Visiting a smallish local chemical company with 16 staff to further explore our ‘sustainability in small business’ theme recently has been a revelation for SEI. In contrast to our previous interviews, this is confronting stuff for a couple of self-confessed ‘greenies’.
Tri Tech Chemical Company Pty Ltd is a supplier of emulsifiers, wetting agents, adjuvants for the agricultural industry fatty acid esters and lubricants for a range of industries in the mining and agricultural sectors. Tri Tech uses batch processing rather than continuous-flow production technology to produce their products. The batch processing is done by putting chemicals into reaction vessels ranging in size from 8000 – 25 000 L, then mixing, heating and applying pressure or vacuum.
Greg Weston, joint owner of Tri Tech Chemicals, proved to be a great interviewee. An engineer, Greg provided honest, conscientious and informative answers to our questions. In a highly competitive industry with complex processes, major technical challenges, rising safety standards and constant cost pressures, his approach in summary seeks to align environmental with economic sustainability in order to ensure his first priority – business survival.
Greg observed that one of the frustrations of operating within Australian business conditions is the lack of clarity in the legislation about environmental standards for some products. European legislation for example demands bio-degradability for lubricants that have the potential to be lost to the environment while Australian legislation does not. Lubricants made from fatty acid esters (FAE’s), one of Tri-Tech’s product lines, are more bio-degradable than traditional lubricants. Tri-Tech does sell some FAE based hydraulic fluid into south east Asia. FAE’s are mostly produced from, canola oil, palm oil, coconut oil and other vegetable and animal oils and fats. Greg acknowledges that the supply chain for some of these plant-based oils is questionable from a sustainability perspective, though he also feels that these issues can be managed.
Greg recognises that his business must focus on cost-cutting efficiencies, meeting OHS and environmental regulations and maintaining a sound reputation with customers and other stakeholders. Sound environmental sustainability practices can address all of these.
Both operationally and strategically, Greg is driven to continuously analyse his key technical problems, systematically collect relevant data, trial innovative solutions and improve his manufacturing processes. Greg has already used data analysis to improve energy efficiencies in the business and has invested over $160,000 in energy improvements including:
- variable speed drive motors;
- energy efficient lighting;
- PV array (solar) on the roof;
- natural gas heating for the batch processing vessels.
Greg notes that when the business switched firstly from electric heating for the vessels then to LPG and finally to natural gas, not only did it switch to energy sources with a lower greenhouse gas footprint, but these switches ultimately saved the business over $100,000 p/a in costs.
Further analysis of the data shows the benefit achieved through the implementation of both the natural gas and PV energy systems. The PV system supplies about 30% of the business energy needs and has a Genesys Now tracking system, allowing detailed monitoring and reporting of energy usage.
Tracking energy data can also assist with fault finding. When reviewing the energy use on weekends, Greg noted it was very high, with a boiler on ‘low-load’ running at 20%, when the manual said it should be on 5%. A faulty steam trap was identified and power consumption reduced again.
Greg’s top ‘wish list’ items.
- More networking and access to technical expertise.
- Storing energy produced from PV. Unfortunately batteries are not yet cheap enough to justify the cost of storing the energy produced while the plant is shut down at weekends.
- Improved waste management. One of his challenges is how to deal with waste liquids from a couple of processes. Generally speaking big inroads have been made in reducing waste sent to sewer (so called trade waste) by careful categorization of waste streams and internal re-use. Two processes in particular are producing contaminated glycerol, which is difficult to refine, and weak alcohol solutions in water, which is also difficult to refine. Some progress has been made on the latter problem by tweaking the process, and Tri-Tech is looking at ways of incorporating this waste stream into existing products. This would have both cost benefits and environmental benefits.
- Further improve energy recovery from low grade energy sources. Greg is aware of technology to generate hot water by circulating it through a heat exchanger positioned on the flue of a boiler. This hot water could be used to pre-heat raw materials or as a feedstock for some products.
“It doesn’t cost more to be sustainable”
We asked Greg whether he thought his customers would be prepared to pay a little more if they think a business is trying to be environmentally sustainable. Generally the answer is “no” but some companies, particularly multi-nationals, are keen to see that the business follows environmental regulations, has good OH&S standards and has quality systems in place. Greg believes that investing in such processes has positive benefits that may not always relate directly to costs but definitely indirectly improve the bottom line. For example a tidy workplace is safer, it creates a better impression with customers and makes it easier to spot equipment failures. Work put into recycling waste reduces the cost of waste disposal and slightly reduces the cost of raw materials.
“It doesn’t cost more to be sustainable because the reduction in production material use and waste and the improved quality, saves money. The ‘sustainability’ benefit is always there and doesn’t need service, not like a customer you have to look after by taking them to the cricket or the footy! It’s better to make the investment in sustainability. You reap the benefits over a longer pay back period.”