Signed, sealed and delivering

Insulation product manufacturer, Rockwool, is demonstrating environmental innovation at every stage of the manufacturing process, with tangible results.

At first glance the latest Spotlight report from the Environment Agency (EA) gives a dim view of manufacturing industry, highlighting serious pollution incidents, bad waste management and many household names appearing as repeat offenders, but delve deeper into the report and the picture gets considerably cleaner.

Despite the doom and gloom that underpinned the majority of the media coverage relating to the results of the Spotlight Report, a little reported fact remains that this year more manufacturers were commended by the EA than have been since the report began five years ago and that the overall environmental impact industry is having on the environment is decreasing to positive effect.

Although government regulation is one of the key drivers behind this step change, there is clearly a more genuine desire and growing recognition among UK manufacturers that to become as competitive as their European counterparts, investing in environmental improvements in the production process will pay back on bottom line and perhaps more significantly will help them achieve business growth that is sustainable.

While modern technology can substantially alleviate environmental impacts, sustainable production is still thought to be out of the reach of European manufacturing industry. Authors of a report in 2002 from the European Growth Programme argued that modernising the industry through efficiency savings alone was too linear an approach and that controlling production processes improving the product 'sufficiency' (as opposed to efficiency) meaning the quality and usefulness of the final product and testing their total impact i.e. economic, social and environmental benefits was the only sustainable approach.

Given that the US refused to sign the Kyoto protocol on reducing greenhouse gas emissions it is perhaps a little ironic that US manufacturing is well ahead of the EU in terms of applying industrial sufficiency through extending the life of products. For example, operational leasing where customers buy a service in the form of a lease (common business practice for suppliers of photocopiers, airliners, bridges and motorways) forces manufacturers to make products that are durable, reliable, efficient and low on resources. Although, recycling a product once its life is over is good practice it is actually the last resort - the best environmental practice is finding a way to minimise impact, reuse products and finally recycling.

James Hagan's quote (vice president, corporate environment health & safety, GlaxoSmithKline) in the Spotlight report stating "Sound environmental management is a basic building block for sustainable and competitive business…" has almost become a mantra for companies who have invested in making environmental improvements. The payback implementing environmental techniques and technologies brings is positive both in terms of environmental impact and on bottom line. Although for some manufacturers bottom line savings may not be apparent overnight, for others the benefits can be immediate.

South Wales-based insulation manufacturer Rockwool was commended in the latest Spotlight report and is one manufacturer that is reaping the financial benefits of becoming more environmentally sound in the production process. Rockwool was established in 1979 in a custom-built plant which now employs 450 people and is based on a former open-cast coal mine in Pencoed, South Wales. The company manufactures high-quality stone wool insulation materials from lava deposits resulting from volcanic eruptions.

In simple terms stone wool is a natural material formed when molten lava is thrown into the air and re-solidifies as fibres. Rockwool recreates this natural process by melting volcanic Diabase rock and recycling other raw materials at 1,500°C in a coke-heated cupola furnace. Since 1996 Rockwool has invested more than £12M in making environmental improvements to achieve a more efficient rock melting process. As a result carbon monoxide releases have reduced from more than 500 tonnes per year to less than 10 tonnes per year. Recycling in the production process is key to Rockwool's environmental strategy. Waste off-cuts and other production waste is recycled back into the process rather than being sent to landfill and this alone has reduced the number of journeys lorries make by around 9,000 a year.

Rockwool developed a technically advanced form-stone manufacturing plant that converts waste Rockwool into man-made form-stones or 'briquettes'. The material used to form the briquettes comes from spinning chamber waste, fly ash from the furnace filters, dust extracted from the production saws and Rockwool returned from customers. In turn these briquettes fuel 20 per cent of the total furnace charge. The factory is kept warm in winter with waste heat from its own industrial processes, and its grounds incorporate a Woodland Walk, a landscaped fishpond complete with ducks and other waterfowl and a Nature Study Centre, developed in partnership with a range of local organisations. Water consumption at the plant is maintained at as low a level as possible through the use of rainwater.

This commitment to the environment resulted in Rockwool being awarded the prestigious Wales Environmental Award in 2002, following on from the Wales Environmental Award for Teamwork in 2001. In the same year, the company was accredited with the ISO 14001 Environmental Management Standard. Being commended for its minimal impact on the environment in The Environment Agency's latest 'Spotlight on business environmental performance 2002' report is further testament to the company's commitment to introducing environmentally friendly practices and procedures.

Brian Roberts, managing director of Rockwool believes manufacturers often face a difficult task convincing the general public that they are not a major polluter, particularly those operating in heavy industrial sectors: "We melt and process 100,000 tonnes of volcanic rock every year in an environmentally conscious way" he states.

"Insulation is an unusual sector in that the use of it has a positive global impact. It's well known that their energy-saving function results in less fuel being used, and therefore a reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution emitted to the atmosphere, which is one of the causes of global warming". It is an indisputable fact that buildings are giant consumers of fossil fuels for heating. They account for around 40 per cent of all energy consumption in the EU, of which approximately two-thirds is used in homes. By the same token, EU buildings are responsible for a high proportion of CO2 emissions as a by-product of burning fossil fuels. Both these factors have implications in terms of sustaining our environment.

The conservation of fossil fuels is therefore a central theme of the UK's strategy for sustainable development, development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. "The insulation of buildings is fundamental to this strategy. High levels of insulation mean minimal heat escape and therefore less fossil fuel usage - insulation directly prevents energy wastage and reduces CO2 pollution. For example, DEFRA stated last month that insulating around 4.5M currently un-insulated cavity walls would alone yield environmental savings of around 1.2MtC.

"Rockwool is an excellent sustainable development tool and the benefits associated with Rockwool are second to none. Products contribute directly to the reduction in pollutants released into the atmosphere, and are also beneficial in that they don't contribute to the consumption of valuable fossil fuels".

The energy saved while an insulation product is in use hugely outweighs the energy consumed during its manufacture and all other phases of the product's life cycle. The energy saved by the use of Rockwool insulation depends upon the particular product used, the design of the overall construction and the local climatic conditions.

EU analysis has shown that it takes less primary energy to produce one insulation unit of stone wool than to produce other types of common insulation material. Over the lifetime of use in a typical UK building, savings in greenhouse gases as a result of reduced heating are several hundred times bigger than the emissions associated with producing the Rockwool products used.

The sum of the energy used to manufacture a product (from 'cradle' to the entry gate at site of use) and its feedstock is referred to as the embodied energy of the product. Table 1 shows the energy savings that Rockwool products can make in comparison with their embodied energies for various typical applications. Insulation used in high temperature industrial applications can produce exceptionally high savings. For example, in Table 1 the embodied energy for the pipe insulation is paid back in less than four hours. For some products used in high temperature applications, the ratio of environmental savings to embodied energy is greater than 10,000:1.

Roberts continues: "Best of all, Rockwool simply uses fresh air in its production. Unlike many foam insulation products who use blowing agents, Rockwool is manufactured using a state-of-the-art production process that does not use, and never has used, harmful gases such as CFCs, HCFCs, HFCs or any other 'blowing agents' that have ozone depleting or global warming potential". As public awareness and knowledge increases and sustainable development as a concept becomes more widely understood rather than deemed a piece of environmental jargon, then it's likely that manufacturers will find themselves the subject of increased pressure from both their customers and their employees to make changes to the manufacturing processes that have longer payback periods than other investments.

This will have a major impact on the manufacturing industry across all sectors as increased public concern and government intervention may widen the scope of regulatory visibility, forcing environmental improvements by manufacturers. As a result, competitive advantages will be had by those that are ahead of the game.



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