Industryweek 1404 17319inkcycle

Putting Waste to Work

Sept. 12, 2008
Forget the landfill. Manufacturers are getting better at finding ways to reuse their waste.

With many manufacturing organizations in hot pursuit of lean initiatives or corporate sustainability -- or both -- waste is on the run. By definition, lean proponents are taking actions to drive waste out of the manufacturing processes. And for companies aiming to shrink their impact on the environment, generating less waste and better waste management strategies are sure-fire ways to help meet that goal.

There's plenty of evidence that manufacturers are taking up the challenge. For example, General Motors announced in September that by the end of 2010 half of its major manufacturing facilities would become landfill-free. In hard numbers, that translates to a total of 80 operations eventually recycling or reusing all of their production waste. Forty-three operations already have achieved this status, the automotive giant says.

At these landfill-free plants, waste aluminum is sent to GM foundries to be reused to produce engine and transmission components, with used oil also reconditioned for reuse. Additionally, some 50,000 tons of waste materials from GM plants will be converted to waste-to-energy facilities this year, the automaker says. Noting the economic benefits associated with its decision, GM says its recycled metal scrap sales are nearing $1 billion in annual revenue.

Two months before the GM announcement Maker's Mark Distillery in Loretto, Ky., booted up a waste-stream treatment solution from Ecovation. The whole stillage treatment solution will allow the bourbon maker to anaerobically treat some of its process waste and generate renewable energy in the form of biogas. As a result, it should help the distillery meet twin objectives of good business sense and environmental stewardship, the company says. "While our production capacity will increase, operation costs will decrease -- all through an environmentally friendly technique," explains Kevin Smith, master distiller and vice president of operations.

On a larger scale, the Chicago Waste to Profit Network helps companies turn their waste into an industrial input for other companies. That effort has diverted more than 22,000 tons of waste that otherwise would have ended up in a landfill in 2007, according to the organization's Web site.

Print Cartridges Get New Life

For InkCycle, a remanufacturer of toner and print cartridges, one could argue that it is inherently green in that it reuses spent cartridges that might otherwise end up in a landfill. That's certainly true, at least in part, says Brad Roderick, executive vice president. "At the end of the day, we are rebuilding on somebody else's trash." He points out, however, that even remanufactured products at some point reach the end of their usable life.

InkCycle, an ink and toner cartridge remanufac-turer, has instituted measures to reduce the amount of waste it generates, including implementing a water filtration process for wastewater.InkCycle's waste-reduction effort is part of an overall business model that aims to be sustainable. For example, the company is converting its gasoline-powered automotive fleet to hybrid vehicles; pursues a "print less, save the planet" internal campaign; and it has changed many of its manufacturing operations from five shorter days to four longer days to reduce energy usage. On the toner cartridge side, the company has found ways to modify the manufacturing process to reuse the original components a greater number of times. Environmentally friendlier, for sure, but also a cost savings, Roderick notes.

The financial side of sustainability is something Roderick emphasizes. For sustainability to have long-term momentum, "it has to be based on financial considerations," he says. Introducing more efficient climate control systems that also lower operational expenses over the long term, for example, fit the bill.

The company's waste-reduction efforts include an on-site wastewater treatment facility to treat the huge amounts of water and steam needed to thoroughly clean and prepare used inkjet cartridges for remanufacturing. It was introduced both because InkCycle "wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing" and as a defensive strategy, Roderick says. He notes that while the company was easily meeting environmental guidelines prior to the treatment facility, legislation could change and rewrite those rules. InkCycle wanted to be ahead of any new regulations.

The wastewater treatment process used by InkCycle is called electrocoagulation. Describing it in simple terms, Roderick says that as wastewater passes through the treatment system, chemicals and solid materials are "shocked" out of the system using electricity and chemistry, with the sediment falling to the bottom of a holding tank. The sludge goes to an EPA-licensed disposal site, while some of the treated water then can be reused in the cleaning process of the used inkjet cartridges.

InkCycle recently introduced a new product line called Grenk, which the company says extends its efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle products that might otherwise end up in landfills. The company has developed a new use for Grenk's plastic cartridge housings once they have reached the end of their reusable life. It's as fuel, but not for InkCycle. Instead the company worked with LaFarge North America and its subsidiary Systech Environmental Corp. to turn those plastic housings into fuel for the production of cement.

These Torit filters are made from 100% recycled General Motors filters and paint."What they need in the production of cement is a lot of heat. The way they generate that is typically through the burning of fossil fuels, so [they want] material that is of high BTU value," Roderick says. Given the petroleum-based nature of plastic, InkCycle's Grenk cartridges proved to be a viable candidate to help the cement furnaces offset some of the fossil fuel needs. The cartridges are disassembled and shredded before they are used as fuel.

The entire Grenk production and packaging process has been developed with environmental sustainability in mind, as well. Indeed, InkCycle says the packaging boxes are made from the highest available content of recycled material and are chain-of-custody certified. Shredded paper in the boxes are the test prints run from each cartridge before they ship. Additional measures help assure that no part of the Grenk product line need end up in a landfill. Of course, a little customer participation is required. "But we make it very easy for them to return [used cartridges]."

InkCycle is quick to admit that attracting new customers is a big driver behind its introduction of Grenk, even as it pursues a sustainable business model. Roderick explains that not only are there thousands of companies that remanufacture printer cartridges, making it a commodity purchase, but also many companies are resistant to even contemplating the purchase of aftermarket products. "But when we learn they have an environmental initiative, it's one call to the person in charge of their environmental initiative and... there's almost a 100% opportunity rate of going in and talking to those companies about the green side and the financial side of [remanufactured cartridges]."

InkCycle calculates it has kept 225 tons of waste materials out of landfills through its reuse and recycling efforts in the past year.

Taking Knowledge to China

The heavily regulated lead acid battery industry has a well-established closed-loop recycling program that has led to significant reclaiming and reuse of spent batteries. Manufacturer Johnson Controls estimates that it and its supply-chain partners recapture 95% to 98% of the lead weight in spent batteries, which is reprocessed for use in new automotive and marine batteries, and more than 70% of the resin, which also finds its way into new batteries. Sulfuric acid, another component of lead acid batteries, primarily is treated in a wastewater treatment plant and neutralized, or it can be processed into sodium sulfate for use by other industries.

Still, the company looks to improve those yields. "It's improvements in technology that continue to allow us to find more and more yield opportunities to get higher yields out of the plastic recapture, out of the lead recapture, and looking for new and different ways to recapture sulfuric acid as it becomes a much more expensive commodity," says Brian Kesseler, Johnson Controls' vice president and general manager of power solutions for the Americas. Improvements in technology have led to the introduction of the PowerFrame manufacturing process, which the company says is more efficient, generates less scrap and requires less lead for the batteries.

Johnson Controls is sharing its best practices in closed-loop battery recycling with China. In the summer of 2007, the company toured smelters in Europe and North America with Chinese government officials and discussed how the entire recycling process works. "We were really up front with the Chinese government to help them learn some best practices that the markets in the U.S. and western Europe have spent years refining," Kesseler says.


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