A pioneer in the circular economy

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The Golisano Institute for Sustainability (Photos by A. Sue Weisler)


What’s good for the environment is bad for business.

That entrenched idea long has pitted the value of environmental protection against that of economic development. President Donald Trump talks about “beautiful, clean coal,” withdraws from the Paris climate agreement, and dismantles environmental regulations—all in the name of jobs and prosperity. Meanwhile, more and more studies show climate change and its related devastation progressing at alarm-bell speed.

Is there a way out of this impasse? A growing body of evidence points to a new approach that revolutionizes how we make everything from copiers to lipstick. It’s called sustainable manufacturing—and some of the world’s leading research and development work in the field is being done here in Rochester.

“Sustainable manufacturing is the new wave of innovation in manufacturing,” says Nabil Nasr, Nasr, director of Rochester Institute of Technology’s Golisano Institute for Sustainability. “It conserves energy, conserves material and ensures continuity of supply.”

RIT spearheads breakthrough U.N. report

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines sustainable manufacturing as “the creation of manufactured products through economically-sound processes that minimize negative environmental impacts while conserving energy and natural resources.

Sustainable manufacturing also enhances employee, community and product safety, the EPA states.

Nabil Nasr (Photo by A. Sue Weisler)

RIT’s Nasr is one of only three U.S. members of the United Nations Environment Programme’s International Resource Panel, an authoritative scientific forum on natural-resource management. He also is the lead author of the panel’s recent report, “Re-defining Value—The Manufacturing Revolution. Remanufacturing, Refurbishment, Repair and Direct Reuse in the Circular Economy.”

Sharing authorship with Nasr is Jennifer Russell, a former doctoral student at GIS, along with leading scientists from RIT and around the world. Released Oct. 23 at the World Circular Economy Forum in Yokohama, Japan, the report details how sustainable manufacturing not only cuts industrial waste and greenhouse gas emissions, it creates jobs and strengthens business vitality.

“The consumption of natural resources, and keeping up with demand, is becoming a major concern in industrialized countries,” Nasr says. “Our goal was to figure out how we could address this issue without curbing the standard of living or (negatively) impacting economies.”

Seeking to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation, the report calls for a new way of thinking about how products are produced and consumed. The traditional linear manufacturing model, it holds, is polluting and wasteful. Raw materials are mined, then used to make products that are discarded after use—squandering much of the materials and energy embodied in their creation. Meanwhile, natural resources are dwindling, their quality is degrading as the best sources get used up, and extraction is growing increasingly costly.

The impact of business-as-usual on the planet is growing starkly clear. In October, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report, requested as part of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, stating that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.

The following month, the day after Thanksgiving—when the nation’s attention was more on digesting turkey than on breaking news—the Trump administration quietly released a major scientific report warning of dire economic, environmental and health consequences from unchecked global warming. Mandated by Congress and issued by 13 federal agencies, the National Climate Assessment contrasts sharply with the administration’s agenda of environmental deregulation.

The world is watching. When Nasr unveiled the October U.N. panel report at the Japanese National Press Club in Tokyo, the first question out the gate from some 30 assembled journalists was about the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate pact.

“The U.S. has always been seen as a leader of the free world,” he says. “Globally, there are a lot of questions about the future direction of the United States and the impact on other countries. That has been a major concern.”

What Nasr told the Japanese journalists that day was that regardless of fluctuations in federal policy, the United States remains a leading innovator in sustainable manufacturing.

“We have not slowed down,” he says. “Our commitment is very strong.”

A need to revolutionize product manufacturing

The U.N. report sheds new light on the breakthrough environmental, social and economic benefits made possible by sustainable manufacturing in the circular economy.

Where traditional manufacturing processes are linear—moving in one direction from extraction to garbage—the circular economy takes a systems-based approach emphasizing value-retention processes, or VRPs, in which materials are used and reused through an extended lifecycle.

Products are designed to be durable, upgradeable, repairable and able to be refurbished, so they can extend the lifetime value of the materials and energy invested in them. VRP practices, the report states, can cut industrial waste 80 percent to 99 percent in some sectors, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions 79 percent to 99 percent—all while creating jobs whose additional costs are offset by material and energy savings.

The circular-economy concept is simple, Nasr says. It seeks to reduce the extraction of virgin materials by recycling and reclaiming used ones. Using recycled aluminum, for example, consumes just 10 percent of the energy it would have taken to manufacture with new. It can cost up to 80 percent less to make a VRP-based product than an entirely new one. Reduced operating costs lower barriers to market entry and enable faster scale-up. Passing cost savings to customers lets more buyers acquire the products, which in turn drives industry expansion.

