Environmentally

Innovating Environmentally Safe Ways to Dispose of Your Company’s Waste

Did you know, the utility industry is predominately dependent on landfills as the primary disposal option for their poles? While this has been “what we’ve always done as an industry,” there is less and less landfill space to work with – coupled with the fact that it’s simply not the best option environmentally.

In many instances, the decision about where or how a pole can be disposed of is not in the hands of the utility, but rather lies with the regulatory bodies at the state and federal levels responsible for managing treated wood waste. As a result, in the early stages of our innovation process, it became clear that one of our first conversations needed to be with the government bodies that control pole disposal, simply to understand their perspectives on this issue.  


As you seek to innovate and implement environmentally friendly alternatives to your current waste disposal processes, consider the following:

  • Get on the same page as the federal government (likely the EPA). For corporate innovators working in industries that are in some way regulated by the government (and who isn’t?), it’s important to develop a shared understanding of the problems that need to be solved before you embark on potential solutions. In doing so, there is a far greater chance that you’ll create an ally in your innovation process rather than a potential future stumbling block. Often this will take some extra time and energy to educate folks on issues that you live with daily while they do not. However, the longer-term upside is well worth the effort.
  • Understand the state laws that are applicable to your business. Regulations governing what specific disposal options are available locally vary from state to state. The result is that disposal solutions available in Massachusetts may not be available in Missouri. This is posing a challenge for larger investor-owned utilities that operate on a regional or multistate level.
  • Be prepared to be your own advocate for your desired disposal options. Misalignment between different states, as well as continual changes and uncertainty at the federal level due to changes in administration, make governments an unreliable partner in this area, so businesses have to take the lead in pushing for sustainable solutions that are economically feasible.


As I’ve discussed in previous posts, the need for alternative disposal methods is imminent.  Take inventory of your company’s current processes and start the discussion about how to improve upon those processes.  Learn more about implementing innovation within your organization by visiting, barrybreede.com.

global warming

The Impact of the “Anthropocene Period” and What We Can Do About It

There’s a debate amongst geologists and environmentalists about the impact of humans and how to label this period of impact in Earth’s history. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, the term being discussed amongst scientists is, “… ‘Anthropocene’ – from anthropo, for ‘man’ and cene, for ‘new’ – because human-kind has caused mass extinctions of plant and animal species, polluted the oceans and altered the atmosphere, among other lasting impacts.”


There’s no question that our impact on the environment has been significant and that those changes have and will continue to affect the planet. As an industry, we see this in the kind of energy that is produced and in the disposal of resources used in the process.


Where does all that waste go? What is done with resources that no longer fulfill the useful life determined by the utility? Traditionally it’s been hauled off to the dump along with every other human-beings’ garbage. The problem is, this approach went largely unregulated for the longest time, leading to a number of issues including pests, toxicity and the presence of poisonous materials that leach into the ground and affect the water supply and the broader environment.


The landfill developed in the early twentieth century as a cleaner, safer alternative and would eventually grow to replace the city dump. The idea behind the landfill is essentially to isolate the garbage (known as “municipal solid waste”) in a confined space, control leaching and gas emissions, and cover the surface with soil on a daily basis. In the United States, landfills are subject to stringent EPA regulations.


Even with these regulations, there will be a time where there is no more room. The social and environmental costs of current practices, especially among utilities that are disposing of their used poles, are too high to maintain. With landfills reaching capacity, we in the industry have no choice but to seek alternative disposal methods; otherwise, we are on a collision course with disaster.


Despite the irreversible imprint that has been made on Earth by human presence, we have the ability to be more aware, responsible, and sustainable in our day-to-day/business practices. It is possible to improve and be more responsible; however, effort and resources must be dedicated to this cause.  Learn more about how you can effectively integrate innovation within your organization to become more sustainable, all while continuing to be profitable. Visit, barrybreede.com.

Waste

One Major Question for Your Business: Where Does Your Waste Go?

All productive human activity produces waste in some form, and—while it may not seem like a profound philosophical question—we have always had to ask ourselves: “What do we do with all of this stuff once we’re done with it?”

