Leading the Way in Manufacturing Sustainability

This article appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of MiMfg Magazine. Read the full issue and find past issues online.

For years, Michigan manufacturers have led the way on innovative sustainability programs and protecting the environment. From reducing landfill waste to conserving water, industry leaders have developed best practices to support sustainability and are willing to share their ideas to have a larger impact.

Jackson-based CMS Energy is one of those industry leaders that has developed a comprehensive sustainability and performance program focused on clean air, water conservation, reducing waste, reducing the company’s environmental footprint and community stewardship.

“We’re always thinking about our ‘triple bottom line’ tagline — people, planet and prosperity — as we make decisions,” says Linda Hilbert, CMS Energy’s Executive Director of Environmental Quality and Sustainability. “That’s why our Clean Energy plan — a detailed strategy to meet customers’ long-term energy needs — ends all coal use by 2025, reduces carbon emissions by 63 million tons and saves our customers $650 million through 2040 compared to our prior plan.”

Water conservation and protection is also essential to BlueTriton Brands, a national water bottling company whose Ice Mountain brand is based in Stanwood.

Ed Ferguson, Chief Sustainability Officer at BlueTriton Brands, says they prioritize land conservation around their water sources while also providing educational resources, partnering with community organizations and working with their own engineers and scientists to advance water stewardship. In fact, they have helped to conserve 20,000 acres of land with a goal of long-term results that can keep local waterways pristine for future generations.

“Where we have these conservation lands, we design them to integrate with the community’s needs,” Ferguson says.

Reducing Waste

BlueTriton Brands plans to have all its products in primary packaging that is either reusable or made of 35 percent recycled content by 2025. As of the end of 2022, they had already achieved over 22 percent recycled content in their PET bottles, with two of its 13 brands, Origin and Saratoga, already in bottles made of 100 percent recycled PET.

Because cross-contamination poses a challenge for these recycling efforts, BlueTriton Brands has supported source-separated programs for recyclable household materials in Mississippi and Texas. Not only does this help BlueTriton meet its own goals but it also gives residents an incentive to increase their own recycling efforts with a manual bottle-return program in Texas that they hope to expand into other states soon.

Additionally, 24 of BlueTriton’s 28 production facilities throughout the U.S. and Canada boast zero waste to landfill mostly achieved through recycling, reuse and regeneration, he says.

Grand Rapids-based Steelcase Inc. is dedicated to reducing waste in all its forms — whether it’s environmental waste, wasted time, wasted money or wasted resources. The more than 100-year-old business is a global designer and manufacturer of furnishings and other solutions for places “where work happens,” says Mary Ellen Mika, Steelcase’s Global Sustainability Director.

“Our purpose is to help people do their best work by creating places that work better. That includes designing better futures for the well-being of people and the planet,” she says.

One of their areas of focus is to extend the end- of-life of products and identify landfill alternatives for manufacturing scrap through recycling and donation programs. These programs depend on partnerships with companies such as Green Standards, which identifies reuse opportunities for used furniture, and Public Thread, a woman-owned textile upcycling company supporting environmental justice programs and which turns scrap fabric into products such as handbags, home goods and even clothing.

“It’s a great way to support programs that reuse materials but also provide training and good jobs to people who might not have otherwise had that opportunity,” Mika says. “Our first mission is to try to not waste it in the first place, but then when we have scrap material, we aim to find a good alternative or reuse opportunity for it. The goal is to keep these items out of landfills.”

Extending the life of materials is not just for furniture. One of the nation’s largest plastic thermoforming companies, Edwardsburg-based Duo Form, recycles or reuses anything it can. Bob Phillips, Warehouse and Recycling Supervisor, started Duo Form’s recycling and sustainability program more than a year ago, and it’s made a significant difference already.

“My goal is a net zero for the landfills,” he says. “We have regrind in 90 percent of our proprietary products.”

Duo Form has two granulator machines that they use to grind scrap plastic into pellets, which are then reused if possible. In one year, they ground about 3.2 million pounds of plastic in-house, Phillips says.

Because their granulators can only run white acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and gray ABS, other types of plastics are sent to local vendors for grinding. The vendors then send the materials back to Duo Form for reuse.

