North Bay manufacturers are going green in a variety of ways, from transitioning decades-old firms to new techniques and products, to startups that are focused on emerging technologies. NorthBay biz interviewed four that are focused on sustainability.
Based in Sebastopol
If any company has sustainability coded into its DNA, it’s Traditional Medicinals. Founded in 1974 in the back of an herb shop, the company has grown focusing on a potent blend of modern science and ancient wisdom. In that first year, Drake Sadler, one of the founders, packed his Volkswagen van with herbal tea blends and drove up and down the North Coast, selling to retailers eager to satisfy customers’ growing interest in organic herbal teas for self care.
Sadler’s adventure is memorialized at the entrance to Traditional Medicinals’ factory, located on a quiet country road outside Sebastopol: A whimsical sculpture by Sebastopol artist Patrick Amiot
depicts Sadler and a canine friend in a van packed with cartons of tea bags.
The company has grown prodigiously and is continually refining its ability to deliver a consistent product. It currently employs five herbalists, including a medical herbalist, and bases its blends on long-established systems of herbal medicine including traditional Western European, Chinese and Ayurvedic formulas.
Traditional Medicinals is obsessed with quality control, putting herbs and finished products through rigorous testing. “These are pharmacopoeial-grade organic herbs, the highest quality available,” says Joe Kopriva, Traditional Medicinals’ vice president of operations, gesturing at huge bags of herbs stacked on industrial shelving.
The factory produces approximately 240 million tea bags per year. The herbs are received from all over the world, with a heavy emphasis on those that are organically grown. After quarantine and testing at the factory, the herbs are repacked into standard-sized barrels that can be efficiently handled by the company’s equipment.
A master blender and his assistant mix 1,600 pounds of herbs at a time in what looks like a small, stainless steel cement mixer. The herbs pass over a series of rare earth magnets that catch any metal fragments that might have been introduced into them during the vendor’s milling process, and the bulk tea blend is then packed into individual tea bags by Italian machines that cost approximately $1.2 million each and are tended by machine operators wearing smocks, gloves and hairnets. Individual tea bags are then automatically packed into cartons, cartons into cases, and cases onto pallets ready for distribution.
Traditional Medicinals made a significant investment in sustainability at its facility. A 1,450-panel solar array on the roof produces 75 percent of the electricity required to run company headquarters and the factory. The remainder of electricity needs are offset by purchases from a wind power generation project. “This solar electric system cost the company about $1.5 million after rebates,” Kopriva says, “with an anticipated six-year payback.”
The factory and warehouse also installed a new high output, energy-efficient fluorescent lighting system with motion-controlled sensors. “See how the lights come on as you walk down this aisle?” asks Kopriva. “This new lighting system paid for itself within months.”
When the factory needed to expand its storage capacity, instead of constructing a new building, Traditional Medicinals installed narrow aisle turret forklifts, two massive machines costing $90,000 each that move rapidly up and down aisles, guided by a wire system embedded in the concrete floor. With these forklifts, the company was able to narrow its aisles and accommodate close to 25 percent more storage.
Running a sustainable company with a focus on quality and consistency pays off. Traditional Medicinals employees were getting lots of overtime at press time, as tea distributors geared up for winter tea season.
Based in Petaluma
Question: How does a company go green when its primary business is making a product that gets thrown away? For Labcon, which manufactures disposable labware and dispensing systems, the answer is to look everywhere for ways to reduce waste, recycle materials and invest time and resources in developing products that are on the cutting edge of green manufacturing.
When Labcon was founded in Sausalito in 1959, it was called Ways and Means, Inc. The name was coined to reflect the founders’ interest in inventing the “ways and means” to manufacture products. Over the years, Ways and Means made vials for salt tablets, plastic cigarette filters, cassette tape cartridges and other molded items.
Today, Labcon is focused on supplying high-quality disposable products for use in laboratories, where concerns about contaminating test results prevents the reuse of most labware.
Fifteen years ago, Labcon began to concentrate on reducing its impact on the environment. A statement on its website says: “…there had been a growing concern inside and outside the company that disposable plastics are too wasteful.”
