At first blush, manufacturing and environmentalism might not seem effortlessly simpatico. For some, when they picture a manufacturing facility, they might conjure an image of the movie poster for Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” a plant belching ominous-looking fumes into the air.
Many manufacturers in Northeast Wisconsin, however, are defying that image of the industry and taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint. At a time when public policy is moving toward fewer, not more environmental protection measures, manufacturers are charting their own sustainability path.
Whether companies are reducing energy or water consumption, upping recycling efforts, adding reusable packaging for products, or employing innovative methods for reducing their waste stream, these measures not only make for a healthier planet, they reduce costs.
Coming full circle
The Green Bay operations of Georgia-Pacific Corp. are working to repair the image of the environmental record of paper companies in Northeast Wisconsin.
G-P purchased Green Bay’s Fort James paper mill in 2000 — that company got its name from a merger of Fort Howard and James River Corp. Between the mid-1950s and 1971, Fort Howard produced bath tissue on the site using recycled wastepaper, including some containing carbonless paper.
In the 1970s, it would be discovered that carbonless paper was made with a chemical containing polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a mixture of chemicals that produces toxic effects for humans and the environment. PCBs were banned in 1979, but not before they had gone into the Fox River and leached into the sediment via wastewater from papermakers.
In 2002, after purchasing Fort James, G-P entered a consent decree with state and federal agencies, agreeing to provide a series of recreation and habitat restoration projects along the Lower Fox River. Partial settlements and government orders require at least $66 million in expenditures for paper company P.H. Glatfelter Co. and at least $154 million for G-P.
Today, G-P makes environmental protection a priority. All water used at its Green Bay facilities goes back into the Fox River cleaner than when the company brought it in, says Tim Ellsworth, vice president of manufacturing for G-P’s Green Bay operations. And that’s just one sustainability effort underway at the company.
G-P’s focus on sustainability began more than 100 years ago with its commitment to using recycled fiber as a source for products. “Really, the genesis of this facility was using recycled fiber from the City of Green Bay and the community of Green Bay,” Ellsworth says.
Beyond using recycled fiber, G-P’s Green Bay operations have made major sustainability investments in the past decade. In 2015, the company purchased a natural gas boiler for its Broadway mill to replace its largest solid fuel boiler, which used coal and petroleum coke. This has resulted in reducing nitrous oxide emissions by 67 percent and sulfur dioxide by more than 80 percent.
Melissa Mrotek, environment program manager for Green Bay operations, says the company plans to purchase a second natural gas boiler in the future and looks to get away from coal use altogether.
“That would really change our skyline and what our backyard looks like,” she says. “Coal piles may not be there in the future.”
In 2018, the Broadway facility became one of just two paper mills in the world to have achieved the EPA’s Energy Star award. The company worked with Focus on Energy to identify energy savings opportunities, achieving a 10 percent reduction in energy intensity in two-and-a-half years —ahead of its original five-year goal.
Action steps included optimizing the mill’s compressed air system, repairing leaks and adding metering, says Aaron Berg, engineering manager for Green Bay operations. It also has added energy-efficient lighting, which not only costs less but provides better lighting.
“When you (take these steps), it reduces your cost of manufacturing as well,” Berg says.
Ellsworth says finding outlets for the byproducts of papermaking proves a big challenge. G-P takes ash, a byproduct of using boilers, dries it and sells it in a secondary market to cement makers, who use it to fortify cement. It also takes sludge from wastewater treatment, dries and treats it and sells it to a Green Bay company that uses it for kitty litter and binders for fertilizer.
These efforts mean less waste in landfills and have led to G-P extending the life of its landfill by 30 years. He says this makes good business sense as well as benefiting the community.
“It goes through the entire value chain, the concept and ideals of sustainability to reduce our impact on the environment,” he says. “We want to be good stewards of what we have here and be represented well in the community.”
Kohler Co. has adopted a goal of achieving net zero impact by 2035. This includes reducing or offsetting greenhouse gas emissions, sending zero solid waste to landfills and developing innovative energy- and water-saving products.
To accomplish this, the company plans to develop products with lower lifecycle impacts, reduce its manufacturing footprint and educate and encourage customers and communities about living more sustainably, says Rob Zimmerman, director of sustainability for Kohler. Since 2008, the company has reduced its greenhouse gas intensity by 24 percent, water intensity by 45 percent and solid waste to landfill by 54 percent.
