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Where Are the Innovators in Manufacturing Sustainability?

Nov. 1, 2023
The industry needs more leadership from within to achieve its environmental goals, says the CEO of the U.S. Center for Advanced Manufacturing.

The world is currently facing the urgent challenge of climate change, and it's the younger generations who will experience the most significant impacts of this crisis.

According to the World Economic Forum, the manufacturing industry represents nearly 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and consumes 54% of the world’s energy sources. While many companies have begun their journeys toward net-zero emissions, there is still a significant way to go to keep global warming to no more than 1.5°C, as called for in the Paris Agreement.

The United Nations describes net zero as “cutting greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero as possible, with any remaining emissions re-absorbed from the atmosphere, by oceans and forests.”

 The goal? Emissions need to be reduced by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.

A shared responsibility toward sustainable and circular manufacturing is fundamental to safeguarding our planet and the well-being of present and future generations. The U.S. Center for Advanced Manufacturing, an initiative of the World Economic Forum in partnership with Michigan-based Automation Alley, is calling on U.S. manufacturers to make investing in circularity and sustainability in their supply chain a high priority.

Putting Principles into Practice 

Recent supply chain disruptions such as those caused by the COVID-19 pandemic made it clear that the manufacturing industry needs to think differently and provide corporations with an opportunity to change the status quo toward sustainability and circularity. But what does this look like in practice? 

Simply following set EPA regulations that are intended to protect the environment and public health will not be enough to reverse this trend. As important as these regulatory requirements are, they say, it’s also important for manufacturers to look beyond the scope of regulatory compliance to the many ways they can demonstrate leadership by reducing environmental burdens and increasing environmental benefits throughout their business operations.

The public sector cannot drive innovation alone. The EPA says we need private sector leadership, creativity, and agility to achieve these goals.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Lighthouse Network, a community of leading manufacturing facilities that serve as examples of advanced and innovative production processes, is utilizing an array of Industry 4.0 technologies to reduce emissions, including digital twins, advanced analytics for water reduction and contaminated water cleaning optimization, end-to-end CO2 tracking and reporting across entire value chains, and IIoT-enabled, real- time, sensor-based data aggregation for energy, emissions and waste.  

HP Prioritizes Sustainable Packaging

Earlier this year, Hewlett-Packard hosted a U.S. Center for Advanced Manufacturing roundtable discussion to address the urgent need for action by corporations. HP, which ships the second most PCs in the world, took ownership of its supply chain and sustainable practices in 2019 through the creation of Sustainable Impact Pillars and a 2030 Planet Goal. 

Their core mandates include: Achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions across the HP value chain by 2040, reducing HP value chain greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2030, reaching carbon neutrality and zero waste in HP operations by 2025, reaching 75% circularity for products and packaging by 2030, maintaining zero deforestation for HP paper and paper-based packaging and counteracting deforestation for non-HP paper used in its products and print services by 2030.

To achieve these long-term goals, HP looked at new technology and materials to drive the short-term change to become more sustainable. One early success story was achieved when the company repositioned its packaging to incorporate sustainable products for greater circularity.  

Plastic packaging is one of the most significant contributors of plastics pollution in the world and a barrier to achieving circular manufacturing. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, plastic packaging accounts for approximately 36% of all plastic pollution.  

To remedy this problem, HP made it a priority to eliminate unsustainable packaging, turning to sustainable molded fiber to replace its plastic materials. By 2021, HP’s adoption of molded fiber packaging helped the company reach 39% of its 75% circularity goal by 2030. 

Rethinking Materials for Solar Panels

At the U.S. Center for Advanced Manufacturing, we are encouraged to see companies at all levels recognizing the value of eco-friendly manufacturing. One example of a forward-thinking company is Kardinia Energy, an Australian solar startup looking to break into the U.S. market with organic solar panels made from recyclable, eco-friendly materials.

Its mission of “sustainable energy for all” is enabled by advancements in science from Kardinia founder Paul Dastoor. Dastoor says that conventional solar cells are based on silicon, which is hard, rigid, and glasslike. Unlike traditional solar panels, which use silicon as the photoactive layer, the panels used by Kardinia utilize organic ink and recyclable PET plastic for the photoactive layer. PET plastic is an abundant material and requires far less energy to manufacture than silicon solar panels.

According to Kardinia, the lifecycle of the product is sustainable. The solar film can be washed of spent organic ink when worn out over time and reapplied with a new coat to get back into the field, enabling circularity at low cost.  

Kardinia CEO Anthony Letmon said to start to think about climate change and climate action, we need to think about energy security first. If 10% of our planet has no access to electricity, what do they do? If those two billion people have no access to clean fuel for cooking, they’ll use kerosene, petrol and trees. We need low cost and secure energy for the masses.

According to the EPA, the recipe for success in circularity and sustainability involves industrial processes and economic activities that are restorative or regenerative by design. It involves a change to the model in which resources are mined, are made into products, and then become waste.

The EPA encourages manufacturers to take a proactive role in increasing sustainability and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by implementing a circular economy that reduces materials use, redesigns materials to be less resource-intensive, and recaptures waste as a resource that can be used to manufacture new materials and products.

Achieving these goals on a global scale will be difficult and will take time – but there are an increasing number of companies that are making tremendous progress and leading the way.

Cynthia Hutchison is CEO of the U.S. Center for Advanced Manufacturing.

Main photo: Molded fiber packaging is an early sustainability success story at HP.

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