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Profiles

3M’s chief sustainability officer, Gayle Schueller, on how her company is embracing the circular economy

Known for innovative products, 3M is now increasing its commitment to waste prevention and recycling

by Marc S. Reisch
August 25, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 33

 

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Credit: 3M/Howard Berg Photography

3M has long been known as an innovative company. Who hasn’t used the firm’s Post-it notes, applied Scotch tape to a ripped page, or seen city buses wrapped with its perforated Scotchcal graphic film, which covers windows with images while allowing drivers and passengers to see out?

But these days innovation is about more than just cool properties or great functionality. Gayle Schueller, 3M’s chief sustainability officer, says if the firm is to continue its run of innovative products, it has to invent new products and redesign old ones with an eye toward reducing their environmental impact. A materials scientist with a PhD from the University of Virginia, Schueller is leading the effort to turn that goal into reality.

Designing and developing products for industrial, health-care, and electronics industry customers for more than a century has made 3M a hugely successful company with close to $33 billion in annual sales. To keep its innovation engine running, 3M invests close to $2 billion in research each year. At 5.6% of sales, the firm’s R&D spending is much more than the 3.3% average of major chemical makers.

Vitals

Hometown: Henrietta, New York

Education: BS, physics, SUNY Geneseo, 1987; PhD, materials science, University of Virginia, 1992

3M career highlights: Vice president, R&D and design, 2009–13; vice president, global sustainability, 2013–15; director general, Mexico, 2015–16; vice president, new platforms, 2016–18

Current position: Vice president and chief sustainability officer

Favorite quote: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”—attributed to Indian civil rights leader Mahatma Gandhi

However, innovation can come with unintended consequences. Like other large firms that rely on chemistry to introduce gee-whiz products, 3M has sometimes created things that were not kind to the environment. For instance, the fluorosurfactants once used in the company’s firefighting foams and stain-resistant carpet treatments persist in the environment today and are associated with diseases such as cancer.

Schueller notes that 3M developed its fluorosurfactants with good intentions and used the best science available when it introduced the firefighting foams and fabric protectants. That may be true, but fluorosurfactants present in drinking water are now a crisis for affected communities and a headache for 3M, which has had to defend itself in numerous lawsuits.

Among the claims the firm has settled is a $5 billion lawsuit over drinking water contaminated with perfluorooctanoic acid. The firm resolved the case in February 2018 with an $850 million payment to the State of Minnesota just as it was set to go to trial.

The eye-popping resolution affected both 3M’s bottom line and its stock valuation, according to Laurence Alexander, a stock analyst at the investment firm Jefferies. From the time 3M settled with Minnesota until June of this year, investor concern over liabilities associated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) clipped $55 billion from 3M’s stock market value, Alexander estimates. The fluorochemical producer Chemours has also suffered a large drop in market capitalization in recent months.

To avoid the mistakes of the past, “sustainability is what we need to focus on today,” Schueller tells C&EN. Late last year, the company launched what she calls a strategic sustainability framework. Its not-so-modest objective: to “apply our science to improve life,” she says.

The effort has three goals. The first is to do more with less material. Realizing that goal could mean reducing plastic waste and reusing plastic materials. Another is to reduce the firm’s environmental footprint by using solar energy instead of carbon-based fuels. The third goal is to create a better world through the use of science.

Like fluorochemicals, plastics were once thought to be trouble-free products enhancing the quality of life. But as plastics have become ubiquitous, the industry has come to realize it has a trash problem. In January, plastics producers and consumer goods companies launched the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. The $1.5 billion effort seeks to keep plastic out of the ocean through recycling and programs such as waste collection efforts in developing countries.

Recycling initiatives are important to embrace, Schueller says. “We have the scientists and the materials expertise” to make widespread plastics recycling a reality, she says.

Still, making the plastics industry part of the circular economy won’t be easy. According to a 2017 article in the journal Science Advances, of the 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste generated between the 1950s and 2015, only 9% was recycled (DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700782). Almost 80% of it ended up in the environment or landfills; the remainder was incinerated. The article’s authors predict that plastics dumped in the environment or landfills will double by 2050 “if current production and waste management trends continue.”

3M is starting with small steps in its effort to embrace recycling and do more with less. Schueller points to the firm’s Scotch-Brite heavy-duty scrub sponges. Intended to scour caked-on food from pots and pans, the sponges are now made with 100% recycled fibers. In Brazil, 3M developed a take-back program for the sponges, and 1 million of them have been recycled since 2014, she says. 3M has launched a sponge take-back program in the US and soon expects to roll it out globally, she adds.

A similar initiative is 3M’s Thinsulate Featherless insulation, Schueller says. Earlier this year the firm launched a version of the down replacement that uses fibers recycled from plastic bottles. 3M’s promotional material notes that the product is “Recommended by ducks and geese.”

Old-line products such as roofing granules are in for a revamping too. Shingle manufacturers embed 3M’s mineral granules in their products to impart weather resistance and color. 3M recently introduced granules with a titanium dioxide coating that reduces smog by photocatalytically converting nitrogen oxides, which are precursors to ground-level ozone, into water-soluble ions.

Schueller says the smog-reducing granules are a step forward in addressing society’s air-quality concerns. Research that 3M conducted in partnership with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimates that 1 metric ton of granules could offset the smog created by driving a car close to 5,000 km.

None of these advances on its own will revolutionize 3M’s environmental impact, Schueller acknowledges. But the company figures it can have an effect if it makes similar sustainability advances in the approximately 1,000 products it introduces annually.

At the moment, outsiders are giving 3M good but not great grades on its environmental performance. CDP, an investor-backed group formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project, gives 3M a B. BASF, Bayer, and International Flavors & Fragrances are among chemical makers getting an A from CDP.

In addition, 3M makes the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, a recognition that generally leads to a higher valuation of a company’s stock. Others on the list include BASF, Bayer, and Procter & Gamble. 3M does not appear on the “industry leaders” list with firms like Unilever and Roche.

Seeking to up its game, 3M is now pledging to subject all new products to a sustainability review at the earliest stages of their development.

“We believe we can make a big impact, and we have the responsibility to do so,” Schueller says.

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