Interface: How our engineers slash massive waste, emissions

Radical Industrialists

Interface: How our engineers slash massive waste, emissions

Green carpet photo by Africa Studio via Shutterstock

What happens when a team of European engineers take Ray Anderson's vision of "radical industrialism" to heart? Interface's factory in Scherpenzeel, The Netherlands.

GreenBiz readers are probably familiar with our sustainability plan at Interface, Mission Zero. Scherpenzeel, our main European manufacturing site, just reached 90 percent of the goals laid out in this plan. GHG emissions are now around 10 percent of what they were when Ray Anderson, Interface's founder, issued this challenge.

Scherpenzeel is a full-scale carpet tile factory producing around a third of the company's global output. Although it is a constant test-bed for new ideas, it definitely is not a small-scale pilot plant. Everything done there is proven at full scale and ready to be shipped to numerous clients and projects. Since 1996, the company has cut absolute GHG emissions by 90 percent and water use by 95 percent, while waste sent to the landfill has been eliminated altogether.

Most of this progress is owed to engineers. Where existing technology hasn't provided the environmental performance needed, they've looked elsewhere for answers.

New technology drives progress

For example, the conventional carpet tile cutter produced an unacceptable amount of trimming waste, and nothing available in the industry significantly could reduce this. So engineers had to go outside of the carpet industry. The outcome was a bespoke ultrasonic cutting machine, using NASA technology from the aerospace industry. Waste from trimming was reduced by 80 percent.

As another example, the backs of carpet rolls need to be coated with a water-based plastic solution in order to hold the yarn. The conventional dryer for the process is energy intensive, running on natural gas. Engineers knew they had to find a better way than the 20 percent more efficient technology originally proposed by the suppliers. So a solution devised with a drier manufacturer used the moisture in the pre-coat to improve heat transfer and energy efficiency. The result was an energy savings of 40 percent from day one. There is even more potential, being explored now, which should lead to gas savings of more than 50 percent.

Usually, if you ask suppliers to improve their product, they will propose efficiency gains in the 10 to 20 percent range. By sending Interface engineers to work directly with supplier's engineers, we've been able to jointly identify new approaches to the process, typically leading to 50 to 80 percent gains.

Working toward a new industrial model

The advantage of reducing energy use so much is that it makes it feasible to pay more for energy. This means all the energy at Scherpenzeel is sourced from renewables, including gas for the dryer made by anaerobic digestion of fish, chocolate and bread waste. This costs more per unit of energy, but there's still a big overall savings compared with the conventional dryer.

The trade-off between a major energy saving achievement and approval to pay more for a sustainable energy source is a vital part of Mission Zero. If accountants "banked" the energy cost savings and declined the expensive new energy, it wouldn't be possible to achieve zero environmental footprint. This approach to financing sustainability is discussed in our report "The New Industrial Model," written in collaboration with Lavery/Pennell.

Sometimes, engineers cannot identify alternative technology and have to seek efficiency gains from what's available. Here, obsessive attention to detail pays off. A heat scanner is used to show where to insulate heating equipment, which is wrapped up like a baby in winter. In the compressed air room, twice a year a microphone is used to listen for the "hiss" of air leaks — literally the sound of sustainability escaping, because air leaks are wasted energy.

Many of these energy saving projects pay back relatively quickly, and we believe that this approach is transferable to many industries. Carpet tiles are a relatively simple product, and a 90 percent impact cut has been achieved. Imagine the possibilities if this same culture shift were applied to other industrial processes.

Lessons for other companies

1. Big challenges empower employees.

2. Create a sense of urgency: Why wait if we can do it now?

3. Celebrate engineers and encourage them to get out of the factory and talk to other engineers. Listen to them tell their story below.

4. Create an engineering culture that believes "there has to be a better way," using both big technology shifts and an obsession with small improvements.

5. Make a deal with finance: Some of the process savings must be reinvested in sustainable innovations that are in themselves not economic, such as a long return on investment items or more expensive raw materials.

6. Re-allocate most of the PR budget to achieving real progress; then the story sells itself (save just enough PR budget to give the engineers the credit they deserve).

Green carpet photo by Africa Studio via Shutterstock