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Sustainable Manufacturing: A Q&A With Eastman Chemical's Mark Cox

Mark Cox explains how going green is a boost for the mega-manufacturer’s bottom line.

For major chemical manufacturers, having a sustainability program has become the new norm and Eastman Chemical Company is no exception. In fact, the company’s track record of sustainability efforts even include Environmental Protection Agency awards and recognition.

And as Mark Cox, senior vice president and chief manufacturing and engineering office at Eastman explains, going green isn’t just about corporate responsibility or feel-good PR — it’s a boost for the mega-manufacturer’s bottom line.

As one of the largest chemical companies in the U.S., Eastman employs about 15,000 people at around 50 facilities and made about $9.4 billion in sales in 2013. The company’s portfolio is vast and includes adhesives and plasticizers, fibers, specialty fluids and advanced materials in the transportation, construction, durable goods, and health and wellness markets. Eastman also made a name for itself as a company that responds to consumer demand for more chemically conscious products in 2007 when it released its Tritan water bottle with a “BPA-free label.”

But it’s been the slew of sustainable measures behind the scenes that have helped reduce costs.

In its 2014 Sustainability Report, the company outlines its “big picture” targets and its multi-pronged approach to reducing its environmental impact. Some goals — such as reducing 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions by 2018 and reducing 15 percent of its hazardous waste by 2020 — are listed as being on schedule. But, the company admits, other goals still need improvement, such as a plan to develop new businesses utilizing renewable feedstocks and reducing 20 percent of energy intensity by 2020.

Being transparent and honest about where the company at is what Cox says has helped the company successfully implement its comprehensive strategy.

Here, he talks more about how Eastman has reduced energy costs at its large Kingsport, Tenn. plant, what’s trending in the world of sustainability and what chemical companies can do to develop their own goals and plans.

How has your sustainability program evolved over the years?
One recent important change is that we’ve organized our sustainability council into four sub councils: Trends-based innovation, design and natural resources, environmental stewardship and corporate responsibility.

It has allowed us to segment issues in a way that allows focused attention, but at the macro council level we’re able to discuss the intersection between the sub councils.

Has there ever been any pushback within the company about implementing sustainability measures?
Nothing major. At our Kingsport facility, we are in a beautiful part of the world. When you go to our employee base they already have a strong appreciation for environmental stewardship. This is where they bike, hike and fish.

We have also engaged our employees in a program that not only is work-focused but we have also given them the opportunity to engage in home based energy reduction — so replacing lights with bulbs that are more efficient, or LED etc. —and moving toward more energy efficient appliances.

How have you reduced energy costs at your Kingsport facility?
Kingsport is our largest facility — in the top three in the U.S. in terms of size of integrated chemical facilities. We made a commitment to reduce energy intensity by 20 percent between 2008 and 2020. We use combined cycle technology: We burn coal to generate steam and then electricity and we use both in a highly efficient way.

In general, we are in the process of converting roughly 50 percent of our power generation from coal to natural gas. We began that process last year and we’ll finish that process in 2018. It’s going to result in a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent.

What about using renewable sources of electricity?
Our participation in solar power in primarily by selling our heat transfer product in that space. We’re interested in any mechanism to generate renewable power. But you got to think about what part of the world we’re in — Tennessee [is not a great location] for solar. So far natural gas conversion has made the most sense for us.

What sustainability trends are you anticipating in the coming years?
There are always degrees of increasing emphasis in certain areas.

I think we will see increasing emphasis on the responsible use and management of water.

I anticipate increasing collaboration — when you think about it, the chemical industry is very interconnected in that at a large chemical company you may be a supplier and a customer. We might have ideas but if the downstream customer is now willing to implement them, it’s not going to work. We will need more collaboration across the value chain.

What would be your advice to other chemical companies that are developing a sustainability program?
You have to think about prioritization as it relates to your specific company. We have a good technology around cellulosics — they go into a lot of different applications: plastics, fibers, pharmaceuticals. You think need to think about setting clear goals and be honest about thinking am I getting there? Is change going to be made? And then shifting resources toward those areas that our most impactful for you.

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