By Nicole Mitchell, writer, Plastics Business
At Plastic Molding Technology (PMT), El Paso, Texas, sustainability is a top priority. The corporate sustainability initiatives, focused on environmental impact, began as a side emphasis for the leadership team several years ago, and today the company reaps the benefits through cost savings, team safety and price competitiveness.
CEO Charles Sholtis said the emphasis on sustainable practices started small but then caught the notice of other employees. “The importance of sustainability came into focus during team member surveys several years ago, where we realized some of the initial sustainability projects the company was working on from a leadership perspective were being noticed and appreciated by many of our team members,” he explained. “What started as a leadership initiative was embraced by the company and now is supported company-wide.”
In 2014, PMT received national recognition from the Manufacturing Leadership Council for its sustainable practices. Since then, the company has only improved with energy-efficient tools, operational improvements and more. In addition to the environmental impact of sustainable practices, Sholtis said, “Going green is good business for everyone.”
Every Step Counts
While plastic gets a lot of media attention for its recycling challenges, the fact is that plastics are a necessary part of life – plastics are critical for medical device affordability, automobile lightweighting and food packaging safety. Still, manufacturing companies can take steps to reduce the environmental impact of their operations. For PMT, that means running a Lean manufacturing approach, reducing its consumption of both energy and water, and creating overall less waste and CO2.
“Going green saves the company money, keeps our team safe and helps us keep our pricing competitive with our customers because we are generating less waste,” said Sholtis.
And, added Marketing Manager Jennifer Perez, “Taking a more sustainable approach to manufacturing was one of the most effective ways to build value within our organization. It allows PMT to be a positive contributor to the community surrounding our business, and it enhances a lean mindset – leading to less waste and a more financially-sustainable business.”
There are three tiers to PMT’s approach to sustainability: proprietary technology development, energy savings and operational improvements.
Proprietary technology development
The first step of PMT’s systemic approach to sustainability is through creative technology solutions. These improvements have a direct impact on the company’s bottom line – and the environment – through energy reductions. Step one is Shopwatch, a proprietary control system that monitors machine run-time and interfaces with IQMS’ ERP and MES software. Shopwatch shuts off all pump motors that are left unattended or in standby mode, in turn saving energy and cutting waste. “The simple technology of Shopwatch cuts our energy costs by over $50,000 each year,” said Perez.
Another program used by PMT is a novel grinder control system, which regulates the energy usage of more than 45 plastic grinding machines in operation in the plant. “Our grinder control system shuts off plastic grinding machines when not in use – and grinding machines can be a huge energy consumer,” said Sholtis. “In our case, we’ve reduced the electricity consumption of the grinders by 95% and saved 891,395 kWh annually just by installing these controllers.”
A desire to implement sustainable practices doesn’t mean the bottom line can be ignored. “Every sustainable practice we implement saves the business money because we review to ensure the return on investment is justifiable before we make the change,” Sholtis said. “Most of the changes we made also increased levels of safety within the building – for example, turning off the machine grinders instead of letting them idle.”
The company has focused other capital investments on energy-saving improvements, including the implementation of all-electric presses and variable-speed air compressors, which saves the company approximately 583,000 kWh per year. Another way PMT has kept energy costs low is by using barrel insulator blankets, which help keep the building cooler and helps the machines to run more efficiently. Implementing this particular solution has reduced heating energy used by injection molding machines by about 25%.
The climate of where manufacturing plants are located can change how problems need to be tackled. For instance, PMT is in the dry, desert climate of El Paso, meaning that costs of cooling the facility and its equipment can rise quickly as the outdoor temperature rises – and the systems that ensure the cooler working environment have to work harder, too. Using evaporative coolers increases building efficiency for PMT.
PMT partnered with CLEAResult Consulting through local electric company El Paso Electric for an assessment of energy-saving opportunities. Results of the audit provided that PMT a list of additional steps, including capital investment in energy-efficient lighting and occupancy sensors.
PMT partnered with the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) and New Mexico State University (NMSU) to facilitate E3, a program focused on economy, energy and environment, which is led by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The E3 program identified key areas that needed to be addressed by the company, using Value Stream Mapping to understand the connections between the different types of waste and how to reduce them.
Key areas found during the research include energy, lean, material, solid and water waste. The team came up solutions that included streamlining the types of labels used internally, installing waterless urinals and implementing a company-wide recycling program.
“PMT’s participation in the E3 program also led directly to financial savings and growth,” explained Perez. “For example, during our first participation with the program, PMT reduced its water consumption by 40,000 gallons and solid waste by 56 tons, reducing our operational costs. The focus on sustainability also led to new sales of around $200,000 that year due to customer scorecards that were favorable to PMT due to the new sustainability practices.”
Becoming a sustainable manufacturer also helps companies grow their business and create more jobs. PMT works with TMAC, a part of the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) led by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). MEP is a public-private partnership with centers across the US. According to NIST, those centers interacted with over 27,500 manufacturers across the US last year, which led to $13 billion in sales, $2.7 billion in cost savings, $4.9 billion in new client investments, and helped create or retain over 105,500 jobs.
PMT found its efforts toward sustainable practices had another internal effect – several members of its team have mentioned that they are pleased that their employer keeps sustainability in mind. “Working in the plastics industry comes with a lot of outside assumptions about pollution and waste, so it is important to PMT that we make our operation as efficient as possible,” Sholtis said. “We want our team to work for a company that is making positive contributions as a plastics manufacturer – by running lean, reducing our consumption of energy and water, and creating less waste and CO2.”
Implementing more sustainable practices is something every manufacturer can do, from starting small by adding a water bottle filling station to tackling bigger problems by adding machine monitoring systems or installing sensors for office lighting. As a guide for where to start, PMT suggests contacting a local recycling company or electric company to talk about ways to reduce waste and programs they may have to help.
“Connect with your local utility companies to find out what incentives are available for manufacturers,” Sholtis said. “And be open to audits, where experts in energy savings can come in and help you decide which changes can make the biggest impact.”
The efforts by PMT continue, and the team works to improve its practices every day. Most recently, PMT achieved ISO 14001:2015, ISO’s environmental management system for industry professionals, in September 2021.