Intek Plastics’ Secret Weapon in Sustainability: Its Employees

HASTINGS, MINN. (September 12, 2012) - In 2009, Intek Plastics, a custom plastic extrusions manufacturer, established two basic sustainability goals: reduce its material waste and trim electrical consumption in its Hastings, Minnesota, headquarters plant. While the goals may have seemed simple on paper, they proved to be a complex endeavor. After much research, strategizing and internal goal setting, it became clear that Intek’s greatest asset in the initiatives would be its own employees. So how does a company best known for plastics extrusion use its people to improve sustainability and affect the bottom line? By involving those employees in every stage of the initiatives.

Initiative One: Reduce Material Waste

Intek took an aggressive approach to reducing material waste and the waste sent to the landfill. Late in 2009, the company established an innovative Scrap Reduction Program, driven by a committee of employees that applied continuous improvement principles and incented employees to reduce waste by sharing 50 percent of the actual cost savings with them. Successful changes meant good news for the company and the individual employee. In the first year of the program, Intek reduced material scrap by 24 percent, and employees each earned more than $1,000 in incentives.

The Scrap Reduction Program involved several process changes to enable employees to reduce and reclaim scrap material. Intek focused on set-up reductions and developed a waste stream plan for every profile/die produced. The scrap collection and sorting process gave the company the ability to reuse material rather than selling it or sending it to the landfill. Many of the ways the company has reduced waste have been through changes to workflow and processes, which ultimately cost the company very little.

Intek’s waste reduction efforts extend to post-production processes as well. An increasing number of customers now receive products in returnable containers. One major customer, a window and door manufacturer, receives about 50 percent of its products in returnable/reusable packaging.

The program has been a resounding success by any measure. In 2010, the first full year of the program, Intek recycled and reused nearly one million pounds of material internally and purchased an additional one million pounds of recycled material from outside sources. Roughly 15-20 percent of the total pounds extruded was from recycled material. Most important, Intek reduced landfill waste by more than 30 percent, and no longer sends any PVC to the landfill.

Today, of the waste that is generated, more than 60 percent is reclaimed and reused, and another 35 percent is sold. While less than 5 percent is sent to the landfill, the employee-comprised committee continues to work toward reducing that amount even further.

Initiative Two: Reduce Energy Consumption

Intek began its efforts to reduce the company’s electrical consumption by creating an Energy Steering Committee, and partnering with its electrical utility, Xcel Energy, on a four-year Joint Energy Efficiency Plan (JEEP). The committee, comprised of cross-functional employees, evaluates possible energy use reductions that may be gained through modifications to plant equipment, HVAC systems, lighting and workflow processes. Government sources, utility representatives and the company’s senior leadership provide input, however, the employee-run committee weighs the options, determines priorities and rolls out the modifications. Tours of best-in-class facilities and insights gained from other corporations’ environmental efforts also help guide the committee’s actions.

Most of the company’s first year initiatives focused on improving the efficiency of the facility’s compressed air system. After identifying and eliminating air leaks, modifications were made to manufacturing equipment as well as reconfiguring existing air compressors to be able to reduce air pressure from 100 psi to 80 psi. As a result, the company saved an estimated 628,430 kWh.

Further changes in manufacturing equipment and processes included upgrading to more efficient vacuum pumps, improving the chilled water controls and shutdown process, reconfiguring the die cleaning oven cooling system, and switching to more efficient air nozzles and rings. These changes resulted in a reduction of nearly 180,000 kWh.

Heating, ventilation and air conditioning modifications, such as installing additional air intake and exhaust fans, removing existing rooftop air conditioning units, and eliminating localized space heaters, have netted the company a reduction of approximately 189,000 kWh.

The modifications have not been limited to the plant floor. Office associates also participated in the changes by adding occupancy lighting sensors, adjusting thermostats, replacing inefficient vending machines and other miscellaneous projects, generating savings of 17,200 kWh.

The results have been swift and impactful. Intek reduced its energy consumption by 17 percent, a decrease of more than 1 million kWh, in the first year of its initiative. This represents two-thirds of the four-year goal of reducing consumption by 25 percent.

Intek further demonstrates its commitment to sustainability by being an ENERGY STAR Partner. For all its efforts, Intek received a Supply Chain Award for Sustainability from Andersen Corp. in 2010, and an Xcel Energy Efficiency Award in 2012.

Intek’s senior leadership is proud of the results and accolades gained through the sustainability measures, largely because the employees have taken the initiative and succeeded. The company has found that employees will proudly take ownership and responsibility to drive and meet sustainability goals simply by involving them in all levels of changes and rewarding their efforts. The results yield great things for the environment, for employees and for business.

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