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3M Circles Back to Science for New Sustainability Building Product

Laurel Sheppard headshotWords by Laurel Sheppard
Energy & Environment
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3M’s stated mission is to use science to help solve global challenges and to improve everyday life. To that end, the company insists it is continually stepping up these efforts, especially when it comes to sustainability.

For example, to help address the climate crisis, 3M introduced its award-winning, smog-reducing granule technology in June 2018—which is now available to asphalt roofing manufacturers.

3M’s smog-reducing granules use a specialized photocatalytic coating, which is activated by ultraviolet sunlight. The smog contacting the roof then turns into water-soluble ions that wash away over time. Testing at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) validated that the granules reduced smog and improved air quality.

The product’s launch, which was decades in the making, dates back to when the granules’ potential for smog reduction caught the attention of a sustainability-minded customer, Malarkey Roofing, back in 2017. The roofing company, which works with Habitat for Humanity, was the first national roofing manufacturer to include these granules in all of their asphalt roofing shingles.

 “This is an invention over a 20-year span,” says Lara Ughetta, application engineer specialist in 3M’s Industrial Mineral Products Division. “It finally came to fruition in 2018, but it's the culmination of a lot work by a lot of people.” 

3M continues to work with LBNL and the California Air Quality Board to understand the science of its smog-reducing technology and how it might have an impact on air quality for an entire community. And the company says it is actively looking to start a demonstration project in California.

The three C’s drive sustainability innovation at 3M

The new roofing material is part of a broader strategy to drive sustainable product innovation at 3M.

The company’s strategic sustainability framework applies science to three key areas—one of them being climate, through innovations like the smog-fighting roof, along with circular economy and community. For the latter, 3M advocates for science and encourages STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. The company also has a program that sends employees around the world to do skills-based volunteer work with civic and community organizations pursuing sustainability goals.

In December 2018, 3M announced the first major goal of its framework: Beginning in 2019, all new products entering the commercialization process will “formally articulate a Sustainability Value Commitment (SVC) that demonstrates how the product drives impact for the greater good,” explains Dr. Gayle Schueller, VP and chief sustainability officer for 3M. “We will track SVCs in new products and will report annually on progress and how the products are changing the world.”

Though it’s known for legacy products like sticky notes and adhesive tape, 3M launches approximately 1,000 new products every year. And products released over the past five years comprise a significant fraction of its revenue. Given the pace at which new products move through its portfolio, the company believes the impact of this commitment will be immense.

Recycled fibers to the rescue

As part of its circular efforts, 3M is incorporating recycled content into several other new products beyond the aforementioned roofing material. For example, the company introduced the Scotch-Brite Heavy Duty Scrub sponge in June 2019. The green scrubbing fibers are made from 100 percent recycled content, including an average of 35 percent post-consumer recycled content. The recycled fibers are being incorporated into four other Scotch-Brite products.

Switching to recycled fibers wasn’t easy. Changing one component affected how the whole product held together and performed. That’s why engineers were excited when, after a significant amount of lab work, they were able to reformulate the green scrubbing fibers from 100 percent recycled plastic so they still matched the performance of traditional scrubbing fibers.

“It took years of formulation work to find a total construction that worked,” says Kaylee Schmall, a product developer in the company’s Home Care Division Lab.

This fall, 3M is also introducing the first Thinsulate Insulation made with 100 percent recycled plastic bottles. Thinsulate is part of 3M's efforts to help outerwear manufacturers reach their sustainability goals.

The new insulation is designed as a replacement for down and retains its extreme warmth even under damp conditions, based on extensive testing. Thinsulate is certified to the OEKO-TEX Standard 100 Class I, signifying that it meets the human-ecological requirements for products intended for babies and young children. It’s also Bluesign-approved, which means Thinsulate is produced with minimum impact on people and the environment.

Investing in research and training

Building sustainability into every product isn’t easy and requires a major commitment in both time and money. 3M says it invests about 6 percent of its earnings in research and development each year, much of it for new product development. That level of commitment allows the company to fund its efforts to execute the new sustainability requirement across the company.

Training is another key component. The company says circular design is being embedded in every new product, and 3M has trained 1,000 designers and engineers in this concept. Staff are embracing the circularity mindset and are excited to upgrade their skill sets in this area, Schueller says. Other training efforts include orientation programs and mentoring. “Employees are a major focus of our engagement efforts, because they are how we make our ambitious sustainability goals happen,” she explains.

Toward a zero waste operation

3M doesn’t just design sustainable products. The company plans to have every plant reach zero-waste-to-landfill and has already exceeded its 2025 zero-waste goal at 30 percent of its global facilities. According to 3M’s 2019 sustainability report, manufacturing waste was also reduced by 11.7 percent, exceeding the targeted 10 percent reduction.

To achieve the next level of zero waste, Schueller says 3M will use a two-pronged approach:

  • Reduce overall waste, through a systematic value stream waste analysis and designing out waste across its portfolio.
  • Shift more manufacturing sites away from landfilled waste by cutting overall waste through design and finding creative ways to use byproducts in 3M’s and others’ manufacturing processes.

Other sustainability efforts include:

  • In Brazil, 3M is celebrating five years of a program that recycles its Scotch-Brite branded sponges; a total of 1.4 million sponges have been recycled.
  • 3M plants manufacturing Thinsulate insulation recycle 100 percent of their polyolefin waste material, selling it to companies that use it for everything from oil booms to furniture.
  • Globally, the Health Care Business Service Group helps extend the life of about 150,000 devices each year, which keeps electronic waste out of the landfill.

Circling back to the future

As part of 3M’s strategic focus on science for circular, the company recently joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Economy 100 (CE100). 3M’s continuing efforts to design solutions that do more with less material will help motivate its competitors and, in the end, advance the circular economy far beyond its own four walls.

Image credit: Russell Holden/Pixabay

Laurel Sheppard headshotLaurel Sheppard

Laurel has extensive experience writing about energy efficiency, clean energy, sustainability and green building. She was formerly Senior Energy Content Specialist for a digital marketing firm serving the utilities industry where she generated story ideas and wrote content for several e-newsletters. Laurel is also a member of the Ohio chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council and participates on several committees for the Central Ohio region. 

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