On the heels of a lengthy decline, the manufacturing sector accounts for less than 16% of global economic output, according to the World Bank. The International Monetary Fund reports that this “structural transformation” has driven industrial employment levels lower for years. Still, Climate Watch data cited by the World Resources Institute shows that industrial processes account for more than a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. These processes include mining, processing metals, and producing chemicals.
The imbalance has inspired industrial players worldwide to pursue green manufacturing processes. Efforts to build sustainable and responsible initiatives have centered on three key concepts: energy and resource efficiency, waste reduction, and operational safety.
1. Driving Decarbonization
Despite massive demand for energy and resources among the world’s industrial producers, the Energy Transitions Commission declared in its 2018 Mission Possible report that net-zero carbon emissions are attainable by the middle of this century.
To get there, the group of industry and policy leaders highlighted four primary areas for energy efficiency through decarbonization:
- Greater use of electricity.
- Increased reliance on biomass, notably within the aviation and plastics industries.
- Expanded carbon capture efforts.
- Higher usage of hydrogen in industrial processes.
The report also noted that effective materials management can help reduce carbon emissions through more efficient resource consumption, especially within commodity-intensive industries.
2. Greening the Scrap Pile
Many manufacturers are also zeroing in on waste and the resources used to generate excesses that are ultimately discarded. For example, California’s CalRecycle program promotes an Extended Producer Responsibility framework that supports statewide initiatives to trim waste in textiles, packaging, paper, and transport.
More broadly, the European Commission’s 2020 Circular Economy Action Plan targets a 100% increase in members’ circular material use rates by 2030. Among the manufacturing-centric proposals in the plan are regulations for product durability and reusability. Additionally, it supports “a business-led initiative to develop environmental accounting principles.”
3. Protecting and Enabling Workers
Any responsible and sustainable enterprise stays cognizant of its human as well as its physical resources. Therefore, operational safety initiatives that align with strategies tied to efficient energy and material usage may also prove valuable in “greening” manufacturing.
Many technological advances falling under the broad banner of the “fourth industrial revolution” have furthered accomplishments in worker health. In the automotive industry, the World Economic Forum reports that worker robots help reduce exposure to hazardous activities while augmented reality technology makes assembly lines safer.
Artificial intelligence may also help automate operational assessments in real time and raise alarms when processes start going awry. This kind of early alert may save costly equipment from damage while also protecting workers from using malfunctioning gear.
Finding Long-Term Value in Green Manufacturing
Although the costs related to the execution of a green manufacturing plan may hit short-term profits, they are best viewed as investments in a future that is leaner, more efficient, and safer.