November 7, 1995
In my last column, I began a multi-part exploration of how the compelling idea of “industrial ecology,” is actually being applied in operating companies. Industrial Ecology is the name that’s been given to the approach of basing the design of industrial systems on the “design” of natural ecosystems, where waste essentially does not exist–one organisms waste is another organism’s food.
Last time we focused on biologically based companies in food processing and forest products, where it may seem somehow more natural or at least easier to apply the biological metaphor of “waste equals food”. This week we’ll look at zero emissions strategies in the steel and chemicals industries. Next time: the emerging notion of “ecological industrial parks”.
An article in the October issue of Pollution Engineering magazine (Redefining Recycling: ‘Everything is a Product’) profiled Chaparral Steel, one of the largest electric arc furnace (EAF) steelmakers in the US. According to author Barbara Quinn, Chaparral’s vision is to “push the limits of steelmaking practice to the point where everything the steel mill produces will, in synergy with adjacent enterprises, be a useful product.” “It is a vision based not only on environmental concerns,” Quinn observes, “but on pragmatic economic considerations. If you believe everything is a resource, then ‘waste’ is a sacrificed financial opportunity–and Chaparral doesn’t intend to sacrifice anything.”
So, in collaboration with a nearby cement plant that happened to be owned by its parent company Texas Industries Inc., Chaparral set out to find new opportunities reduce waste generation, increase efficiency and create value. The results have been noteworthy. Chaparral has reduced the volume of baghouse dust (a hazardous waste which costs $220 ton to dispose of) to 28% below industry average, reduced lime content in the dust by 87% (allowing it to be used in metals recovery), reduced lime use by one-third and saved over $1 million in 1994 by using 5130 tons of recycled dust in the furnace.
In 1993 Chaparral improved magnetic separation of slag, (which it had previously sold as a road-building material for $0.55/ton), recycling iron back to the furnace and selling the resulting higher grade, low iron slag to the cement plant at $22/ton. Added revenue, $6 million. Chaparral has replaced hazardous mill cleaning solvents: non-organic caustic, halogenated organic and ignitable organic with non-toxic products, and reduced solvent use overall by 160 tons/year, for an annual savings of $400,000. And closed loop processes have enabled Chaparral to cut make-up water consumption in half.
These are steps in the right direction, but Chaparral’s overall goal is zero waste, with on-site, combined processing of slag, scale and dust instead. Quinn quotes Chaparral senior vice president of engineering Libor F. Rostik, “It is no longer possible for steelmakers to be concerned only with steel production. They have to accept responsibility for byproducts and waste streams. That responsibility becomes an incentive for innovation and progress.”
Of course the concepts of waste exchange, of the “non-product outputs” of one process serving as the inputs for the next process, are nothing new in the petroleum and chemical industries. “Oil refineries all tend to be quite specialized,” writes chemical engineer Douglas Holmes; “they take in one kind of crude oil, and they produce specific products for particular markets. But since crude oil is a mixture of literally hundreds of different kinds of molecules, what do they do with those they do not need? Sometimes they change the molecules [to create other products]. But, in many cases… recognizing the value of their by-products (they are NOT referred to as waste products), they have arranged to sell these to a neighboring company. This has evolved quite far; there are even closed recycle loops crossing the fences [between companies].”
But even those relatively advanced examples are far from the zero waste concept. Though the petroleum and chemicals have reported substantial reductions in toxic waste production in recent years, these industries account for a major share of the hazardous waste generated in the US. But those same industries may prove among the leaders in the move toward zero waste systems: two major chemical firms–Monsanto and Dupont–are among a handful of companies that have publicly adopted a “zero waste” goal.
Is this realistic goal? As Gunter Pauli of the Zero Emissions Research Institute tells it: $40 billion revenue Dupont’s decision was based on their success in reducing pollutants 80% in five years. And when Chairman Edgar Woolard decided that this was not enough, he found that “it was actually easier to motivate the 80 top managers to commit to zero emissions than it was five years ago to motivate them to commit to reduce 80% waste.”
Some decision makers listen to advisors who say “Zero emissions? Impossible.” Fortunately some operate by the more interesting motto, “The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little bit longer.”