Science-oriented 3M is a $30 billion global company with a portfolio that includes around 55,000 products. On the consumer side, 3M makes products like Post-It Notes, Scotch Magic Tape, and Filtrete Air Filters, but the company has four other business groups for energy and electronics, industrial, safety and graphics, and healthcare solutions.
“We’ve been a leader in sustainability for a very long time. This is evidenced by inclusion in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index since 1999,” says Ann Meitz, sustainability director of 3M’s Consumer Business Group. Recently we caught up with her to find out how 3M’s consumer business approaches waste internally.
What does waste reduction mean for 3M’s Consumer Business Group?
In the Consumer Business Group, we strive to contribute to our corporate waste reduction goals. 3M has had public waste reduction goals going back to 1990. Our Pollution Prevention Pays project started back in 1975. We’ve completed over 13,600 projects that helped us avoid 4.5 billion pounds of waste.
As part of our 2025 sustainability goals, we expanded our waste reduction goals to include achieving zero landfill status at more than 30% of our manufacturing sites. 3M has numerous manufacturing facilities in all corners of the world, so that’s a significant goal. In addition, we’re looking to reduce our waste an additional 10% beyond what we’ve already done over the last several decades.
Do you have an example of a zero waste-to-landfill project on the consumer business side?
Our Cynthiana plant is a sustainability champion and a trendsetter. This plant produces things like Post-It Notes and Scotch Package Protection tapes. The site set a goal of achieving zero-landfill status in 2010. At the time, it was daunting. This plant site is about 450,000 square meters. They employ about 550 people. At the time the plant set the goal, they were sending over 700,000 pounds per year to the landfill, and there was no clear path to achieving the zero landfill goal.
As a first step, employees at the plant created a team focused on reducing waste and increasing recycling. Over the years, the team made field trips to the local landfill to assess opportunities for recycling. They called these trips dumpster dives.
Another large contribution was that the team initiated a recycling center within the plant to turn production waste into feedstocks — raw materials that they could use in their plant or in other plants. It has enabled the plant to create a true circular economy example of taking waste and putting it into new materials. The team also looked at reducing the amount of waste they’re creating. Over time, these efforts have had a dramatic impact.
How do you convince employees to go on a “dumpster dive”?
I just recently took a team of product developers from the Consumer Business Group to tour the local MRF — material resource facility. An MRF is where all of the recycling for the area goes. People were actually very interested. It’s like this black box: You throw something in the recycling bin or the trash and what happens to it? Where does it go? I didn’t participate in the trips in Cynthiana, but I’m imagining it was eye-opening. You think, when it’s all sitting there in a heap, “we could recycle that” or “we could do something with that.” The sheer quantity motivates people to take action.
What is the status of the Cynthiana plant now?
We had our first zero-to-landfill quarter in the fourth quarter of 2016. Then they maintained it through 2017. To eliminate the last 1% of landfill waste, the plant leveraged a local waste-to-energy facility.
What were the biggest challenges in getting to this point?
The recycling center was a huge challenge. It’s more than just saying, “I’m going to recycle.” The plant employees have to develop a process to turn waste materials into something useful. In addition, getting people to properly segregate waste into streams that are high value and can be recycled is always a challenge.
How did the team address those challenges?
The team was comprised of people from the plant who are subject-matter experts and live in the community. If you’re taking something to a local landfill and you live in that community, that matters to you. Having passionate innovative people that are part of the process and setting a quantitative goal is also important.
There was support from plant management and division management over an extended period of time, too. It wasn’t a one- or two-year journey.
What’s next for 3M around waste reduction?
One of the things we’re always trying to do is to make our products more sustainable. We’re also working on packaging — not just reducing the amount of packaging but also optimizing the types of materials so the end consumer doesn’t end up with things they have to put in the trash.
Do you have advice for other corporate leaders setting ambitious waste reduction goals?
Having public goals is important. We report on our progress every year so there’s motivation to try to meet our goals. Over time, it is normal to sometimes hit a plateau or even go backwards. Maybe you had acquisitions and there are sites that weren’t performing at the same level as the rest of your company. Sometimes you have to make new investments to get off a plateau and get yourself moving. You have to persevere.
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