Ceramic Industry

ONLINE EXTRA: The Legacy of Earth Day

April 1, 2009

Earth Day was a concept that took Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson seven years to develop. Concerned about the state of the environment and the fact that the government seemed to have little interest in it, Nelson hatched a plan in 1962 to have President Kennedy conduct a conservation tour across the U.S. The tour, which came to life in September 1963, had little impact on politicians, but public awareness of the damage caused by pollution and factory and car emissions rose dramatically.

Student protests against the Vietnam War in the summer of 1969 inspired Nelson to organize an environmental “teach-in” for the spring of 1970. All Americans were welcome to participate, and public response to Nelson’s plan was massive. Outrage over the government’s perceived indifference toward the environment rivaled the anger many felt about the war. The first Earth Day was held April 22, 1970, to bring attention to the environment and raise awareness about the contributions people make toward its destruction.

Green Manufacturing

The principles of conservation and sustainability espoused by Senator Nelson’s Earth Day have transcended their activist roots to become part of the numerous clean air and water policies enacted by various presidents over the years. Some industries have embraced the challenge of eco-friendly manufacturing. For example, the pet industry now sells organic catnip, biodegradable waste bags and toys made from recycled bottles, while several automotive, aerospace and electronic factories now use energy-efficient fiber laser technology to cut sheet metal.

Other industries require guidance on the best way to “go green.” Several organizations and companies have organized annual conferences on the latest green technology and practices to educate manufacturers about the importance of becoming stewards of the environment. From these seminars, as well information from industry groups, publications and consultants, a multitude of corporations have managed to develop new programs and procedures to clean up their manufacturing processes.

According to Greenbiz.com’s State of Green Business 2009 report, many industries have chosen water efficiency as the focus of their respective green business policies. Beverage companies typically use water in large amounts, but other companies have begun to use it as a clean and readily available resource. The resultant scarcity of water (due, in part, to uneven global distribution) has prompted companies like Anheuser-Busch and Coca-Cola to institute “water neutrality” programs. Both companies have managed to reduce the amount of water used to make their products, and Coke has adapted the mantra “reduce, recycle and replenish” by returning all of the water used in its operations back to the environment. GE has taken a similar approach, vowing to cut freshwater use 20% by reusing it. IBM has even opened a water management research center in the Netherlands to help reduce its use of water as part of its Big Green Innovations program.

Studies released in 2008 revealed alarming levels of toxic chemicals in everyday products: lead in makeup and children’s toys, mercury in medicine, and melamine in baby formula. Out of these revelations came “green chemistry,” a field that was supported by a law California enacted to give its Department of Toxic Substances Control the power to deal with chemicals of concern directly rather than on a substance-by-substance basis.1 As a result, some companies have set up their own systems of “green chemistry” to reduce the amount of harmful chemicals in their products.

SC Johnson instituted a protocol called Greenlist in which toxic chemicals are gradually being replaced by safer ones. In doing so, the company has removed more than 61 million pounds of harmful toxins from its products, winning the company a Presidential Green Chemistry Award in June 2006.2 Seventh Generation, a SC Johnson competitor, has made a downloadable label-reading guide available to its consumers in an effort to help them understand the ingredients and chemicals in the company’s products and what impact those ingredients have on the environment and human health.

What Green Means for You

Curtailing waste production is a pressing environmental concern that continues to face the ceramic and related industries. Chemicals such as CO, CO2 and NOX are emitted in large amounts, and their reduction has proven to be one of the toughest problems for manufacturers to solve. Some of the steps that are being taken to reduce these emissions include installing efficient pollution control equipment, reducing scrap and energy consumption, and removing unneeded steps in the manufacturing process.

With these measures comes the need to reduce the time and temperature at which pieces are fired. Kiln efficiency and material improvements can be made through updated insulation, for example, which can help reduce heat loss and increase the life of a kiln. It can also be beneficial to improve the kilns themselves by keeping up with maintenance and potentially upgrading burners, elements, controls, etc.

Increasing kiln capacity also allows manufacturers to produce more pieces, thus reducing time and saving energy. Though these techniques and practices are sometimes expensive to implement, it is important to remember that energy costs will be cut over time. Manufacturing changes can improve production and energy consumption while lessening the impact on the environment.

For more information, visit www.earthday.gov.

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