Sustainability is a burning issue for process manufacturing companies today. Survey after survey has shown that it’s a significant concern for customers, who will penalize non-sustainable companies, and are frequently willing to pay more for products made according to sustainable and ethical principles. 

But as with so many important issues, it’s easier to talk the sustainability talk than to walk the walk. Process plants recognize the need to transform to more sustainable manufacturing, but aren’t always sure how to go about doing so. For those manufacturing organizations that are looking to become more sustainable, here are six decisions you can take to make it a reality. 

1. Analyze your current environmental impact

As with everything in the business world, it’s impossible to make improvements unless you know your current position. The first step is thus to calculate the environmental footprint of your plant and your product. It’s a complex activity that includes measuring emissions, monitoring water, energy, and raw materials usage and waste, and recording the amount of product that’s discarded due to oversupply, low quality, or untimely expiration. 

You need to assess the efficiency of all your equipment, checking when and where wastage creeps in, energy consumption rises, or greenhouse gas production increases. Software like product lifecycle management (PLM) tools can serve as a single source of truth for the production chain, offering visibility into each product’s carbon footprint. 

Other issues to consider include tracking the frequency of environmental incidents such as leaks or flare events, and the use of hazardous substances, which affect the sustainability of your end product while raising the risks of environmental damage. 

2. Establish transparent processes

Transparency is a key element in sustainability. You’ll need to set up frameworks to measure and report on progress, and make it clear which metrics you’re using to monitor sustainability. You might need to hire someone for the new role of Chief Sustainability Officer, or bring together a number of people from across the organization to form an internal “sustainability team” which can decide on objectives and measure progress. 

Most plants adopt one of the existing ESG reporting frameworks, like the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), or the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD). The GRI comprises a comprehensive list of sustainability indicators, while the TCFD was created by the Financial Stability Board (FSB) to help organizations track and disclose their environmental-related risks and opportunities. 

3. Gain alignment and support for sustainable manufacturing 

Before you dive into new sustainability practices, you need to ensure that the entire organization is on board. Manufacturing executives have to build a business case for sustainability to gain the support of investors and shareholders, and educate the workforce to understand the benefits of and support the work involved in sustainable manufacturing. 

When carried out correctly, sustainable practices drive profits, cut expenses, and improve productivity. Process manufacturing leaders need to align sustainability ideals with their value chain strategy to make it clear that the two work symbiotically, and enable stakeholder alignment across the company. 

4. Decide on priorities and set goals

Decide on which sustainability goals to prioritize and the practices you’ll undertake to achieve them. Look for low-hanging fruit that can quickly make your plant more sustainable, such as replacing incandescent bulbs with more energy-efficient LEDs, improving insulation to reduce energy needed for temperature control, and swapping cleaning products for greener alternatives. 

Other sustainable manufacturing practices to consider include packaging. Many process plants cut their environmental footprint by incorporating more recycled materials in their packaging, switching to biodegradable or compostable packing materials, and encouraging customers to refill or recycle their product when it reaches the end of its lifecycle. 

5. Invest in the necessary technology

Keeping up with sustainable practices requires advanced technology. For example, predictive monitoring delivers alerts about anomalies within the plant, providing early warnings about issues that could lead to reduced efficiency, increased energy and water usage, discarded batches, and even environmental damage from leaks or explosions. Automation helps cut the waste that results from human error, while smart inventory systems prevent overproduction. 

Energy management, one of the four main impact areas recommended by EY in the drive towards sustainable manufacturing, includes smart energy management solutions to map energy waste in real time. Newer equipment and production techniques make it easier to replace fossil fuels with green energy such as solar, biomass, or green hydrogen in at least some use cases, helping bring emissions down overall. 

6. Revisit product design for sustainability 

According to EY, up to 80% of the lifetime emissions of a product are determined by design decisions, which makes it well worth it to reconsider your product design. For example, look for ways to replace raw materials with ones that are ethically sourced, or to onshore or nearshore the supply chain to cut the energy needed for transportation. 

Plants should focus on designing products that require less energy and/or water to produce, and include alternatives to components that are polluting, have an adverse impact on health, or are non-sustainable in any way. 

Sustainability can be a reality for process manufacturing

Sustainability doesn’t have to seem like an impossible dream for process manufacturing companies. By tackling the drive to sustainability by analyzing the current situation, setting priorities, establishing management processes, harnessing support, and investing in new technologies, process manufacturing plants can introduce sustainable practices and improve their sustainability profile.