If manufacturers continue to make their processes more sustainable and consumers continue to support their environmental efforts, perhaps we’ll one day live in a truly sustainable society.

How Green Has Manufacturing Become Over the Years?

Megan Ray Nichols | Schooled By Science

The manufacturing industry in the U.S. has had a bit of a revival over the last few years thanks, in part, to several rising trends, including the use of smart Internet of Things technologies and efforts to become more sustainable.

Going green has been a trend for quite a while, and with climate change an ever-present issue, it isn’t going away anytime soon. This has led to new ways of running many sectors of our economy, including manufacturing. Lately, more “blue-green” jobs have popped up and caused changes in the way manufacturing plants operate. Here are some of the biggest ways the industry is revolutionizing the way it does things.


Energy Efficiency in Manufacturing

Manufacturing companies have really latched on to the energy-efficiency trend. That’s because it’s a win-win — using less energy means both lower emissions and lower costs. A case study of pulp and paper factories in the Midwestern United States, for example, found that these manufacturers could save $240 million every year by upgrading their equipment to meet Energy Star standards.

Industrial facilities spend a lot of money on energy, but many could reduce their consumption by a substantial amount. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), out-of-date manufacturing practices led to $80 billion worth of wasted electricity. Since about half of costs for a manufacturing plan typically come from energy use, most businesses could see substantial savings.

If all manufacturing plants reduced their energy use, we could see significant environmental benefits since manufacturing is such a big part of the economy and is so energy-intensive. Manufacturing uses 24 percent of all the energy consumed in the United States.

Companies from Philips Electronics to Wal-Mart to Apple have embraced energy efficiency as part of their business model, both for the environmental and financial benefits. When manufacturers conduct thorough research on the equipment they purchase, they can ensure they can get the most efficient air compressors, AC/DC drives, lighting and other equipment. When they take a critical look at how they use energy, they often find ways to reduce their usage.


Renewable Energy in Manufacturing

To make their energy use even greener, many companies also turn to renewable sources such as solar and wind to power their factories. IKEA, for instance, plans to use 100 percent renewables by 2020. Johnson & Johnson is the second-biggest consumer of solar power in the United States. Companies from Google to Tesla to Procter & Gamble have been:

  • Building wind and solar sites
  • Buying renewable energy
  • Putting solar panels on their roofs

Corporations purchased 2.5 gigawatts of renewable energy, mostly from wind and solar, in 2016. Renewable energy targets and environmental stewardship partly inspired that, but some of the motivation also comes from reduced costs. Collectively, around 190 Fortune 500 companies said they save about $3.7 billion annually by switching to renewables.

It’s not just the largest companies that are setting, and hitting, targets for clean energy use. Sixty-three percent of Fortune 100 companies and many small- to medium-sized businesses have them, too.

The manufacturing of solar panels, wind turbines and other equipment needed for generating renewable power is having a substantial impact on the sector as well. The rapidly expanding demand for clean power has opened up new opportunities for those in the manufacturing industry in a burgeoning industry.


Sustainable Materials in Manufacturing

Energy consumption makes up a big part of the manufacturing sectors’ impact on the environment, but another significant factor is the materials. A focus on sustainable materials management has emerged over the past few years as a result.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the guiding principles of sustainable materials management are:

  • Using materials as productively as possible and focusing on using less

  • Employing fewer toxic chemicals and other substances that have a negative impact on the environment

  • Conserving resources so we have enough for current and future needs

More companies are now taking a look at their supply chains to ensure their materials come from sustainable sources — companies that get their materials in a way that preserves natural resources and protects the environment.

This can also lead to increased profits as consumers seek out ways to live more eco-friendly lifestyles. Many consumers will even pay more for products from brands that make efforts to be sustainable, according to a Nielsen survey.


Finding New Approaches in Manufacturing

Part of the sustainable materials approach involves thinking about the entire lifecycle of the product from sourcing the materials to its eventual disposal. This leads companies to make products that are recyclable and use recycled materials in the production of their goods.

Many companies also recycle the waste their operations produce. For example, General Mills now burns oat hulls, which are a byproduct of making Cheerios, as fuel. By doing this, the company avoids paying for waste disposal and saves on its energy costs. Coors turns waste beer into ethanol and sells it, turning its trash into an additional income stream.

The manufacturing sector is getting greener, but there’s still a long way to go to create an environmentally friendly economy and curb climate change-causing emissions. If manufacturers continue to make their processes more sustainable and consumers continue to support their environmental efforts, perhaps we’ll one day live in a truly sustainable society.

The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of ManufacturingTomorrow
Megan Ray Nichols - Contributing Author

Megan Ray Nichols - Contributing Author

Megan Ray Nichols is a blogger and freelance science writer. She posts weekly on her blog, Schooled By Science, about the latest news in science and technology. When she isn't writing, Megan enjoys reading and hiking.

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