When you enter a building, you probably don’t think much about what it took to build it. But the reality is that buildings comprise around 40 percent of global carbon emissions, much of it embodied in the building materials themselves. But a new hyper-local partnership is looking to move one step closer to increasing the circularity of the buildings and construction industry.
Earlier this year, the ceiling and wall solutions company Armstrong World Industries and Irving Consumer Products, a household paper products manufacturer, entered into a partnership at their respective Macon, Georgia, facilities to enable both companies to address their local environmental impacts. The partnership represents a synergy between the two companies and came about organically through a former Armstrong employee who later worked at Irving and first floated the idea of using Irving’s waste in Armstrong’s ceiling tiles.
The partnership centers on one of Armstrong’s signature products, ceiling tiles. For decades, the company used wood fibers as a bonding element in the tiles, but in the 1980s it switched to using baled recycled paper, like phone books and newsprint. Irving pulps wood at its mills in Canada and ships the dried wood pulp to its Macon plant to make tissues and paper towels. A byproduct of the milling process is fiber that cannot be used in its consumer products.
The Irving employee returned to his former employer at Armstrong and floated the idea of using Irving’s waste in Armstrong’s ceiling tiles.
“Historically, we never used a waste stream like that,” Braden Turner, value stream improvement champion at Armstrong, told TriplePundit. “We did some initial exploration with Irving and quickly realized that the paper was pretty clean.” After touring Irving’s treatment plant, he added, “We were pretty excited, and we thought it would be a viable fiber replacement for our current process.”
The companies estimate they will divert more than 3,500 tons of fiber waste annually from landfills through the partnership, while lowering costs and making their production processes more efficient.
One reason this particular partnership works is proximity. Irving’s fiber has a high moisture content, a necessary feature in the type of filler Armstrong requires in its tiles. Shipping across long distances is not a viable option, as the fiber would quickly dry out, but the two plants being less than three miles apart allows for fast shipping while the fiber is still usable. “Procurement’s never gone after a fiber stream like this because it’s never been in the scope of Armstrong raw materials,” Turner explained. “It’s the right amount of material to justify it on our end. It’s the right location to make it viable.”
It took about a year of testing to incorporate the new material, both in Armstrong’s corporate headquarters and locally in Macon. But despite the upfront investment required to test and verify the materials, Armstrong sees the partnership as a win-win.
“Bottom line is that paper sources are drying up and the world is going digital,” Turner told TriplePundit. "Armstrong has to find alternate supplies. So to locally find 15 percent of our paper needs in a sustainable lifetime partnership type of deal, it’s definitely worth it financially and for the long term.” The partnership also helps Irving reach its own sustainability and circularity goals in reducing waste-to-landfill and giving its raw materials another life.
The partnership has also highlighted the benefit of looking locally for solutions, thus reducing transportation costs and associated emissions. Armstrong has already started reaching out to other potential local collaborators.
“Things that we said won’t work in the past, we’re now spending more time proving or disproving whether they might be viable,” Turner told us. “I think it’s going to make us more diverse to be able to use different raw materials and still get the same results. Several people are with me on that journey to try to look outside the norm. It’s really changed the way we look at things.” Armstrong is also looking at other cities where it is co-located with Irving to explore similar partnerships.
The local factor has been a bonus for employees as well, starting with the former Armstrong employee who got the whole ball rolling. Helen Sahi, Armstrong’s VP of sustainability, noted the local impact: “As a result of this partnership, employees, who are part of the community in Macon, are able to see Armstrong’s sustainability commitments come to life. The waste diversion is a tangible example of the company walking its sustainability talk,” she told TriplePundit.
Greg Kinsman, finance manager for Irving Consumer Products in Macon, concurred. “The partnership demonstrates our commitment to reducing our environmental footprint,” he said in a statement. “Continuous improvement and innovation are important parts of our company’s values. We are always looking for new ways to become more efficient, and this partnership will help us move toward even more sustainable practices.”
A key lesson can be taken from this partnership that increases circularity in the building materials and household goods sectors: Sometimes the answer is in your own backyard. Global problems can have local solutions, and those in the community may be the best place to spot them.
This article series is sponsored by Armstrong World Industries and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Image courtesy of Armstrong World Industries
Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.