Watching Your “Waste Line”

Waste is a big problem all over the world and with a growing global population our consumption goes up with it! The manufacturing industry is often seen as synonymous with being wasteful and polluting; type “polluting” or “environmental problems” into Google Image Search and you get images of smoke-emitting factories, usually offsetting an image of a green field with a windmill on it.

Is the label unfair? Well in 2012 the UK commercial and industrial sectors produced approximately 48 million tonnes of waste, which is a hard figure to visualise. Some waste streams are difficult to process and have to be burnt for energy recovery or sadly can only be disposed of in landfill sites. This isn’t ideal but it is encouraging to know that these wastes are at the very least being processed and controlled, with strict regulation on the release of wastes to the environment and of hazardous wastes into landfill.

In terms of packaging waste companies have to be proactive and move away from disposal and energy recovery routes with a greater focus on recycling. Government targets set out in 2012 declared that certain businesses must meet targets for the recycling of different packaging materials, such as paper, card, plastic and steel amongst others. The target for paper and card for example is 69.5%, with a range of ever increasing values for the other materials. In 2012 the UK recycling rate for packaging waste was 61.4%, slightly less than the 64.6% EU-27 average, obviously a figure that the government wants to see improve.

Waste is a big deal at Grotech. We handle a lot of packaging from incoming raw materials, which can easily be overlooked. An example can be pondered for the creation and filling of a fertiliser product, which is a pretty standard job at Grotech.

So… we are to make 10,000 litres of a fertiliser product and we are going to pack it into one litre bottles to be sold in shops. Firstly what raw materials are we going to be getting in? We may get the solid material that make up the fertiliser on pallets; each pallet may contain 50 × 25kg polythene sacks of our solid, with the whole pallet also wrapped in a polythene tarp. There may be other ingredients such as a liquid fertiliser solution; we may receive this in a couple of 1,000 litre IBCs (industrial bulk container). Then comes the bottles that the product will be packed into; making a one litre product we will need more than 10,000 bottles, these will also come on wooden pallets, often several layers high separated by corrugated cardboard with the whole thing again wrapped in a polythene tarp. We will also receive labels for these bottles, which will most likely come as rolls, packed into cardboard boxes, with several stacked onto a pallet.

We make our product, pack it into the one litre bottles, box and palletise them then ship them off to our hopefully happy customer with the promise of further orders to come. So what are we left with? Well, we have possibly the two now empty IBCs, several empty bags that held the solid fertiliser, dozens of pieces of rectangular cardboard along with the boxes that held the labels, the label backing paper plus inner cores, several pallets and lots of pieces of polythene sheeting. In addition there may have been bottles that leaked or we didn’t use for various reasons, these will also contribute to the overall packaging waste.

Some things are easy; pallets we can often reuse providing that they aren’t damaged, spare boxes are always handy and often miscellaneous boxes will find a use somewhere in the factory. A job like the one described will produce a fair volume packaging waste, which has to go somewhere.

The European Waste Hierarchy (worth a quick read !) would encourage us towards preventing any waste at all; sadly this is beyond our control. But minimising the amount of waste we generate is always a worthy goal to aim towards, this can be achieved through increased efficiency on our part – perhaps by rejecting fewer bottles or buying in bulk to reduce the amount of packaging received (i.e. a tonne of our solid raw material in one huge FIBC rather than 50 small sacks). Reuse is often a good option; using the card sheets for our own stacking operations or cleaning out the empty IBCs for reuse in appropriate situations.

These options are the most ideal for us but sadly only ever account for a small portion of the packaging waste that we generate. Like many companies in our industry, at Grotech we pay for the disposal of non-hazardous wastes, though our skip has a contents weight limit, which when we overshoot is very expensive to us, so another obvious reason for not wanting to send things to landfill! Ultimately we want to avoid placing these materials in our refuse skip so that leaves us with recycling.

The bottles and plastic sheeting are HDPE (high density polyethylene), which is a widely recycled material, cardboard is also widely recycled. We stack and/or bale these materials and place them onto spare pallets which can be taken away by recycling contractors, often without charge or even better – sometimes for a small amount of money! It is important to ensure that the contractors are reputable and have the correct licences, but as a competitive industry there are plenty of good businesses out there providing this service. Figures vary depending on the time of year but we produce around a tonne each of card and plastic waste per month. Without the recycling option we’d be paying huge sums for waste disposal!

Plastic Bottle Waste

Personally I’d say that we’re doing quite well in this area; by mass we recycle over 90% of our packaging waste, a figure that we’re immensely proud of.

What’s next for us? Well there are always improvements that can be made. I previously mentioned the label waste; currently we don’t recycle the siliconised backing paper or card cores. Compared to the other waste streams these don’t amount to much but over the course of years they will add up. We are currently investigating ways to recycle these components and have found a recycling contractor who is willing to take them for us if we can package them up in a certain way – which for us will be the logistical challenge.

At the other end of our packaging waste management responsibilities is domestic waste. For example Grotech goes through a lot of milk to make coffee and our staff bring in a lot of packed lunches and take away boxes, generating a fair amount of packaging waste. I’m pleased to say that recently we have taken steps to ensure that many of these materials are segregated and recycled, such as milk bottles and paper waste. Staff education is also very important to ensure that the work-force is on-side and so will help us in this process. We have a few more hurdles to jump but in this area we are definitely heading in the right direction.

