Waste-minimizing plan pays off for Dow Chemical


December 04, 1990|By Grant Ferrier | Grant Ferrier,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Dow Chemical Co., once a leading villain in the eyes of environmentalists, now has one of the most respected corporate environmental programs in the United States. Though still associated with numerous hazardous waste sites of the past (as virtually every chemical company is), Dow has prepared for the future with a waste minimizing program that is already paying off.

Dow's Environmental Policy and Environmental Guidelines declare that "environmental protection is a primary management responsibility as well as the responsibility of every Dow employee."

This commitment was rewarded with the 1989 Gold Medal Award for International Corporate Environmental Achievement by the World Environmental Center. The primary reason for the recognition was the success of Dow's Waste Reduction Always Pays (WRAP) program. Since the inception of WRAP in 1986, Dow has reduced air emissions by 44 percent and hazardous wastes by 25 percent. The results at individual plants are even more startling. Michigan Division, for instance, has reduced air emissions 92 percent since 1974.

Dow was involved in waste minimization before WRAP, but the program represents a management commitment of time and capital to a concept that doesn't have easily quantified benefits. The $12.5 million spent on 47 projects over the past two years is certainly money well spent, according to Dow management. Waste Reduction Issue Manager Joe Lindsly says the average payback period for a WRAP investment is only eight months.

Many of the most successful projects have involved an adjustment in a manufacturing process to yield significant waste reduction without a high capital investment.

A special herbicide plant in Michigan, for example, was able to reduce its tar wastes 47 percent by statistical process control in the reactor. The adjustment required the work of technicians and some computer processing but has resulted in an annual savings of $3.4 million in raw materials.

An agricultural chemicals plant in California developed a recycling process that reduced tar wastes and incinerated wastes by 43 percent, saving more than $3 million annually.

Dow's waste reduction projects requiring significant capital outlay are reviewed by a core committee. Proposals are studied by financial, engineering and waste reduction analysts.

The company encourages employees to submit innovative WRAP proposals by creating a competitive atmosphere among its divisions. Lindsly says healthy competition and the personal and group recognition for a successful project are major reasons for the widespread success of the effort.

The WRAP program represents only a portion of Dow's overall waste reduction spending as the majority of projects are funded by individual facilities. The "capital contests" for WRAP money prepare project teams for appropriations from more established

Dow channels. Dow estimates that $1 out of every $9 in new capital invested is an environmental expense, a significant figure considering the company's $1.5 billion annual budget for new plants and facility improvements.

Dow's corporate environmental organizational structure can be

characterized by centralized policy and decentralized compliance. At least 3,000 of Dow's 26,000 U.S. employees are involved in environmental compliance which is the responsibility of individual facilities. A 25-member Environmental Quality Group at Dow's headquarters in Midland, Mich., oversees sub-groups that represent each of the five manufacturing divisions.

These sub-groups perform audits, educate and persuade facilities to keep up with corporate goals but occasionally must "wield a stick," in the words of spokesman Richard Long. Ninety-five percent of compliance decisions are the responsibility of individual site managers who rely on their own environmental engineers as well as the corporate groups.

Although occasionally at odds, the site managers view the corporate environmentalists as their "best allies" when it comes to requesting capital for plant upgrade.

Personnel from hands-on operators up to corporate management have become more aware of the benefits of environmental compliance and waste minimization as a result of education, experience and the WRAP program. Enlightened personnel and advanced manufacturing combine well as Dow aims for its environmental objective.

Grant Ferrier is editor of the Environmental Business Journal, San Diego, Calif.

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