The Journey To Zero Waste
A firsthand account of a cable manufacturer’s investment in sustainability
By Will Bryan, Superior Essex
Cabling Innovators Honoree
We invited Superior Essex to author this article describing its efforts and achievements at sustainable cable manufacturing because the company was honored with a 2015 Cabling Innovators Award. The awards program’s judges determined that the company’s sustainable-manufacturing initiatives exemplify a groundbreaking approach. We offer congratulations to Superior Essex on this honor. Look for more Cabling Innovators Awards honorees in future issues of Cabling Installation & Maintenance.
Superior Essex Inc. has long been invested in sustainability. Before “green” evolved from a color to a means of expressing environmental responsibility, the company was already making moves to become more efficient with its natural and material resources, and to reduce waste in its manufacturing facilities through recycling, reuse and waste diversion. These steps, though incremental at first, would eventually lead to tremendous breakthroughs in sustainable manufacturing practices, and allow Superior Essex to not only lead its industry in sustainability, but to become an example of responsible manufacturing across industries worldwide.
Manufacturing is one of the largest sectors in the world economy. In the U.S. alone, manufacturing contributes more than $2 trillion to the economy and supports an estimated 17 million jobs. Manufacturing is also a major user of energy and other environmental resources, and is one of the leading contributors to CO2 emissions and waste to landfill. As sustainability steadily rises to the forefront of our culture and global consciousness, manufacturing industries have also become the subject of increasing scrutiny from governmental organizations and environmental watchdogs.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, approximately 7.6 billion tons of solid industrial waste, or waste that is produced during manufacturing, is deposited into U.S. landfills each year. Manufacturing is also responsible for a large portion of domestic energy and water usage, and it has a significant carbon footprint. Even a single cable manufacturing facility can use millions of gallons of fresh water and deposit millions of pounds of waste to landfills over the course of a single year. For manufacturing facilities handling hazardous substances, such as cable manufacturing plants that handle plastics for their cable jacketing, the potential to negatively impact the environment is even greater.
To those within the cable manufacturing industry, or those who have been inside a cable manufacturing facility, these environmental risks and resource expenditures are not surprising. Manufacturing of any type on a global scale is complex and requires large amounts of power, water and other natural and synthetic resources. While this may never change, the way we use these materials and resources can, and probably should.
A decade of effort
In 2006 Superior Essex made environmental sustainability a top priority and set an objective to achieve the highest levels of performance in its industry as well as among manufacturers worldwide. Since that time the company has continuously improved its environmental record and has established many firsts for its industry. The Superior Essex Hoisington, KS facility has reduced its annual energy consumption by 1.2 million kilowatt hours. By developing and implementing new ways to use and recycle water, the company saves an average of 500 million gallons of fresh water annually. In 2014 Superior Essex published the first sets of Environmental Product Declarations and Health Product Declarations for its portfolio of premises copper and optical-fiber cables, making Superior Essex the first cable manufacturer to contribute toward LEED building certification.
These are just a few of the environmental milestones Superior Essex has reached in recent years. But perhaps the company’s most notable accomplishment has been its Zero Waste to Landfill certification, which the company achieved this year.
Zero Waste to Landfill certification is a means of recognizing the achievements of a 100-percent landfill waste diversion rate. Landfill waste diversion, defined as the prevention and reduction of generated waste through source reduction, recycling, reuse, or composting, has been characterized as one of the best ways manufacturing companies can demonstrate genuine environmental responsibility. Certification as Zero Waste to Landfill marks an improvement from the 98-percent landfill waste diversion rate that Superior Essex achieved in 2013.
The journey to zero-waste status took nine years for Superior Essex, and required several wholesale manufacturing changes within the company. A true zero-waste facility accounts for the potential waste created throughout its entire downstream process, including that of third parties that are involved in the recycling and reuse of waste materials. For Superior Essex, this means it has ensured and continues to ensure that the companies it uses to recycle scrap metals, wood, plastics and other materials are also not sending their waste byproducts to a landfill. One example is how the company handles the recycling of plastic waste that is created in many different manufacturing operations. A decade ago, most of this plastic waste was sent to a landfill. Today each variety of plastic waste is kept separate from each other and is re-processed into new plastic pellets that can be blended with virgin plastic for new cable production or used for other non-cable product purposes.
In order to ensure its environmental claims were both accurate and true, Superior Essex chose to have GreenCircleCertified LLC, a prominent certifier of environmental claims, verify and award its Zero Waste to Landfill certification. Annie Bevan, a certification and operations manager of GreenCircleCertified, states, “Achieving Zero Waste to Landfill is no easy feat; very few companies can actually accomplish this to make this claim. The commitment to sustainability that Superior Essex has demonstrated is unparalleled in its industry, and receiving third-party certification allows them to communicate this story with confidence.”
Toward an efficient future
In 2015, Superior Essex is on track to prevent nearly 4 million pounds of waste from going to landfills. This accomplishment requires commitment at all levels of the organization, but especially on the factory floor. When asked about their newly awarded certification, Tony Szot, plant manager of the Hoisington facility, had this to say: “This achievement is the result of many years spent devising new ways to continuously reduce waste, and a testament to the dedication and hard work our Hoisington plant employees exhibited in reducing our environmental footprint. Over the last few years, through these continued efforts, we have kept tens of millions of pounds of waste from reaching landfills.”
For many organizations the primary goal of Zero Waste to Landfill certification is to reduce negative environmental impacts. But there are a number of other goals coinciding with this larger achievement that can support business initiatives and reduce overall costs. For many businesses, waste can account for a portion of bottom-line losses. When waste materials are thrown into the proverbial corporate trashcan, it often costs more to manage and dispose of the waste than it would to implement a comprehensive reuse/recycle process. Simply put, inefficiency and waste management are expensive.
Zero Waste to Landfill certification offers manufacturers a path to reduce those costs. In order to achieve Zero Waste to Landfill certification, manufacturers must learn to be more efficient with their resources and their materials, which in turn reduces waste generation, as well as excessive overhead costs for utilities like water and power. With the reduction in waste material, manufacturers are no longer paying third parties to manage that waste, either. In some cases, manufacturers might also find that the materials they once considered waste do have value, if not for themselves, then for others through the process of recycling and reuse.
While Zero Waste to Landfill does offer cost-savings potential, it should not be the only reason for pursuing a zero-waste manufacturing facility. A manufacturer’s customers, community, and the public at large all have a heightened awareness of the importance of environmental sustainability. It is imperative for manufacturers to take responsibility for their environmental impacts and to make substantial improvements, not just small incremental gains in order to check a “green box.” As Superior Essex president, Tim Waldner, stated years ago, “Sustainability is more than just a company objective. It’s an ethical responsibility to our communities and to future generations.”
Will Bryan is vice president of marketing for Superior Essex (www.superioressex.com).