It is my hope to be able to write another blog in a year’s time and be able to say that we prevent, minimise, reuse and recycle 100% of all our packaging waste, I see that as a worthwhile and achievable goal – watch this space!

In-House Labs – A Cost Worth Bearing ?

Tom Grayson M.Chem- Lab Manager
Thomas Grayson MChem – Development Chemist

Labs play an integral part of a whole host of different organisations, from academic institutions, industrial manufacturing companies, analytical contractors, commercial enterprises, schools, law enforcement agencies and many more. These labs can perform a wide range of different functions including quality control, research and development, analytical services and everything in-between!

Sadly a lot of labs don’t directly create a direct income for their company and many contain equipment that is expensive to buy and maintain, so when it comes down to who faces the chop when times get hard it is often the R&D department of a company that is dropped before the sales and marketing department.

This is sad but understandable and I do acknowledge that the arguments, though strong in both directions generally fall towards those in a business who can point to a bottom line and say “we’ve secured this account” or “our orders have filled our quotas”.

It begs the question; what should the mandate of a company lab be and how should a business manage the investments into and the outputs from its lab?

My argument is that a correctly balanced lab can provide chargeable services to a customer (this is an obvious, accountable income stream), a range of internal support services to other departments and technical support to customers (the benefits from this are often less obvious and don’t make it onto balance sheets) and research (which often only sees returns on a longer term basis, especially for “blue-sky” research and usually involves equipment and material investment that apparently (and sadly more often than not) just disappears into a hole never to see the light of day).

So where am I going with this? Many people reading this may be thinking along the lines of “well yeah, if a department is bringing in business and the lab isn’t then the lab has to go”. Well what I’d like to talk about is why having a lab when times are hard is not only sensible, but can be pivotal to success when on the road to recovery.

This opinion is formed from my personal experiences at Grotech, where I currently work as the Development Chemist in our lab. Grotech is a manufacturing and packing company for the agrochemical industry, we have approximately thirty members of permanent staff, provide development services for customers and support our own brands both within the agricultural industry and across a broader range of industries as we develop the scope of the business.

A lot has changed for Grotech over the last ten years, especially in the lab. Ten years ago the Technical Manager left the business and the lab became essentially derelict for almost two years. In that time very little development took place beyond minor process innovations and factory floor operators would wander into the lab for maybe a half-hour a day to perform simple quality control tests on products.

In early 2008 one of the factory floor operators took it upon themselves to bring the lab back to life and develop both himself and the capabilities of the company. Within a year the lab was a functioning department providing internal technical support, waste management, health and safety, quality control and external analytical and development services to customers.

Then the banking crisis shook the world and lead to recession, austerity and hard times for us all. Grotech like most businesses suffered during this time and had to work hard to stay afloat, for many businesses investment in a lab and its staff would grind to a halt with that lab becoming a tempting target for cost cutting, Grotech didn’t do that.

Over the next four years the lab was given the space and resources it needed to add value to the business with investment in analytical equipment and in the qualifications of its technician. So how did this help the business? How were the investments justified? I put the success down to the broad scope of services that the lab provided to the business; it wasn’t purely QC or R&D, it was involved across the whole business.

The lab explored the recycling of various waste streams turning costly disposal into product opportunities, it undertook research into the properties of different materials to improve production processes and yields. The lab was also commissioned to undertake development projects for customers along with bluesky research into other areas. This kind of work didn’t always turn to sales or develop the next big thing; but what it did do was demonstrate that Grotech has more to offer than manufacturing and packing alone. This helps to separate Grotech from others and helps to establish a positive reputation as a company with expertise and one worth doing business with.

So far I’ve been talking about the past of the company, so what’s happening now? Well the technician who brought the lab back to life is now starting his PhD in Chemistry and over the last three years I have been helming the work in the lab. Before he left he gave me a bit of advice that I work by and consider to be my personal mandate for working in the lab “make yourself indispensable to the business, but don’t be afraid to take the time to sit and think through an idea”. A simple message but one I feel helps us keep the balance right.

The lab continues to grow and over the last eighteen months we’ve invested further in our capabilities including advanced analytical equipment in the form of a Near-Infrared Spectrometer and in man-power as well. Over the last year the lab has taken on two work-experience placements followed by the employment of a full-time technician to help meet the ever increasing demands on the lab.

This need reflects successes elsewhere in the business as the company has grown; recent investments in mixing capabilities have doubled our output of liquid products, we’ve expanded our solid filling capabilities with investment in small volume precision fill equipment. In other areas our sales and marketing department has become firmly established and fully manned and we’ve taken on apprentices both in the office and engineering departments.

Considering what the UK has had to deal with over the last seven or eight years these developments are encouraging and have taken place not in-spite of the lab, but alongside a lab that has contributed positively to this success. I’m not going to try and pretend that the company wouldn’t be here without the lab or that the lab alone brought the company to where it is, obviously it is just one cog in a machine of many; but I hope that I’ve shown that even when cash is tight labs are there to provide more than just a short term saving!

In House labs – a cost worth bearing ? In our experience the answer is a definite YES.

Working2 (2)

So where now for Grotech and our lab? Well, watch this space!