Waste is often material we don’t really want to keep around, but we can’t help producing it, and it has to go somewhere.  The first modern landfill started operating in 1937 in Fresno, California. In the years since, most Americans have come to take the facilities for granted, simply throwing waste away without thinking about where it is going.

Utilities too have long operated on the assumption that there is essentially limitless landfill space. In the eighty years since the first landfill was created, the vast majority of utilities have not changed their waste disposal operations, with most relying heavily on landfills to take in their used poles. The traditional model for most utilities is to cut up and pile the used poles in a dumpster. Once the dumpster is full, they call a local waste management company to come pick it up and empty it into a landfill.

Just to give some perspective: every year, about four million tons of treated wood utility poles are disposed of, and at least 60 percent (or 2.4 million tons, a conservative estimate) are landfilled. The space for these poles, though, is limited; this solution is unsustainable. Of course, when space goes down, the price of entry goes up.

There needs to be another alternative for the disposal of these poles. And while there are alternatives becoming available, both the utility industry and government regulators together need to address how best to dispose of poles that use chromated copper arsenate (CCA) as a treatment process. CCA poles are cost effective and continue to grow in market share, but per current regulations, they currently can only be disposed of via the landfill, as it can’t be incinerated. Fast-forward to twenty or thirty years from now, and, without the development of any new disposal solutions and associated changes in regulations, we’re going to have a majority of poles coming out of the ground that can’t go anywhere but the landfill—and there likely won’t be any landfill for them to go to.

Seriously consider your company’s disposal practices and what your future strategies are in this area; space is running out and the future of our environment is dependent upon our ability to be as sustainable as possible.  Learn more about alternative disposal methods that may be available for your utility by visiting, barrybreede.com.

Barry speaking on stage

The Environmental Impact of Your Product Life Cycle (and How to Reduce It)

Each passing year, industries – including the utility and commodity markets – are increasingly more aware of the impact their companies have on the environment.  It’s a concern that stakeholders in these industries recognize as a duty to address for the sake of consumers and the environment.

Understanding what that impact is and how to potentially reduce it won’t be clear until you comprehensively consider your product’s entire lifecycle from cradle to grave.  That may provoke you to consider the materials used to manufacturing or provide your product/service.  Could you potentially use more environmentally friendly materials?  If so, what would be the new impact of those materials?

However, what may initially seem like an improved concept may not necessarily reduce the overall environmental impact.  For example, many have questioned the use of other materials for utility poles – the idea being that perhaps other resources such as concrete or steel could outlast wood and therefore be more environmentally friendly. In theory these ideas seem credible.  However, from the view point of sustainability and carbon footprint, the more responsible material is still wood.

It comes back to understanding this particular product’s entire life cycle.  Studies* have been done and have found that treated wood compares favorably against galvanized steel, concrete, and fiber-reinforced composite poles along several environmental metrics, including greenhouse gas emissions, fossil fuel use, ecological toxicity, and water use.

The main reason why?  Forest products are organic raw material. Part of the production of this material involves thirty years of wood growth in the form of a tree.  This growth process actually removes carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide) from the atmosphere, rather than contributing to carbon emissions—a remarkable side effect of using this organic raw material. The so-called “carbon sequestration” process generates a “carbon credit” early in the life cycle that allows the final product to have a much lower carbon footprint than competing products.  During the 40 years a pole stands, another tree will have grown in its place – canceling out the carbon release from the retirement of the pole.

Being aware of the details – large and small – of your product’s life cycle will allow you to identify where you can reduce your impact on the environment and where you are making the best choice given the options available.  Learn more about how to reduce your company’s environmental impact through innovation by visiting this site.

 

 

*Christopher A. Bolin and Stephen T. Smith, “Life cycle assessment of pentachlorophenol-treated wooden utility poles with comparisons to steel and concrete”

chemicals

The Impact of Chemicals on the Product Life Cycle

One of the most frequent questions I hear from people outside of our industry, particularly those with environmental concerns is, “Why do you have to put chemicals on the poles to begin with?” The common belief is that these chemicals, which are really derivatives of pesticides, will have significant negative effects on both humans and the environment.

It’s not as harmful as one may believe; it plays a significant role in extending the life cycle of a renewable resource.  To recognize the true impact, it’s important to understand how much and why chemicals are used in the process.

