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Advancing circularity amidst the pandemic

Sponsored: Advancing circular economies against the backdrop of a global pandemic.


In July, 3M reached production of more than 50 million N95 respirators a month and aims to hit 95 million by the end of October. Source: 3M.

This article is sponsored by 3M.

As global communities grapple with the far-reaching impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, we at 3M remain focused on uncovering and implementing science-based solutions to promote public health and maximize positive impact. We’re applying our innovative technologies and collaborating with partners to confront COVID-19 with the same attention and energy we use to advance sustainability efforts and battle the shared challenges of our global community.

Today, we are more committed than ever to our sustainability goals and driving continued progress. A key focus of 3M’s Strategic Sustainability Framework is Science for Circular, which aims at designing solutions that do more with less material to advance a circular economy. We are prioritizing efforts that minimize our raw material usage and waste profile despite shifting supply chains and changing business operations to support responses to COVID-19.

Many talented teams at 3M continue to bring forward solutions that use circular strategies. From newfound efficiencies and waste reduction in manufacturing to innovative use of excess materials in personal protective equipment (PPE) and increased corporate investments in public recycling infrastructure, we’ve continued to advance circularity. 

Advancing circularity in manufacturing 

To have a major impact on the global circular economy, manufacturers need to improve their processes and raw material selection. Efficiencies in manufacturing help reduce the environmental footprint of products and can inform future solutions for related materials, processes and facilities.

3M’s Digital Factory Program uses advanced analytics and digital modeling to uncover and explore new efficiencies. The team at 3M Aberdeen, South Dakota, applied sensors to existing equipment to monitor production and used data analysis to inform modifications that increased output by thousands of additional respirators per day while preventing 50 tons of waste each year. They implemented these efficiencies just prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 and assisted Aberdeen in ramping respirator production to provide PPE to help protect healthcare providers and first responders. As 3M continues to rapidly increase respirator production, the waste savings and overall sustainability impact grow exponentially.

To have a major impact on the global circular economy, manufacturers need to improve their processes and raw material selection.

Another way 3M is driving circular solutions is through innovative, zero-waste PPE design for those on the front lines of the pandemic. While working remotely, two members of 3M’s Medical Solutions Division identified excess material at a 3M plant and brainstormed how it could be used to create a simple and effective face shield design. 

In less than two weeks, a small volunteer team solidified the design, piloted and refined the construction process, and began producing the face shields in bulk. They reached output levels of 10,000 shields a day within just three days and were able to produce about 550,000 shields. The face shields were then donated to healthcare providers in need through the nonprofit Direct Relief. The use of excess material brought forward a new circular solution while amplifying 3M’s ability to support frontline healthcare workers during the pandemic.

Collaborating on circular solutions 

To grow the circular economy, collaboration between manufacturers and across supply chains is needed. Through continuous improvements in 3M’s manufacturing efforts, we’ve refined ways to reduce waste and streamline our processes by repurposing excess materials, and we’ve shared these learnings with our customers.

At 3M Greenville, South Carolina, employees recently spearheaded a project to support increased demand for healthcare PPE by supplying materials to customer partners who also produce these critical products. 

The polyethylene terephthalate (PET) films produced in Greenville are typically used in specialty consumer and industrial applications, but the production team realized they could be adapted to address the requirements of critical healthcare face shield applications. Through collaboration with other 3M facilities and local suppliers, Greenville secured the necessary additional resin and packaging supplies to rapidly ramp production of films with anti-fog properties that could be supplied to manufacturers to use the films in their face shields. 

This technology incorporated into face shields provides healthcare workers with greater visibility and comfort while wearing a face shield. As the demand for PET films in PPE applications continues to grow, the team is quickly and efficiently redirecting materials to address customer needs across the nation. Providing timely shipment and delivery of PET films to our partners across the industry is key to ensuring these supplies are used in the highest priority applications and most efficient manner possible.

Advancing circular economy infrastructure 

While we are proud of the ingenuity and creative manufacturing solutions our teams are developing in the face of COVID-19, we recognize that a product lifecycle is not fully circular until an item is disposed of safely and properly, waste is eliminated and materials are reused. 

3M is exploring and evaluating ways to help address these challenges including the proper disposal of PPE and the mitigation of environmental pollution. Our commitment to advancing circular economy principles in broader society extends beyond improvements to our own products and manufacturing footprint. We recognize the importance of collaboration and a growing need for enhanced public infrastructure to help product lifecycles transition from linear to circular.

We recognize the importance of collaboration and a growing need for enhanced public infrastructure to help product lifecycles transition from linear to circular.

With these reasons in mind, 3M recently reinvested in the Closed Loop Infrastructure Fund and supports the fund’s mission to finance recycling and circular economy infrastructure. Together with fellow founding investors, more than $54 million in extended capital commitments has been contributed to the fund. This investment advances the development of additional recycling infrastructure and will spur growth and technological innovation around end markets for post-consumer materials across North America.

In working to finance the development of recycling infrastructure, Closed Loop Partners addresses plastic waste and other growing threats to our planet head on. Each improvement helps accelerate and build the circular economy, recovering valuable materials and reintroducing them to supply chains. While we are proud of the work to date, we recognize that real progress requires tremendous additional work in expanding and optimizing recycling capabilities across the United States.

Our collective impact

In 2020, our global communities have experienced once-in-a-generation challenges, and it is more apparent than ever that businesses have a responsibility to help solve the issues we collectively face. 

For 3M, an important component of addressing these issues is staying diligent in our commitment to advance a global circular economy — both in our own operations and through external partnerships supporting communities around the world. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have made positive progress in our manufacturing processes, the environmental footprint of the products we produce and offer our customers, and external partnerships that drive systemic change. We have also engaged in external partnerships to deliver COVID-19 solutions through collaborations with organizations such as Ford, Cummins and HP, and by working to introduce new public health and cleaning products.

This global crisis underscores our deep interdependence and the significant positive impacts we can make when we work together. At 3M, we will continue to look for ways in which we can help contribute to advancing circular economic models to help build a more sustainable and resilient world. 

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