this rake is blacker than it is on that rake.’ If we’re going in to buy a $12.99 rake, we don’t care how black the black is on it.”

The whole concept prompts questions such as “Do products really need to be a specific color?” “Why can’t some products be composed of recycled materials?” “Does toilet paper really need to be made of virgin, bleached paper pulp?” Think about it.

So, this is a call to those of you manufacturers with a cradle-to-cradle product potential. Can you repurpose powder coat waste as your raw material? How about other end-of-life products and materials?

Maybe Gurn is right. Perhaps a little less fussiness about color is called for—especially when the end result is green.

And on a related note, check out our new section, Green Manufacturer Network Connections, p. 27, and consider joining our Network. I think you’ll find it helpful and a great opportunity to collaborate with other green manufacturers to find solutions to problems you’re facing as well.

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