All major pole producers abide by manufacturing standards developed by the American Wood Products Association (AWPA). This association, composed of scientists, academics, and industry personnel, collectively establishes the amount of chemical required during the manufacturing process to maintain the proper functioning of the pole. Per AWPA standards, the typical pole is impregnated with chemicals that, depending on tree species, penetrate less than four inches of the entire diameter of the pole. Given an average-sized pole based on industry standards, this means that less than 5 percent of a pole’s entire mass receives chemical treatment, a relatively small fraction.

Chemicals help extend the pole’s life span by protecting it from things like fungi or termites—basically, any organic thing that might feed off the wood and lead the pole to rot out and fall apart. If the poles went untreated, they would rot out so quickly that they would become much more likely to break, especially during inclement weather – creating extremely difficult situations for vendors, utilities, and consumers.

Consider too how this would impact the environment: if poles only lasted five to ten years, as opposed to decades, that would dramatically increase the amount of timber needed to supply these poles – roughly four times the amount harvested today.  Add to that the changes in environmental impact caused by the decline of sequestered carbon in the forest, as well as the effects of logging and manufacturing to increase output, and the overall result is that chemical usage actually does more to help preserve our environment than to harm it.

This isn’t to say today’s chemicals will be the best process for the future. The idea of cleaner, more eco-friendly preservatives is being explored which could replace current processes that extend the life of a utility pole. Learn more about how the utility pole life cycle impacts the commodity industry here.

Life Cycle

The Life Cycle of a Utility Pole

Before you can understand the significance of innovation within the utility pole industry, it’s important to better dissect the true-life cycle of a pole, from initial planting of the tree, through manufacturing, and then ultimately to disposal. In this way, we can determine whether an innovation that is designed to have an impact on one part of the life cycle might also have a positive effect on others.

  • Harvesting of Trees – Generally speaking, the most common tree species used for poles in this country are southern yellow pine and Douglas fir trees. A designated group of foresters works with private landowners who grow and harvest the wood for manufacturing purposes.  Together with farmers there is a collaborative effort to purchase, plant, maintain and manage the land.  The utility pole industry will typically leverage the “last cut” or the oldest trees.  Depending on the need from different utilities, a specific kind of tree size – or “pole” class – will be determined and selected.

 

  • Manufacturing of Poles – The trees we have cut are taken to a peeling plant, where the bark is stripped off and the diameter of the tree is further shaped and smoothed prior to being treated. The poles are then taken to a treatment facility, where they are placed on a rail tram-like device and rolled into a giant tube called a treatment cylinder. The cylinder is filled with a chosen chemical preservative, and a liquid (water or diesel fuel) is added that helps to serve as a “carrier” for the preservative as it impregnates the wood. Through a vacuum pressure treatment process, the poles soak up the liquid, and the chemical preservative with it. The poles are then removed from the tube, the chemical is pumped into a storage facility for safe handling, and the poles are then either air or kiln dried.

 

  • Final Preparations – the poles are moved to what’s termed a “framing yard,” where workers drill holes into the poles at specified locations to allow the utility to fit cross arms onto the pole. These cross arms serve an important role, allowing for power lines to be successfully strung from pole to pole.

 

  • Delivery and Use – The final output of this process is a pole that can be sold to a utility and put to use in the field. Just how long the pole will last in the field depends on multiple factors, including which preservative it has been treated with and the climate it will be subjected to.

 

  • Disposal – This is the step where recent innovation has occurred. Whether due to a pole reaching the end of the roughly forty years that it can function or due to its being removed to make way for something like a widening road, utilities need to get rid of the pole in some way. Traditionally this has meant disposal via landfills. The carbon found within these poles, however, could be used to generate energy after the end of the pole’s life as a utility pole—providing opportunities to eliminate waste and transform the pole even further.

Understanding the life-cycle of the utility pole helped expose an area of the process that provided no real value to stakeholders.  It’s what led a group of innovators to contemplate the following: how do we generate environmental value downstream in the process, at the time of disposal, when traditional approaches offer zero value for everyone involved?

