Oh, the places your byproducts could go…

This article is part of a series of articles written by MBA students and graduates from the University of New Hampshire Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics.

Melanie Payeur graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2007 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. She has since worked in various roles supporting manufacturing and packaging operations in the food and beverage industry.

manufacturing byproductsDo you know where your byproducts go?

Manufacturing often produces some sort of physical byproduct. Examples range from plastic strapping on a pallet of corrugate boxes to carbon dioxide collected off a tank of fermenting beer. Byproducts are the unspoken of and often neglected “cousin” of manufacturing.

Byproducts of manufacturing can be compared to the stage crew at a Broadway show or on a Hollywood movie set. They serve an important  purpose. Without the lights, cameras, and curtains, there is no show. Similarly, without plastic strapping, a pallet of corrugate would fall over during transport because it wasn’t properly secured.

The stars of the show are the finished goods on store shelves. Just like people don’t stick around to see the name of the on-set hair-stylist when the credits roll at a movie, consumers often don’t think about the byproducts associated with the packaged food they eat or other goods they purchase. It’s possible  that they don’t even know these things exist.

However, consumers are becoming more conscious of supply chain issues. Many have an awareness what Fair Trade is in association with sourcing of products such as coffee and cocoa beans. They discuss agricultural sourcing and the ethical (or not) treatment of animals raised to be part of the food chain. Even the effects of emissions and chemical waste on the environment are among topics of which many consumers have some awareness.

Plastic old, Plastic new

What about the plastic strapping on that pallet of corrugate though? Where does it go? Who even knows it exists other than the operator that cuts it off the pallet in the factory? Could it become a plastic bottle someday? Or a swing set? Maybe it will become plastic strapping again?

While countless other types of byproducts exist, plastic is a particularly interesting example. Fluctuations in the price of petroleum are directly correlated to the price of brand new, non- recycled plastic pellets. It is completely possible, and often realistic, that it is less expensive to create brand new plastic strapping than it is to recycle old strapping.

Trailer Bags and Trash Bowls

Creative and novel  uses of byproducts are happening today. One example is a Swiss company called Freitag who produces trendy messenger bags, wallets, and purses from old side panel tarps (popular on tractor trailers in Europe). At the end of their useful life on the road, these tarps are purchased by Freitag and sewn into functional accessories.

Another example specifically related to plastic are Garbage Bowls made famous by Food Network host, Rachael Ray. These bowls are made from recycled pieces of broken plates. There’s a byproduct in there somewhere!

While these are great examples of repurposing byproducts into something new, the truth is that Freitag was originally looking for a material that would create a durable and functional product. Lucky for them, reusing something that might have otherwise been thrown away is a great marketing story. They charge an average of $200 for a standard messenger bag. Is it realistic that the reverse situation can create profits? Can we find another use for production process byproducts which would create a trendy or otherwise highly desirable product?

Can we do better than throwing our byproducts away?

If it’s not a company’s core competency, it probably shouldn’t get into the business of designing handbags. However, as supply chain professionals, we should understand all of the byproducts of our manufacturing process; especially those related to materials that we source as inputs, like plastic strapping.

It is as important to look at the waste stream from our process as it is to examine how we source raw materials. Are we recycling our byproducts? Is there someone who is looking for our ‘trash’ as an input to their process? Do we have the opportunity to have a profitable side business as a coincidental supplier to someone else? At the very least, can we do better than throwing our byproducts away?

An example of success can be seen in the food manufacturing industry. Some companies donate or sell their byproducts to the Bakery Feeds Program. This organization creates animal feed out of food byproducts such as misshapen cupcakes and other edible process waste. It might be cost neutral to dispose of waste in this way, but that is better than otherwise paying for disposal.

I challenge you to examine the waste streams associated with your process. Identify where at least one of your byproducts could go. From here to there and there to here, your byproducts could end up anywhere.

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