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Greening the supply chain: more carrot, less stick

From blockchain to 3D printing, new technologies have the potential to green the supply chain across industry sectors.

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From blockchain to 3D printing, new technologies have the potential to green the supply chain across industry sectors, and government can accelerate the process with new performance-based regulations.

That was one of the main takeaways of Green Tech 2019, a two-day green technology conference that took place in Seattle this week, hosted by the Environmental Law Institute, a non-profit policy group. 

The meeting brought together a wide range of business and public policy leaders, technologists and legal experts to talk about the transformation necessary to tackle what keynote speaker, former U.S. EPA chief Bill Reilly, referred to as “the priority that must subsume all others: planetary leadership and restoration.”

Clean manufacturing

Jennifer A. Prioleau, Division Counsel of HP, took the audience through the company’s 3D manufacturing process, in which computers print out physical objects. The process reduces waste and enables more local production than traditional manufacturing, she said.

“The economics of 3D printing make it such that you can print one of something, and that will lead to local, on-demand manufacturing,” said Prioleau, who participated in a panel discussion about how technology is reshaping the business of making, moving and measuring goods and services.

“Gone are the days of warehouses, where you are creating more product than perhaps you might need.” 

Prioleau pegged the potential value of digital manufacturing industry at $12 trillion, but said less than 5% of the industry is currently using 3D printing, also called additive manufacturing.

Changing that trajectory would allow more products to be produced locally, minimizing waste, she said.

From the sharing economy to circular economy

Mary Maxon, associate laboratory director for Biosciences at the Berkeley Lab, discussed the policy and science behind biomanufacturing – the development of technologies for converting biomass (wood residue from houses, agriculture, forestry and the wood industry) into biofuels and bioproducts. 

“Biomass is hard to move. It’s distributed. It will never be outsourced,” Maxon said. “The U.S.,” she added, “is the Saudi Arabia of biomass.”

A big part of the biomanufacturing and 3D printing discussion revolved around the need to transition to  a “circular economy,” an economic framework in which materials and resources are used over and over again, minimizing waste.

The concept is in vogue now among sustainable business advocates but would require regulation to jump start. Maxon called for a clean manufacturing act with incentives, targets “and some punitive things,” she said.  “From a regulatory perspective, that might move the needle.”

The electric and digital railway

BNSF Railway uses sensors to determine where habitat restoration is most needed, as well as to inspect rail tracks, said John Lovenburg, vice president of environmental initiatives.

The railroad is launching a battery electric locomotive pilot in California in 2021, he said, and is looking to electrify every piece of equipment in intermodal yards. Those efforts are part of a company initiative launched one year ago around battery and electrification. 

Echoing statements from other panelists, Lovenburg said regulations need to change to better incorporate emerging technologies.

BNSF gets 30 million sensor readings per day, and that digital data  “run[s] laps around the paper system,” he said. Yet paper documentation is still required. “When you’re trying with the naked eye to inspect track, some of the regulations get in the way of the optimal sustainable solution,” he said.

Blockchain: bringing accountability to the supply chain

During a panel discussion on e-services, Joan Burns Brown, lead counsel for IBM’s (NYSE: IBM) Blockchain Ecosystems and HeaIthcare Incubation Center, highlighted two use cases showing how blockchain ledgers can facilitate more socially and environmentally responsible practices.

Two thirds of the world’s supply of cobalt – the essential ingredient in lithium ion batteries –  comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Because of the high prices cobalt commands, the human and environmental toll has been severe.

So IBM is putting in place a blockchain traceability solution that will help track supply chain management in the cobalt mining space, the first step in ensuring the mineral is mined sustainably. 

IBM is also partnering with plastics banks to empower and incentivize disenfranchised communities in the developing world to recycle plastic in exchange for currency and other things of value. 

Plastics recyclers in the developing world typically transact via cash, Brown said, and “any time you have cash-based transactions, you have corruption, fraud and theft.”

Blockchain, by contrast, puts credit in vendor micro-wallets to spend on food or healthcare or tuition credits.

“Blockchain works best where you have complex transactions with imperfect communications and lack of trust among parties,” Brown said.

Other speakers at GreenTech 2019 included Amazon Prime Air Vice President Gur Kimchi, who delivered a presentation on the company’s drone delivery system.

Linda Baker, Senior Environment and Technology Reporter

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves senior reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes autonomous vehicles, the startup scene, clean trucking, and emissions regulations. Please send tips and story ideas to [email protected]