When was the last time you carefully considered your product’s lifecycle with the lens of value-creation throughout the entire process?  Doing so will likely provide several feasible ideas for innovation and improvement that will benefit your stakeholders.  Learn more about finding the right approach to innovation for your organization here.

Innovation

In Favor of Incremental Innovation

It’s becoming more and more apparent in today’s marketplace – regardless of industry – that innovation is critical to long-term success and business sustainability. The question becomes, particularly for those companies in the commodity industry, where do we even start?

Longtime practitioners of innovation, of which there are many, know well that building a company that has a true portfolio of promising ideas to tap into is quite a challenging task. Such a portfolio needs to include initiatives that represent different levels of company risk and return, ranging from what Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen calls “incremental” innovations—tweaks to an existing product or service—to “disruptive” innovations—changes in strategy with the potential to transform markets or business models.

Might I suggest that your business begins with considering incremental innovation – doing so won’t cause you to take on overwhelming initiatives but will instead focus on improving what you already do best. In the world of utility poles, incremental innovation might focus on how to maximize the performance of a utility pole product line. For example, consider what modifications could be made in order to limit growth of vegetation around the pole, or how to make the poles better equipped to handle broadband and Wi-Fi connectivity in pockets that are underserved in this regard.

Leverage the product you have and find a way to make it even more useful.  Consider your products and/or services and ponder the following:

  • What is the main benefit of the product or service that I currently provide? What are the necessary benefits I must deliver on and what could provide even greater value?
  • What major customer problems or unmet needs exist that today remain unexplored?
  • What is my product’s life cycle? Within that lifecycle, where can things improve that may positively impact my business and perhaps my customer?
  • What trends seem to be of interest in my industry and complementary industries?
  • When is the last time I have implemented any kind of change or improvement to my business processes or product?

Innovation, and the integration of it in your business, doesn’t need to be a blackhole of uncertainty – it can start with what you are already doing, just finding a way to do it better.  Ask yourself these questions and consider how you can make incremental changes that can make a larger impact in the long-term.  Learn more about effectively implementing innovation within your organization here.

Business Plan

How Sustainable is Your Business Plan?

This month is “National Write a Business Plan Month” – when’s the last time you wrote one? Whether you’re an entrepreneur, a veteran business owner, or an employee of a larger corporation, the opportunity to create a business plan is much vaster than securing funding to launch a new venture.  Business plans create discussions, ideas, and new realities within businesses new and old.

An effective business plan will aide in your efforts to introduce new strategies based on a proposed future of innovation.  Given the industry I am in and most of my readers are in, perhaps consider how sustainable your business plans are regarding the initiatives you’re proposing.

What does it mean to have a sustainable business plan?  You’ll likely answer one of two ways: a plan that focuses on the maintenance of your business, or a plan that focuses on your business’ impact on the maintenance of the environment.  What if they weren’t mutually exclusive – that both could support each other?

In an article published by Entrepreneur, it addresses this idea of building a sustainable business plan that factors in financial, environmental, and social concerns.  The author proposes six ways to shape a more sustainable future for their companies and communities: building business on belief, embrace change (don’t stand still), create value proposition, growth and comfort don’t co-exist, focus on excelling in an area, and focus on constant reinvention.

Each of these areas shared by this article come back to understanding your business, its purpose, the value it brings and recognizing that value will need to continue to shift and mold as customer needs change.

Sustainability is more than just a buzzword or concept; it’s more than just “going green” for the sake of what’s trending.  Sustainability is focusing on how to maintain the value of everything related to your business: the environment (that we need for our existence now and into the future), the business (that you want to grow profitability for), and the customer (who you want a continued relationship with).

As you approach the business plans you’ll likely create for 2019 goals, consider the impact they have in each of these arenas (environment, society, and economics).  Be aware of the relationship they have with one another and seek to propose initiatives that create the greatest benefit in each of these areas simultaneously – that is where true innovation will exist. Learn more about integrating innovation within your organization that will have a positive impact on all its stakeholders by visiting this site.

 

Appreciating How Innovators Think

Did you know it’s estimated that there are over 150 million utility poles in use in the United States today— nearly one utility pole for every two people? The bulk of them (at least 60 percent) have been standing where they are for over thirty years, having been installed during the massive build-out of suburbia that occurred in the decades following World War II.