In 1998, Labcon was asked to join the President’s Council on Sustainability, chaired by then-Vice President Al Gore. Labcon leaders were convinced that reducing waste and focusing on environmentally friendly business practices was not only the right direction for their firm, but the future of their industry. Fourteen years ago, Labcon introduced—and trademarked—its “Earth Friendly” brand and logo, and the company has been focused on sustainability ever since.
“We’ve reduced our energy consumption by 40 percent in the last five years. Last year, we were featured in BusinessWeek
for our research and development efforts in the testing and development of biodegradable solutions for plastics,” says Labcon President Jim Happ.
Under the leadership of Happ and Director of Marketing Tom Moulton, Labcon began to look at ways to reduce its materials use in every aspect of the company. “I got excited, because I realized we could change our industry by focusing more on sustainability,” Moulton says. “Yes, we make plastic disposables, but how can we make these things—that people need—while making our impact smaller?”
A significant change has been in how Labcon’s products are packaged and stored. A molded Styrofoam rack that held plastic vials was replaced with a folding paper rack, which was then replaced with a reusable plastic rack made from recycled materials. “We went from disposable to recyclable to reusable,” Moulton says.
In a company the size of Labcon, the impact made by even small changes is great. With 193 employees working around-the-clock shifts seven days a week, Labcon produces 4 million plastic parts every 24 hours and holds approximately 8 percent of the world market for test equipment. “We have 100 pieces of machinery going 24/7,” explains Happ, on a tour of Labcon’s enormous Petaluma factory. “We use about 3 million pounds of plastic a year.”
The company has machinery on site that grinds rejected parts into raw plastic that can’t be used for labware, but is reprocessed into packaging materials. It also has patented a racking system for disposable pipettes, which eliminates 90 percent of the packaging.
Labcon’s next big step is to expand the manufacturing of the packaging and storage systems out of a bio resin it helped develop, which will break down in commercial composting operations. “It has a low earth impact, a low carbon footprint,” says Moulton. “It’s been so successful that our biggest problem has been getting enough of it from our supplier.”
Green Ray Corporation
Based in Santa Rosa
In July 2009, McKinsey & Company
released a study titled “Unlocking Energy Efficiency in the U.S. Economy
.” The study, commissioned by a consortium of government agencies, private enterprises and nongovernmental organizations, sought to quantify how to do more with less—how to meet the nation’s growing energy needs efficiently and effectively.
The report identifies commercial LED lighting as one of the most significant areas of potential energy savings. The leaders of Green Ray Corporation couldn’t agree more—they’ve based their business model on offering an easy conversion to LED lighting. “We decided to create a commercial-grade LED product and sell directly to businesses,” explains Fernando Cancela, CEO of Green Ray.
As a way to explain the significance of the coming LED revolution, Gene Quisisem, western regional director for Green Ray, offers a history lesson in commercial lighting. “It’s been 70 years since the invention of florescent lights,” says Quisisem. “They’re in virtually every high-rise, retail store and factory. Those linear florescent lamps are pervasive in our built environment and are the biggest energy consumer in buildings.”
Cancela adds, “Twenty-three percent of all the world’s building energy goes to lighting. If we can change the United States to LED lighting, we can save the energy created by 150 power plants.”
In addition, florescent bulbs aren’t that safe to have around. “We’ve populated our buildings with mercury-filled tubes,” says Quisisem. “LEDs are safer, greener and more durable.”
(Fact check: While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
states that the danger from the small amounts of mercury in florescent bulbs is minimal, its website does provide an exhaustive list of precautions to take if a bulb breaks, which includes throwing away any clothing or bedding that comes into contact with the mercury-containing powder inside the bulb.)
According to Cancela, “Florescent lighting was never the perfect solution, but it used less energy than incandescent and we didn’t have anything better.”
Cancela and Quisisem offer plenty of comparisons between LEDs and florescent lights. “LEDs don’t flicker and they don’t buzz. They’re the healthiest, safest, most cost-effective lights in the world,” says Cancela.
Quisisem claims florescent lights degrade carpets and furniture over time and notes the flickering associated with florescent lights can be tiring—or even damaging—to the eye.
The LED lights on display at Green Ray offer striking contrasts to florescent lights as well. LEDs cast light (and shadows) that are more like natural light. Cancela says the color rendering index
(CRI) of LEDs is 80 to 90 on a scale of 100 (sunlight), compared to 50 to 60 CRI for florescent lights.