Driving research

GIS is a world leader in industrial sustainability research and technology. Through its Center for Integrated Manufacturing Studies, the institute extends its network of academic, industry and government expertise to companies around the world. Last year, the U.S. Department of Energy chose GIS to lead its new Reducing Embodied-Energy and Decreasing Emissions Institute, REMADE, of which Nasr is CEO.

“The Golisano Institute is a fantastic resource, with the infrastructure to train and support businesses to compete successfully in the global economy,” says Abigail McHugh-Grifa, interim executive director of the Rochester People’s Climate Coalition, a network of business, faith, civic, labor and environmental organizations focused on climate solutions. “I wish we had more businesses taking advantage of these opportunities, because time is of the essence.”

Embracing sustainable manufacturing

Rochester pioneers of circular manufacturing include Xerox Corp., which in the 1980s set out to develop waste-free operations in which electronics and supplies at the end of their useful lives would become the raw materials for future products. Today, many Xerox devices contain reused parts, processed to prevent quality compromises. And, the company’s cartridge return program keeps material out of landfills while saving up to 80 percent of the energy required to produce new cartridges.

“Xerox revolutionized its business sector by having that leasing program and taking equipment back to be upgraded to meet the standards of today,” Nasr says. “They taught the industry how to do that.”

Read the sidebar to this post: “Greenwashing spins sustainability.”

Today, a growing number of local companies are thriving with circular manufacturing woven into their identities.

Harbec Inc., a provider of precision prototypes, tooling, machined components and injection molded parts, reached its goal of “no carbon footprint” in 2013. Based in Ontario, Wayne County, Harbec is a service-disabled veteran-owned small business founded by Bob Bechtold, whose “eco-economics” strategy includes generating most of Harbec’s energy needs through onsite wind turbines. The company also emphasizes responsible supply-chain sourcing for tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold mined with methods that do not include violence and human rights violations.

EWaste+, based in Victor, is a custom electronics recycler serving business, government, medical and educational organizations with processing methods that maximize recovery, eliminate disposal of hazardous material into landfills, and comply with state and federal regulations.

Sunnking Inc. provides secure and compliant electronic recycling, data destruction and IT asset disposition. Based in Brockport, it’s a member of the REMADE Institute, which focuses on driving down the cost of technologies essential to reuse, recycle and remanufacture materials such as metals, fibers, polymers and electronic waste.

Addressing workforce development

REMADE is an RIT-based consortium of 32 companies, 11 trade groups, five national laboratories and 26 colleges and universities, all collaborating to accelerate technology R&D and best practices. A founding member of REMADE is Monroe Community College, which is creating workforce development strategies for the circular economy. Todd Oldham is vice president of economic and workforce development and career technical education at MCC. He helped write the original grant proposal for REMADE and serves as the organization’s workforce development strategist.

Oldham sees sustainable manufacturing approaches becoming more embedded in MCC programs alongside other next-generation developments including robotics, Internet of Things technologies, connected data and augmented reality. The technicians

and future engineers MCC educates will need to understand product lifecycles and their supply-chain ecosystem more holistically, not just because it’s good for the environment but because it’s part of how manufacturing is growing more efficient.

REMADE’s mission is broad, so MCC has been working to identify the most important areas of focus for investments in workforce development. Jobs most likely to be impacted by sustainable manufacturing include precision machining, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, automotive, mechatronics (technology that combines electronics and mechanical engineering ) and industrial maintenance, Oldham says. It’s not just about making environmentally geared products—it’s about making any product more sustainably and profitably.

“For sustainable manufacturing to be adopted, it has to make business sense; it has to be more efficient for manufacturers and more cost-efficient for shareholders,” Oldham says. “We’re talking about an evolution in how manufacturing is thought of.”

Barriers to adoption

This market transformation isn’t happening overnight. That’s in part because of the complexity of the challenges. Raw materials are growing scarcer and more expensive, yes—but not all at the same rate, to create a single tipping point for change.

“You’re going to see it in pieces, or the indicators are going to be different,” Nasr says.

The geopolitics of resource governance also come into play. The U.N. panel on which Nasr serves is analyzing the global impact of various policy approaches, including an “economy first” scenario in which nations maximize their own advantage without regard to the impact on other countries.

