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Finelite Sheds Light on Waste Reduction through Reusable Packaging

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One of the largest changes Finelite made was to stop using staples to close the cartons that it shipped to its customers, and instead use paper tape. Not only was there an environmental benefit, since the paper is easier to recycle than the staples, but the change also proved to be more customer-friendly.

Finelite, Inc. manufactures high-efficiency lighting systems for schools, offices and other workplaces where lighting performance and visual comfort are essential. The company has two focuses on waste reduction. One is lean manufacturing, the whole purpose of which is to reduce waste. “We try to streamline processes and become as efficient as possible, with a focus on reducing time and materials,” said Dean Mayes, director of manufacturing.

This segues into the other initiative, which is a specific waste management program. “We began our waste management program in earnest about six years ago,” Mayes said. The company began recycling virtually everything that could be recycled - bubble wrap, shrink wrap, copper wire, defective metal parts, cardboard, paper, bottles, cans and wood. “We purchased a baler so we could recycle cardboard, instead of having to pay to have it hauled away,” he said.

From Recycling to Reduction

However, rather than simply recycle all of the waste that naturally accumulated in the plant, Finelite got creative and began looking for ways to reduce the amount of waste from the start. This initiative has led to a number of innovative processes that Fineline introduced in its own shipping department. Here are two examples.

One of the first initiatives was to eliminate bubble wrap. Finelite replaced it with crinkle paper. “We found that it provided as much safety for our products as bubble wrap,” said Mayes. Of course, the crinkle paper has an environmental benefit, since it is easier to recycle than bubble wrap. It was also less expensive to purchase. Bubble wrap was costing the company $54,000 a year. Crinkle paper ended up costing only $45,000 a year.
 
Finelite then stopped using staples to close the cartons that it shipped to its customers, replacing the staples with paper tape. Not only was there an environmental benefit, since the paper is easier to recycle than the staples, but the change also proved to be more customer-friendly. “Customers find the containers a lot easier to open now,” he said. A third benefit related to cost. While the company had been spending $7,400 a year for staples, it ended up having to spend only $4,250 a year for the paper tape.

Moving Up the Supply Chain

Finelite also began working closely on waste reduction initiatives with its vendors, which it considers to be strategic partners. Here are three such examples.

About two years ago, instead of having vendors (most of which are either local or somewhat local in that they are located along the coast of California and thus not too far away), put materials and parts into cardboard boxes to ship to Finelite, the companies arranged to purchase reusable crates, which eliminate the need for one-time cardboard boxes and the shrink wrap that held the boxes in place on the pallets. “We return the crates to the vendors to be repopulated,” said Mayes.

Finelite works with one local vendor that manufacturers its linear rack fixtures. In the past, after it manufactured them, the vendor would shrink wrap them and then ship them to another local vendor two miles away, which powder coated the fixtures. Before it could begin the powder coating process, of course, the second vendor would have to remove the shrink wrap that the first vendor applied and dispose of it. Then, once the fixtures were powder coated, the second vendor would again shrink wrap the fixtures and ship them to Finelite, which, upon receipt, would have to remove and dispose of that shrink wrap. “We got together with the two vendors and came up with the idea of having some special clear reusable tarp-like covers manufactured, which cover the fixtures and can be returned for reuse,” said Mayes.

The covers are manufactured of clear sheet rubber and fit snugly around the delivery racks. “It is very quick and easy to put the tarps on and take them off,” Mayes said. Now, Finelite and its two vendors save the labor associated with applying and removing shrink wrap, as well as the costs associated with disposing of the used shrink wrap. “We are saving thousands of dollars a year in shrink wrap and labor,” he said. Finelite estimates that, with the linear racks tarp packaging, 436 miles of shrink wrap plastic is saved per year, eliminating 6,000 pounds of shrink wrap from being sent to landfill.

Re-usable plastic trays

Finelite has their PCBAs shipped on reusable plastic trays, instead of cardboard boxes.

Finelite uses many LED printed circuit board assemblies (PCBAs). In the past, the company’s manufacturing vendor in Asia would package these PCBAs in static-free bags, which would then be placed into cardboard boxes for shipment to Finelite. Finelite worked with the vendor to create a reusable program. “Now, our PCBAs come on trays,” said Mayes. “The vendor can fit about 50 trays into a box, which maximizes space and also eliminates the need for static-free bags and cardboard boxes.” Upon receipt, Finelite removes the PCBAs from the trays and returns the trays to the vendor for restocking. Finelite estimates that the new process saves about $10,000 a year, and, of course, eliminates the need to send the once-used plastic bags and cardboard boxes to landfill.

Creating a Culture of Innovation

Coming up with such innovative ideas, of course, requires a lot of ingenuity and cooperation. “One of the most important keys to success is the support we get from the executive management of the company, which is committed to fostering innovation, which includes sustainability initiatives,” he said. Because of the innovation culture, people at Finelite are always encouraged to come up with ideas, experiment with them, and try them on a small scale. If the ideas work, of course, they are implemented on a larger scale.

If the ideas don’t work right away, though, they aren’t automatically discarded. Rather, they are set aside to be reviewed again at a later time, either when circumstances change or new technologies have come on the market that might make the ideas more viable and cost-effective. “We don’t look at things as being insurmountable roadblocks,” said Mayes.

Everyone in the company likes to get involved. “We have employees who are very flexible and open to new ideas,” he said. In addition, when the company achieves savings with innovative sustainability initiatives, it uses part of the savings to sponsor company picnics and other functions for the employees.

And, as mentioned earlier, Finelite has a strong commitment to working closely with its vendors on innovative ideas. “We involve vendors in our projects and pay attention to how things we want to do might impact them,” said Mayes. “In other words, we do what is best for all of us, not just for one of us.” As a result, when Finelite comes up with an idea, rather than automatically implementing it, it will first discuss it with the vendors who will be affected by it to see if there could be any adverse results. If it’s a go, as the idea progresses, Finelite continues to work with the vendors to get their input on how to improve and fine-tune the ideas.

Success Comes in Tons and Dollars

In 2005, Finelite generated 110 tons of waste. By 2012, it had reduced this to 18 tons, an 84 percent reduction. This resulted in a $27,000 annual savings in garbage disposal costs. “Over the last six years, we have saved well over $100,000 in labor and material savings in lean manufacturing and waste reduction,” said Mayes. In 2011, Finelite won the StopWaste Partnership Leadership Award for its sustainability initiatives.

The company is still not done, Mayes said. “In the future, we are considering creating permanent racks to transport fixture frame doors, instead of having to pack each of them into boxes.”


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