Utility poles are everywhere – you pass them every day.  But most people, at least the ones I know, don’t think about things like: How long has that pole been there? How long will it stay there? Where did it come from, and where is it going?

So, though the common wood utility pole may not be a topic of interest for many and may be forgotten or simply taken for granted, the job of the innovator is to think about the questions that others don’t ask, and hopefully develop solutions that answer them. It’s easy to get complacent with products, services, and processes that have always just been the way they are.  However, those are the very concepts that need innovation and require those willing to consider, “what next?”

True Innovation Looks at The Entire Process

Thinking about any product—in this case, the utility pole—across its entire life cycle, from cradle to grave, opens up new opportunities for innovation at every point. Most industries refer to this as product life cycle thinking. In our instance, the “cradle” is the planting of the tree that ultimately grows into the pole. The “grave,” of course, is how the pole is disposed of once it has reached the end of its useful life span. It is here that we found the greatest potential for our innovation efforts, especially when it comes to disruptive innovations.

Like in lean principles, where one maps out a process in order to understand where to eliminate excess, companies that take a thorough look at their life cycle will inevitably find a multitude of opportunities for innovation – large and small. In our case, an incremental innovation might be something that impacts the performance of our existing pole product line—for instance, a new way to limit the growth of vegetation around poles or a pole design that better accommodates the growing need for mobile broadband and Wi-Fi connectivity in rural America. Both of these examples, incidentally, were real attempts to meet market needs that emerged from our innovation process.

In the end, innovative thinking is necessary for a company’s long-term health.  Appreciate the innovators in your organization and give them the resources needed to help create ideas and concepts that will not only benefit your organization, but your customers, their customers, and the community at large.  Learn more about fostering an environment of innovation by visiting my website.

Commodity

Understanding Innovation in Commodity Markets

When it comes to the commodity market, customers aren’t typically looking for new innovative products. They want the tried-and-true product, which is essentially the same from seller to seller, at the lowest price. “Cheaper” is better than “new and improved.” How, then, are you supposed to get ahead and innovate as a company?

I’ve seen this struggle firsthand in our industry.  In fact, currently, we’re the only company in the wood treating industry dedicating staff to innovation. This is not to say that there hasn’t been skepticism from some of these parties.

Consider the opening statement in a fairly recent article entitled, How to Convince Your Company’s CEO to Invest in Innovation when it says, “CEOs who truly invest in innovation aren’t just rare; they’re often self-sacrificing. How did investors reward General Electric’s former CEO, Jeff Immelt, for placing a $4 billion bet on the industrial Internet of Things, remaking GE into a model for lean, entrepreneurial management? By firing him, of course. Immelt surely knew that his shareholders wanted to see innovation; they just didn’t want to invest in it.”

It goes on to cite a concept that far too many executives settle for, “innovation theater,” or this idea of merely appearing to treat “innovation” seriously but with no significant investments or decisions to develop it. The article adds, “At many companies, then, the innovation “department” is but a shell with a figurehead. And most CEOs, boards, and investors are content for it to stay that way.”

This is a hurdle for any company looking to enact change—some parties will inevitably see the effort as an unnecessary risk with an unlikely return on investment. This is the understandably cautious, conservative impulse of the mid-sized, family-owned company. This is especially true in the case of truly disruptive innovations; the impetus toward changing the business or moving into a whole new market can easily be met with an attitude that says, “We don’t do that here.”

The key is to show the skeptics that the ability of the company to remain profitable while also growing and remaining dynamic in the market—controlling its future rather than having the future control it—is going to rest on how it utilizes the innovation process.

Innovation is more than just an obligatory hypothetical notion – it requires a real, dedicated process. This however, is difficult particularly for smaller and mid-sized companies, were corralling the resources to build a lasting innovation effort is not always an easy task, and stumbling blocks will undoubtedly pop up along the way. Nevertheless, the potential upside for such a company, especially one operating in a commodity market or a consolidating industry, is that a structured innovation effort can truly become the impetus for transforming how the business operates, fueling sustainable business and disrupting commodity markets—and bringing value not only to customers, but to the general public as well.

Learn more about how to integrate real innovation into your business strategy by contacting me.