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At Ball Corp., Innovation Drives Impact (And Business Growth)

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
100 Best Corporate Citizens 2019
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Editor's Note: This story is part of an editorial series featuring companies on CR Magazine's 20th annual 100 Best Corporate Citizens ranking, which recognizes outstanding environmental, social, and governance (ESG) disclosure and performance among the Russell 1,000 Index. You can follow the series here

Over the course of its nearly 140-year history, Ball Corp. diversified out of glass canning jars and into metal packaging and aerospace services. Those twin fields are now very much in play as the company seeks to adapt to the circular economy and reduce its climate impacts.

Engineering progress toward a circular economy 

Metal packaging—aluminum, steel and tin—gets high marks for recyclability. However, the urgency of climate action has added a new wrinkle. Whether made from virgin or recycled sources, packaging still has a carbon footprint throughout the manufacturing chain. Carbon emissions related to shipping also continue to trail packaging through the distribution chain to the consumer, and back again for recycling or disposal. 

The key factor for packaging is weight, just as it is for the aerospace industry. And, as with the aerospace field, packaging companies need to continue innovating for decarbonization throughout the lifecycle. The reason is simple: Clients are demanding more sustainable packaging. 

One illustrative example is Ball’s proprietary ReAl aluminum, used in its aerosol cans. Ball engineered ReAl to beat the industry standard for weight. The first version was 11 percent lighter than conventional cans. In 2015, Ball developed an improved version that achieved a 15 percent weight reduction, and the company is currently researching additional ways to cut weight from its cans. 

A broader perspective on the circular economy

Still, weight is just one part of the circular economy challenge. A quick look at Ball’s 2018 sustainability report indicates the complexities of decarbonizing for a growing, diversified company. On the other hand, the report indicates that companies can have a broad impact on the circular economy, within their own field and potentially far beyond. 

Ball CEO John A. Hayes explains: “Many of the innovative space systems that Ball Aerospace builds support actionable environmental intelligence, and allow scientists and other stakeholders to better understand and address key sustainability challenges, such as the circular economy, climate change, water stewardship and responsible sourcing.” 

In one recent example, the U.S. Air Force selected Ball to develop a “next-generation” environmental satellite system called WXF-M. Ball anticipates that the new microwave-based system will become an invaluable source for tracking ocean plastic pollution in addition to other uses.

Closer to home, Ball supports The Recycling Partnership and similar organizations that drive waste diversion efforts, alongside in-house programs that engage thousands of employees in recycling.

Adapting to new energy resources

Alongside its circular economy efforts, Ball began dipping into major renewable energy projects in 2015. The company initially committed to purchase power from three wind turbines near its plant in Findlay, Ohio, for a total capacity of 4.5 megawatts. (Whirlpool purchased two other wind turbines in the same project.) Last fall, the company announced it would add three more turbines with a similar capacity.

But that pales alongside Ball’s latest venture. In April of this year, the company entered into two renewable energy power purchase contracts, one for 161 megawatts of wind and the other for 227 megawatts of solar. In one fell swoop, that pair of contracts will enable Ball to source renewables for all the electricity used in its corporate, packaging, and aerospace operations in North America by the end of 2021.

Ball took advantage of two recent developments to achieve the jump up in scale. One is the emergence of “virtual” power purchase agreements for renewable energy. Virtual PPAs are a variation on the now-familiar PPA. They enable corporate power purchasers to guarantee themselves a supply of clean electrons, without having to create a whole new division to build, manage or market them.

The second development relates to savings on staff—and not re-inventing the wheel. Now that the renewable energy market has matured, expert consultants are available to help clean power buyers navigate their way through the process. Ball tapped Schneider Electric Energy and Sustainability Services to arrange its new wind and solar purchase.

Major purchases like these have a ripple effect on the cost and availability of renewables. They create economies of scale, grow the workforce, and motivate more investment dollars. With investment in renewables—as well as other areas ripe for sustainability innovation, such as the circular economy—companies like Ball are finding new opportunities to stand out from the crowd and create impacts that reach far beyond their own field of operations.

Image courtesy of Ball 

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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