Composites manufacturers are accustomed to having their products evaluated on properties like performance and pricing. But customers may soon be assessing another aspect of their businesses: the sustainability of their manufacturing operations.

The Environmental Protection Agency defines sustainable manufacturing as “the creation of manufactured products thorough economically-sound processes that minimize negative environmental impact while conserving energy and natural resources.” Sustainable manufacturing practices should also enhance employee, community and product safety.

Customer demand is one of the biggest drivers for the introduction of sustainable practices in the composites manufacturing industry. “The sustainability of a supplier’s business is very important to customers in markets like wind energy, transportation and building materials,” says Mike Gromacki, president of Dixie Chemical Company. “When there’s a sustainability orientation of the market, and the growth is tied to sustainability issues, the participants in that market are generally held to a higher standard.” In other words, if you want the business of wind energy producers – and lots of other companies – you’d better be prepared to show that your own operations are sustainable.

“It’s similar to what happened in quality,” Gromacki continues. “The automotive sector was focused on improving quality, and they drove that down into their supply chains. [They said,] ‘If we’re going to be focused on quality, you’re going to be focused on quality and your suppliers are going to be focused on quality.’”

Composites manufacturers recognize the competitive advantages of sustainable practices. “If you take a longer view of what sustainability means, it’s taking out the waste and cost and things that are non-value-add. If you want to compete on a global basis, you need to be thinking in those terms,” Gromacki says.

One example is the shift that some manufacturers are making from thermoset composites to thermoplastics, says Sameer Rahatekar, research lecturer in manufacturing at the Enhanced Composites and Structure Centre at Cranfield University in the United Kingdom. Since thermoplastic components don’t require the high temperatures and long cure times that thermosets do, manufacturers can produce them more quickly. That improves the efficiency of their operations, reduces energy consumption and cuts costs. In addition, thermoplastics, unlike thermosets, can often be recycled several times, which is both an environmental and an economic advantage.

Government mandates are also spurring the growth of sustainable manufacturing practices in some areas. The European Union’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulation, for example, requires all manufacturers to identify and manage the risks of the chemicals that they use. If the EU authorities deem chemicals too dangerous or too difficult to manage, they can ban them. To avoid these restrictions, composites manufacturers are developing more environmentally-friendly alternatives for chemicals like the chromium used in paint and the halogens that provide fire-retardancy properties for composite materials.