Making Sustainability Sustainable in Manufacturing

By Brent Trenga, Director of Sustainability for Kingspan Insulated Metal Panels North America

Headlines are popping up almost daily now: a large corporation is now committing to reducing carbon and moving toward more sustainable operations. Making the commitment is easy. Following through is another story. Manufacturing requires significant amounts of energy and can produce a lot of waste. It seems like a Herculean task to change the way plants are built and the way they run, but with careful planning and creative strategies, it is possible to make a change, and to do it in a short period of time through accountability, waste reduction, upcycling and using alternative energy sources.


Kingspan Group’s global 10-year sustainability plan, called Planet Passionate, requires regular reporting of benchmarks for circularity, carbon reduction, water conservation and renewable energy. While goals are necessary, keeping tabs on progress in the short term is even more critical to meet long-term commitments.

Accountability for each company looks different, as well as the way that each benchmark is measured. However, it is vital to agree upon a system in advance, as well as the frequency of reporting. Visibility allows different sites and divisions to see what others are doing to make progress. It can inspire new ideas and dialogue across the company. Transparency also helps to identify weaknesses and jumpstart a solution.

Waste Reduction

At the start of 2021, Kingspan Insulated Panels North America’s zero-waste-to-landfill initiatives were the worst among any division globally. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the United States is the most wasteful country in the world, producing more waste per citizen than larger countries, such as China, due to a lack of infrastructure to divert waste from landfills and political willpower.

Compared to other manufacturing sites in other parts of the world, North America had extra challenges. The solution came in the form of a pilot program at just one manufacturing site to separate waste into nine different color-coded streams for items like cardboard, plastic and wood.

The system is simple, but impactful. The division is now on track to reduce waste by 50% by the end of the year. With early success, the program is now expanding to all four other manufacturing sites in North America. Test runs can help manufacturers evaluate waste reduction programs on a small scale and work out any difficulties before any large-scale rollout occurs. Rather than giving employees a directive, it can open a dialogue to understand what does and does not work.


While reducing waste is key, there are always going to be byproducts from the manufacturing process. Recycling is one option, but finding new life for waste can be even more beneficial. Upcycling is defined as “reusing to recycle (something) in such a way that the resulting product is of a higher value than the original item: to create an object of greater value from (a discarded object of lesser value).”

Kingspan’s California plant is turning plastic water bottles into insulation core, while a partnership in Florida sends foam scrap to Atlanta, where it’s turned into ceiling tiles. Even old manufacturing equipment in California has been reused for bridge projects in the Pacific Northwest.

Through forming partnerships between manufacturing sites and local companies, waste does not need to travel as far, which reduces carbon emissions. It also can be economically beneficial for both companies, depending on the arrangement. While not a one-size-fits-all solution across all manufacturing sites, local partnerships provide each community with a measurable benefit. Upcycling helps manufacturers contribute to a circular economy that reduces waste and creates more sustainable businesses.

Alternative Energy Sources

As the energy grid gets cleaner, there are more opportunities to incorporate renewable energy sources. The industrial sector accounted for 33% of total U.S. energy consumption, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. While making energy efficient upgrades can help to reduce consumption, one of the best ways to make a difference is to examine the energy source.

Kingspan’s Columbus, Ohio, plant switched to 100% direct-to-grid wind energy in early 2020, while the California plant is getting a brand-new solar panel roof. Both renewable energy sources will provide the power the manufacturing sites need for years to come without emitting CO2 into the atmosphere.

While these plans can take time to come to fruition, they are an investment worth making for the planet. The International Renewable Energy Agency projects that renewables could grow to 27% of total fine energy consumption by 2030, but a lack of deployment plans and policies could slow the rollout.

With the United Nations World Meteorological Agency reporting that greenhouse gas emissions reached a new record in 2020, more manufacturers are realizing they have a role to play in reducing the effects of climate change. With achievable goals and a strategy that addresses energy usage and waste reduction, it is possible to make positive change.

Just Added

Term of the Day

Carbon Dioxide Equivalent (CO2e) is a method to compare various greenhouse gases based on their global warming potential. One metric ton of a greenhouse gas is converted to the equivalent number of metric tons of CO2 emissions with the same global warming potential.

Related from the Library