Green Ray’s business model is to make the conversion from incandescent or florescent to LED as easy as possible. The company makes a variety of lamps that simply screw or lock into existing light fixtures, replacing the “double bayonet” or “Edison Screw” bases on common bulbs.
Green Ray also offers a lease-to-own program for LED lighting systems. “The biggest drawback to companies to retrofit with LEDs is the outlay of capital,” Quisisem says. “We can allocate energy costs from PG&E right into your pocket in the first month,” by lowering electricity use as much as 60 percent.
Green Ray also helps companies that convert to LEDs to dispose of their old florescent bulbs, a real headache for most businesses.
Liberty Valley Doors
Based in Cotati
About five years ago, a customer asked Mike Pastryk, owner of Liberty Valley Doors, if he could fill an order for custom-built doors made out of reclaimed wood, material that had been used before but would have been thrown away if it wasn’t remilled and reused. “I liked the look of the doors, liked the idea of it,” says Pastryk. “We weren’t cutting down trees and we were saving wood that was headed for the landfill.”
That concept, and a company-wide green revolution that followed, has helped Pastryk’s firm keep busy while other door companies struggle in a down economy.
Pastryk’s next step was to join Co-op America (which has since changed its name to Green America
), a nonprofit membership organization that states its mission as: “…to harness economic power—the strength of consumers, investors, businesses and the marketplace—to create a socially just and environmentally sustainable society.”
“I wanted to not only build green doors, but build them in a green way,” Pastryk explains. Over the next few years, the company went through profound changes, inside and out. Pastryk, his son Stephen and the rest of the Liberty Valley staff are relentless in finding ways to be green. From eco-friendly stationery to recycled sandpaper, no stone goes unturned in the quest to lessen the company’s carbon footprint.
The most visible initiative is the 117-kilowatt solar array on the roof of the door shop. It collects enough solar power to offset 100 percent of the electricity used by Liberty Valley Doors. “We’re making doors with solar energy,” says Pastryk proudly, “and our PG&E bill went from $3,300 a month to $14 a month.”
The $1 million solar array benefited from a 25 percent rebate from PG&E, and Pastryk predicts it’ll be paid off in seven years of energy savings.
Liberty Valley was recently honored by State Senator Mark Leno
as “Business of the Year” in the Third Senatorial District of California. In addition to the solar array, Leno honored Pastryk and his company for its extensive recycling program, its reduction of packaging and its use of sustainably harvested and reclaimed wood.
Another notable and highly visible sign of Liberty Valley’s commitment to the environment is its landscape crew, a herd of friendly, well-fed goats and sheep that keep grass and weeds down around the facility. Pastryk wanted to eliminate gas-powered lawnmowers, and at first paid someone to bring llamas onto the property to act as vegetation control specialists. He bought the small herd of sheep and goats recently.
Stephen Pastryk, marketing manager for Liberty Valley, is also the resident sustainability expert. Although his Chico State
marketing degree didn’t prepare him to become a sheepherder in the family business, he’s learning.
Both Pastryks want to spread the green concept beyond their already considerable commitment. Employees are encouraged to recycle, and can bring light bulbs, batteries and toner cartridges to work to be recycled. The Pastryks are also putting pressure on vendors to supply door hardware with less wasteful packaging. “We challenged our suppliers to send us products that are already recycled and to reduce packaging,” says Mike.
What the Pastryks didn’t realize when they made the commitment to “go green” was how much it would help their business by opening up a new market of customers who want to do business with the solar-powered door shop or buy doors made from reclaimed wood. Business isn’t booming, but Liberty Valley is holding its own in a building industry that’s been devastated by the economic slowdown.
“We did more than $1 million in sales in reclaimed doors the first year,” Mike says. “My main deal was I wanted to do the right thing, but it’s also helped us with marketing and recognition. It’s saved this business.”
The timing is right for North Bay manufacturers to focus on sustainable business practices. A potent combination of new regulations, consumer pressure and dwindling natural resources makes “green manufacturing” more than a choice of conscience or market positioning. It’s becoming a survival tool.