For example, China is the source of rare earth elements critical to making the electrical motors of most hybrid vehicles. By slashing exports of this material, it can force manufacturers to make their products in China. But complex systems interrelate in often unintended ways. Even as the Trump administration pursues its America First agenda and rolls back environmental commitments, the November federal climate report predicted that that extreme weather events due to global warming will disrupt the global supply chains of American companies.

“With continued growth in emissions at historic rates, annual losses in some economic sectors are projected to reach hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century—more than the current gross domestic product (GDP) of many U.S. states,” the report states.

An urgent call to action

The extent to which Rochester companies are heeding the call to sustainability is varied.

“It’s a mixed bag,” Nasr says. “We have companies that have made the commitment and others that have done absolutely nothing yet. Once we are forced to do things differently because of the shortage of material or because of price increases, everybody’s going to be looking for ways to address those challenges. We’re saying that it’s much better to address this proactively, (but) sometimes it takes a long time for the market to realize.”

Rochester People’s Climate Coalition’s McHugh-Grifa wonders why, with all the world-class resources available in Rochester, more companies aren’t jumping on the sustainable- manufacturing bandwagon. In Europe, she says, triple-pane windows are growing in popularity for their insulating properties—yet they can be costly and hard to find in the United States. Why not manufacture them in Rochester? The state’s RetrofitNY program seeks to cut public housing energy use by 70 percent or more, inspired by Dutch successes with cost-efficient insulated facades and solar photovoltaic panels on roofs. Why not make all those here?

“We don’t identify ourselves as a hub of sustainability, or sustainable manufacturing or green innovation,” McHugh-Grifa says. “We’re still stuck in the idea that we’re the home of Kodak and Xerox. That’s great, but it’s the past. I’d like to see us take this on as how we think of ourselves.”

Europe is starting to take heed of how the circular economy can make businesses more competitive. In 2015, as part of a study with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, McKinsey & Co. demonstrated that the circular economy approach could boost Europe’s resource productivity by 3 percent by 2030, generating cost savings of roughly $6.8 billion a year and $2.04 trillion more in other economic benefits.

McHugh-Grifa encourages Rochester not to be left behind.

“There’s not really a public conversation about this as a priority for our region,” she says. “RIT is pushing for it … and the Finger Lakes Economic Development Council has been working on the issue. I’d like to see us do more. I’d like to see elected officials and the Rochester Chamber of Commerce step up more boldly.”

Nasr at RIT is encouraged by progress in state and local government procurement policies. New York, for example, once excluded remanufactured furniture from its purchasing guidelines and no longer does. Monroe County and the city of Rochester each are pursuing “green” initiatives. Globally, up to 20 percent of market demand for certain products is driven by government purchases, he says.  Consumer demand for sustainability also is critical.

So is vision and self-awareness. Nasr says he recently was visiting with a friend of his, the CEO of a big California company. As Nasr recalls it, this friend looked at Rochester’s strengths and asked, “‘Do you guys know what you’ve got? You might have a hundred ideas and maybe the courage to go forward with one of them. In California, we’d have half an idea and make a hundred companies out of it. We move much faster and we’re far better at marketing our innovations.’”

Nasr is still digesting that comment.

“I think Rochester has a lot that we don’t market well,” he says. “I had someone here from Taiwan last week to talk to us about partnerships. But we don’t necessarily realize locally that we have fantastic leadership in sustainable manufacturing and innovation.”

“We typically are very modest,” he adds. “We should talk about it more.”

3 thoughts on “A pioneer in the circular economy

  1. Greenhouse gases are causing environmental damage that is extremely expensive and those costs are not reflected in fossil fuel prices. People will look more for things like triple paned windows when the costs of energy waste/fossil fuels reflect what they really are costing us. Best way to do that is a carbon tax and dividend, as has been promoted in the recently proposed bill: https://energyinnovationact.org/

  2. Pingback: Greenwashing spins sustainability - Rochester BeaconRochester Beacon

  3. Thank you for making the case for, not only sustainability, but climatic stewardship. The impact of unsustainable manufacturing practices impedes dangerously on our natural resources and on the health of our planet’s dwellers. It is unconscionable that the scientific arguments put forth have become the target of denial and scepticism as nature’s clock is running down towards environmental disaster. Has “the sky fallen” already, chicken little? We’ll soon know as the next generations are put to the test in their ability to overcome (or not) poor water as air quality. By then, the economy might be of little consequence.

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