How sustainable manufacturing could help reduce industry’s environmental impact

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(THE CONVERSATION) Nabil Nasr is associate provost and director of the Golisano Institute for Sustainability at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He is also CEO of the Remade Institute, which was established by the US government to conduct early-stage R&D activities to accelerate the transition to the circular economy, which is a sustainable industry model for improved resource efficiency. and a systemic reduction in 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. Responses 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’s just about minimizing any negative impact on the environment while meeting demand, but in a much more efficient and sustainable way. An example of sustainable manufacturing is an automotive plant achieving its production capacity with 10% of its typical emissions through advanced and efficient processing technology, reducing its production waste to near zero by figuring out how to change its shipping containers from one-piece parts use reusable products, accept more recycled materials in production, and through innovation make their products more efficient and last longer.

Sustainability is about the right balance in a system. In our industrial system, this means that we consider the impact of what we do and also ensure that we understand the supply impact of the natural resources we use. It’s about understanding environmental impacts and making sure we don’t cause negative impacts unnecessarily. It is being able to ensure that we are able to meet our current and future requirements without facing environmental challenges.

From the start of the Industrial Revolution, emissions, waste and consumption of natural resources were low. Many manufacturing impacts on the environment were not taken into account because the volumes we were producing were much, much lower than what we have today. The manufacturing methods and approaches we use today are actually based on many of those approaches we developed back then.

The reality is that the situation has radically changed today, but not our approaches. There is a lot of industrialization going on all over the world. And, there is a lot of pollution and waste generated. Additionally, many of the materials we use in manufacturing are non-renewable resources.

It therefore seems that the industrialized countries have now acquired a lot of bad habits. And we know that growth comes from these developing countries and we don’t want them to repeat these bad habits. But we want to raise their standard of living just without the consequences that we have brought to the environment.

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

Talking about how these two countries could either ruin or save the world, do you remain optimistic?

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

Experts say that if business continues as usual, we will likely increase greenhouse gas emissions by 43% by 2060. However, if we employ effective sustainability measures across the world, we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a significant percentage, even up to 90%. A 2018 study I led for IRP found that applying remanufacturing alongside other resource recovery methods such as full refurbishment, repair and reuse can reduce carbon emissions. greenhouse gases from these products by 79-99% in 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 still disappointing to see the indicators are there; approaches to solving some of these problems are identified, but the will to use them is not. Despite this, I remain optimistic because we know enough about the right path to follow and it is not yet too late to move in the right direction.

Are there lessons we have learned during the COVID-19 pandemic that we can apply to the challenges we face?

We have learned a lot from the covid crisis. When the risk became known, although not everyone agreed, people around the world took significant steps and actions to meet the challenge. We have accepted changes in the way we live and interact, we have mobilized all our resources to develop vaccines and deal with shortages of medical supplies. In the end, we rose to the occasion and for the most part took steps to address the risk in a meaningful way.

The environmental challenges we face today, such as climate change, are also serious global challenges. However, they have been happening for a long time and unfortunately most have not been taken as seriously as they should have been. We have certainly learned that when we are willing to take on serious challenges, we can take them on.

Final question. Give me the elevator pitch on the refurbishment.

Refurbishment is a process by which we return a product that has been used to like-new or better condition. Through a rigorous industrial process, we disassemble the product down to the component level. We clean it, inspect it and restore it, qualifying each part. We then reassemble the product in the same way as when it was first built. The reality is that by doing so, you are using between 70% and 90% of the materials salvaged during the use phase. This has much lower impacts on the environment compared to making new products from raw materials.

You don’t exhaust virgin material for that. You save the energy that made these parts; you save the capital goods that made those parts; You save labor cost. The savings are therefore significant. The overall savings are around 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% new materials. This means lower costs for the producer while providing the consumer with a very high quality product. Examples of commonly refurbished products are construction equipment, automotive engines and transmissions, medical equipment, and aircraft parts. These products are similar to brand-new products, and companies like Xerox, Caterpillar, and GE have all made refurbishing an important part of their overall operations.

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Marjorie N. McClure