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Sustainability and the “New Normal”

By Tom Murray

So, if you have been following the news on the pandemic, you will have heard that when all is said and done, we will be entering a “new normal”.  Frankly, I rather enjoyed the old normal.  However, be that as it may be, let’s talk a bit about the new normal and how sustainability might play a role in defining it.

Tom Murray
Tom Murray

First, let’s find an aspirational goal for what sustainability may look like in the new normal.  We don’t have to look far to find one.  Although the pandemic has been awful and terrifying, it has, unexpectedtly, provided for us a glimpse of what our environment might look like with a full expression of sustainability in the new normal.  Some are referring to it as a natural experiment. With most of the globe in lockdown, flights canceled, cars idle and factories operating at base levels, we are seeing significant reductions in the emission of air contaminants and the discharge of water pollutants.

For example, in the canals in Venice, Italy, the water is so clear that for the first time in recent memory the locals are reporting that fish are now visible and that the swans have returned.

For the first time in some 30 years, residents of Punjab, India are enjoying the grandeur of the Himalayan mountain range, visible now from more than 100 miles away.

In China, scientists are reporting significant declines in carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide emission and in Los Angeles, California, the notorious fog has lifted.  See before and after photos here:

https://www.businessinsider.com/photos-stay-at-home-order-reduced-los-angeles-notorious-smog-2020-4

While these changes are likely to be short-lived, they do provide for us a snapshot of what our environment likely looked like during the pre-industrial age and, most importantly, what it could look like again in a post-pandemic industrial era driven by sustainability.  So, hold that thought for now.

Nobody really knows what will be asked of us in the post-pandemic new normal.  We should expect that some lessons learned from the pandemic such as social distancing and disinfection will be in play but it may take a while to re-engage with friends and clients with a simple handshake.  The only thing we know for sure is that we will need to change our behavior in some way, shape or form. While we still have some time to self-reflect and before the powers that be regulate our future behaviors, why not take some time now to re-boot our thinking and lay out a plan that will define how we would like to see ourselves post-pandemic.

Let me explain what I mean using an example with which I have some familiarity-the new normal for small manufacturers.

If you are a small manufacturer (less than 500 employees), it is likely that you are already thinking about how you might need to re-configure your factory floor in the new normal to meet any new social distancing requirements. Allow me to suggest that while you do so, you also take this time to insert some sustainability into your thinking.  Here is what I mean.

First, reach out to local experts who can work the issue with you within the context of what we call a lean and green sustainability assessment.  Every state can provide this service through its Manufacturing Extension (MEP) program.  https://www.nist.gov/mep/centers. The MEP is a national network with hundreds of specialists who understand the needs of America’s small manufacturers. The MEP can provide for you services and access to public and private resources to enhance your growth, improve your productivity, reduce your costs, and expand your capacity.  They are funded in part by both the Federal government and your state government, which allows them to provide these services at a reasonable cost to you.

Second, as you think about re-configuring your floor, reach out to your local university system to see if they offer free energy assessments.  Some do and some do not.  The MEP can also help you in this regard.  Usually, the assessments are led by a certified energy expert from the University who uses his or her students to collect data from you on your energy usage.  Within a few weeks they can provide you a list of recommendations that, when implemented, will optimize your energy use and compute for you how their recommendations can translate to cost savings for you. https://www.energy.gov/eere/amo/industrial-assessment-centers-iacs

Third, consider your current energy source.  Now might be a good time to look hard at renewable energy options such as solar, wind and geothermal and see if they can work for you.  The aforementioned institutions can help.

Fourth, one of the more interesting lessons learned from our battle with the pandemic is how nimble manufacturers can be.  Like the Ford Motor Company showed us during World War 2 when Henry Ford was asked by President Roosevelt to modify his assembly line concept from motorcars to airplanes, many manufacturers during the pandemic were able to modify their processes to produce personal protective equipment and other emergency devices.  This might be a good time to review your business portfolio and envisage additional revenue streams that might prove valuable to you in your new normal.  And don’t forget to analyze your waste streams.  In the new normal there may be businesses out there who may view your waste as their source material. This concept is called Sustainable Materials Management. It is highly likely that the new normal will give full sail to this new concept. See www.epa.gov/smm.

Finally, if you are a manufacturer within the supply chain of an Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM), now might be a good time to review that OEM’s sustainability strategic plan and its sustainability goals.  As you consider any changes to your manufacturing process ensure that they are in line with your OEM’s expectations.  A little planning now may give you a competitive edge in the new normal. And, don’t forget to remove and properly recycle old equipment that may contain toxic material such as mercury-containing thermostats.

In conclusion, as we emerge from the pandemic let’s be sure that in our haste to recapture the past, we don’t miss valuable opportunities to define a more sustainable future.  Good luck and Godspeed.

About the Author

Tom Murray is a pollution prevention and sustainability expert and Director of Utility Relationships for the Thermostat Recycling Corporation (TRC).  Tom retired from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2016 after over 44 years in government service.  At EPA, Tom served as a Senior Science Advisor, leading efforts to develop action plans for several persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals including Mercury.

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All views expressed here are my own and do not represent the opinions of any entity whatsoever with whom I have been, am now or will be affiliated.

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