“Last year, we outsourced over a million pounds more for other companies to grind for us,” Phillips says.

Duo Form also has started a cardboard recycling program, and they work with local vendors to recycle Styrofoam, plastic wrap and many other materials.

“We recycle about 60,000 to 70,000 pounds of cardboard every year,” Phillips says. “We’ve eliminated about three truckloads of waste per week that otherwise would have gone into the landfill.”

Making Strides in Renewable Energy Resources and Reducing Harmful Emissions

Supported by a culture of innovation, Hemlock Semiconductor (HSC) has made significant strides in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in recent years. The Hemlock-based company is committed to further reducing emissions by 30 percent by 2028 through internal energy conservation projects and renewable energy purchasing, says Steven Holty, HSC’s Sustainability Leader.

Similarly, BlueTriton’s goal is to have 100 percent of its purchased electricity come from renewable sources by 2030, Ferguson says. They also have converted over 900 of their 1,500 ReadyRefresh delivery trucks to run on propane, which burns cleaner than diesel, and they will continue to convert all their diesel-powered delivery fleet to propane fuel as the current fleet retires.

As one of the largest suppliers of energy in Michigan, CMS Energy is working to reduce emissions associated with their generation as well.

“We shut down 1,000 megawatts of coal power in 2016, and this year, we will shut down another 500 megawatts of coal power,” Hilbert says. “These are the first big steps toward our plan of having 60 percent of our electric capacity come from renewable sources like wind and solar by 2040.”

In addition to the electric side of the business, the company is also looking for ways to reduce emissions associated with the natural gas it supplies customers by continually evaluating cleaner options such as energy efficiency, renewable natural gas and hydrogen.

CMS Energy files a Natural Gas Delivery Plan with the Public Service Commission every year that includes a 10-year outlook presenting their goals for improving safety, affordability, reliability and the cleanliness of products.

If CMS Energy can capture biogas from landfills or farming operations, purify it and put it in pipelines to burn in homes, they can further reduce their carbon footprint, Hilbert says. Such efforts can have wide-reaching implications for the state as a whole.

“We’re trying to help our customers reduce their emissions too, so we’re looking for cleaner options for our natural gas side of the business,” Hilbert says.

What’s Good for the Environment is Good for the Customer

HSC’s environmentally responsible innovations not only helped it grow, but also brought business back into the U.S.

HSC, whose polysilicon is used downstream to make computer chips for smartphones and other technology, has been serving the semiconductor market since 1961 and later began offering solar-grade polysilicon. Its polysilicon production expanded in recent years as buyers became increasingly interested in patronizing businesses that have environmentally responsible and sustainable business practices. At the same time, the pandemic and its supply chain issues led to a greater push for building a domestic solar supply chain, Holty says.

And that fit in perfectly with HSC’s efforts for more sustainability in its polysilicon production for solar panels and technology devices, as well as its goals of putting consumers and their health first.

“Our customers are asking for sustainably sourced products,” says Holty. “At HSC, we believe sustainability is personal. How we make our product is just as important as the product.”

He says the bedrock at HSC is safety, and team members take responsibility for protecting each other, the local environment and residents and nearby businesses so HSC can continue playing a critical role in Michigan’s manufacturing future.

“We are constantly looking at our safety performance and challenging ourselves to get better at safety. It’s a bedrock because we care about our employees and neighbors,” he says. For decades, Michigan manufacturers have heard what consumers are asking for — including cleaner products and production processes — and have responded accordingly.

Protecting the environment became part of Steelcase’s core values long before the concept of environmental sustainability became part of mainstream society.

“Steelcase’s founding families instilled the belief that a strong economy and successful businesses go hand-in-hand with protecting the environment,” Mika says. “Helping people work better by providing safe, comfortable, functional and environmentally responsible products is integral to our mission.”

Among many others, one of Steelcase’s concerns includes the health and well-being of customers who use their products. For that reason, they focus on the careful selection and continuous improvement of materials that make up their products to reduce emissions and protect indoor air quality.

Holty says environmental protection is important not only to HSC and Michigan businesses but also to the customers and communities they serve.

“The rise of sustainability is occurring because people care about where their products and services come from. They want them to be sustainably sourced from companies prioritizing their employees, communities and the planet overall,” Holty says.

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