Can global manufacturers move to zero-waste?

We recently spoke to Ken Alston, CEO of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC),on the challenges manufacturers face in becoming sustainable and moving to zero waste. Here is an excerpt from that interview. Ken will be joined by Herman Miller and Shaw Industries at our Sustainable Manufacturing Summit in Chicago next month to provide an interactive session on Cradle to Cradle design.

kenalston2What are some recent examples of manufacturers that have moved from eco-efficient to eco-effective production?

Shaw Industries, a Berkshire Hathaway Company, made the ground-breaking decision several years ago to design an environmentally-intelligent carpet tile with the same cost and performance as standard carpet tiles. As the leading flooring provider to the commercial market, Shaw began its product development work internally and then hired MBDC to review its intended product formulation and concepts for product recovery from a Cradle to Cradle(SM) perspective.

Shaw and MBDC assessed and optimized the Eco Solution Q fiber, EcoWorx backing and additives for human health, environmental health. The companies also found ways to make the product fully and perpetually recyclable. With these final steps, Shaw realized the goal of finding a cost and quality standard equivalent to standard carpet tiles while at the same time leading the industry in design, color and recyclability — all benefits for Shaw’s customers.

Herman Miller’s “journey to sustainability” is a great model of how one company’s comprehensive long-term commitment to sustaining their industry, has led to the integration of ecologically intelligent design and business practices. Herman Miller’s senior staff challenged MBDC to design a blueprint for integrating Cradle to Cradle(SM) design into the company’s product development system.

Working closely with Herman Miller’s DFE team, MBDC developed a tool to transfer assessment findings from the Cradle to Cradle process into data that could then be used directly by Herman Miller for material selection and product design. The assessment system also served a few different functions: it analyzed and scored materials for their human and environmental health effects, recyclability, percentage of recycled content and/or use of renewable resources; and it evaluated the disassembly potential of product design. The tool was designed to help engineers score and improve the attributes of each design iteration.

What are some of the challenges and opportunities for large, global manufacturers looking to transition to cradle to cradle design?

One of the most significant challenges is in implementing preferred ingredient chemistry into material selection and product design, since the research of preferred formulations is still a nascent effort. MBDC, its clients, their suppliers and other partners are working to change that reality, expanding the measures of what is a “sustainable product” and actualizing that vision.

In addition to improving product design, there also is the need to develop infrastructure and systems for recycling products and materials following their useful life into subsequent product generations – realizing the goal of closing material loops.

Another challenge is helping a company or industry move beyond the quarterly view to envision longer-term benefits. Since the Cradle to Cradle(SM) espouses a broader view and new way of implementing sustainable design, there often needs to be initial investment and leveraging change in the status quo, which can be hard to engage. Often what helps is the long-term view by CEOs, PR/marketing staff, government relations or other client staff who acknowledge the value of proactive sustainability improvement.

What do you hope to gain from participating in the Sustainable Manufacturing Summit?

We look forward to exchanging ideas with participants, demonstrating the value of the Cradle to Cradle(SM) framework for tangible sustainable design enhancements, and connecting with company representatives whom we can assist in their own efforts to transform and “eliminate the concept of waste.”

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