“This progress is due to hundreds of projects, large and small, at Kohler operations around the world. We are proud of our progress but need to move more aggressively to achieve our long-term objective,” Zimmerman says.
Over the past decade, Kohler has emerged as a leader in water efficiency. It aims to produce superior products that help customers save water without sacrificing performance. It also recently began offering Environmental Product Declarations, which quantify a product’s environmental impact over its lifespan. They’re now available on thousands of plumbing products.
The company has found that a focus on continuous improvement in business environmental performance helps the planet as well as providing a competitive advantage. Zimmerman says making sustainable products presents a tremendous growth opportunity in markets across the world.
The focus on sustainability pays off in many ways, including attracting and retaining talent. These issues are becoming increasingly important to prospective employees, Zimmerman says.
“We get asked by recruits for all positions from entry-level to senior management about what we’re doing to make the world a better place. Kohler’s social impact efforts have become a much larger part of our employment brand,” he says.
Kevin Tubbs, vice president and chief ethics, compliance and sustainability officer for Oshkosh Corp., has observed the same. When asked, “Why Oshkosh?” at a recent job interview, a prospective candidate mentioned the company’s record and focus on sustainability as an issue important to her, Tubbs says.
“Sustainability is important to a lot of people, especially to the millennial generation. We think that differentiating ourselves around sustainability helps us to attract and retain that talent that we need to be competitive in a global marketplace,” he says.
When he came to Oshkosh Corp. in 2012, Tubbs was the first person to have sustainability in his job title. The company’s efforts started in earnest around that time after observing steps that peers were beginning to take.
Since that time, Oshkosh Corp. has reduced waste to landfill by 64 percent across the company. It works with Focus on Energy to identify energy savings and make plants as energy-efficient as possible. Today, the company works with the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership (WMEP) to help educate other companies about sustainability.
The company also is focusing on waste reduction, and two of its defense facilities are working to become certified by the Zero Waste Business Council. In addition, Oshkosh Corp. works with its suppliers to help them become more sustainable. A sustainability module is part of its supplier development academy.
Oshkosh Corp. is adding more returnable and reusable packaging, and its trucks increasingly are fueled with compressed natural gas, a cleaner fuel, instead of diesel. It also is a leader in product remanufacturing, recycling parts and extending lifecycles of vehicles.
Tubbs says sustainability is a priority that extends through every level of the company, right up to CEO Wilson Jones and the company’s board.
“You need both top-down support and plant floor-up engagement in what you have, so you can build a project throughout the organization,” he says.
Randy Bertram, director of sustainability and integrated services for the WMEP, says it’s amazing to see how far the issue of sustainability has come in the last 10 years. A decade ago, bringing it up often made “people’s eyes glaze over.”
“Today, not only is it an easy conversation to have, it’s a conversation quite often that (manufacturers) bring up and have given a lot of thought to,” he says.
The WMEP and Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council (WSBC), which recently came under the umbrella of WMEP, work together to help organizations address any issues that arise around sustainability, Bertram says.
For example, the WMEP has two individuals who are certified to Walmart’s sustainability standard. The retailer conducts an annual sustainability survey of suppliers, and WMEP experts can work with companies as they’re responding to the survey as well as helping them understand what Walmart and other retailers are seeking.
The organization also can help with water stewardship efforts and work with companies to help them attain ISO 14001 certification for environmental systems.
Bertram says sustainability can be a tough issue to tackle, as most small- and medium-sized manufacturers have so many areas they need to focus on. The WMEP aims to help ease that burden. In the early stages of working with a company, it’s about incorporating resource efficiency and reducing costs while at the same time, getting environmental improvement, he says.
The WSBC also offers help through its Green Masters program and education efforts. Green Masters, an assessment program, recognizes companies for their sustainability efforts. Both Oshkosh Corp. and Kohler Co. were recognized as Green Masters in 2018. The top 20 percent of companies in the program achieve the Green Masters designation.
Jessy Servi Ortiz, managing director of WSBC, says the organization can help companies no matter where they are on their sustainability journey. It can launch a training program to help businesses get educated and form a plan.
Collaborative work is important when it comes to addressing the issue, Servi Ortiz says. “We need hands together, not working in competition when we’re trying to move the needle forward toward saving resources and having a healthier planet.”
While the picture seems bleak at times, Bertram holds optimism. “Given the speed of what these things have done and where the world is headed and the economy is headed in the next three to five years, it’s enough to want to stay around and see how things shake out. I think that the business community is going to lead the way forward, and it’s going to be driven on global issues.”