It All Adds Up

By Frank O’Brien-Bernini

At Owens Corning, sustainability is at the heart of our business, from the products we make to the way we make them. In our operations and products, our sustainability commitments, goals and progress are focused on three areas:

  • Environmental footprint reduction;
  • Optimization of raw material selection and usage; and
  • Handprint expansion – a more positive life-cycle impact.

Owens Corning, based in Toledo, Ohio, employs 17,000 people in 33 countries. We develop, manufacture and market insulation, roofing and fiberglass composites. Our businesses create products that deliver sustainability benefits: we develop insulation and roofing products and systems that save energy, enable resilience and improve comfort in commercial and residential buildings, and our glass reinforcements business makes thousands of products lighter, stronger and more durable.

Environmental Footprint Reduction

Owens Corning constantly sets goals to measure, reduce and report the environmental footprint of our operations. We established our first 10-year sustainability goals off our 2002 baseline, and we have updated them regularly since then. Our 2020 Sustainability Goals target significant global reductions in energy use, water consumption, waste-to-landfill, and various types of air emissions (see sidebar). As a dynamic business with an ambitious growth strategy, we focus on achieving intensity goals (impact per unit of product produced) rather than absolute goals.  Where absolute metrics vary widely based on market conditions, acquisitions and divestitures, intensity metrics provide us an accurate view of our continuous improvements and challenges. For total transparency, we report both.

Our most significant successes in recent years have included improving the blowing agents used in the manufacture of foam insulation products – to materials with lower global warming potential. We have reduced our consumption of energy through a combination of thousands of local grassroots and R&D globally scaled energy efficiency projects. We significantly reduced our toxic air emissions, through source reduction, as we converted our entire residential insulation product line to EcoTouch™ PINK™ FIBERGLAS® insulation. We are harnessing on-site solar energy at several facilities, including our world headquarters, and we are purchasing power from two large wind farms (250 megawatts) that were built for us.

Additionally, in the area of waste reduction, from 2002 to 2012, we achieved a 35% reduction in our waste-to-landfill (WTL) intensity. In 2010, we set a new baseline and established a more aggressive target – to totally eliminate waste to landfill – with an interim 2020 goal of 70% reduction. Making progress toward this goal has been one of our biggest sustainability challenges. Therefore, we recently increased both our resourcing and our focus, on source reduction, recycling and repurposing.

Engaging strategic partners to support our waste reduction efforts is critical. For example, we are working on several projects to process and recycle glass fiber waste, with beneficial use, as a lower-impact raw material source for ourselves and other manufacturers. One such manufacturer is WasteHub, which has worked with our Thermafiber® mineral wool insulation plant in Wabash, Indiana, to repurpose one of our largest waste streams into a new product, displacing virgin raw materials.

Optimization of Raw Material Selection and Usage

Sustainability success cannot be achieved solely by how we make our products – it starts with product design – solving a problem or capturing an opportunity in the most sustainable way. This requires thoughtful design, optimized use of raw materials and innovative process development, which in combination deliver a superior product life cycle. Owens Corning calculates the environmental impact of its products by conducting cradle-to-grave life-cycle assessments to provide guidance to developers and ensure products perform as claimed and are safe and environmentally sound throughout the manufacturing, usage and disposal stages of the product’s life cycle.

During the initial design phase and through continuous improvement efforts, we strive to increase the amount of recycled and bio-based content in our products and packaging materials. Owens Corning’s insulation business is one of the world’s largest consumers of recycled glass, using more than 1 billion pounds annually. Using recycled glass not only decreases landfill waste, but also lowers our energy use when manufacturing insulation, because starting with virgin raw materials, such as sand, requires more energy to process.

Owens Corning also encourages its contractors to participate in the recycling of shingles at the end of their service life. Through a national alliance with Earth911 and Heritage Environmental, we are helping to connect contractors with convenient recycling facilities. In 2016, our contractors recycled over 2.5 billion pounds of end-of-life shingles though the recycling network, or the equivalent of 371,000 roofs. Recycled shingles are typically repurposed as a raw material for paving roads.

Like many aspects of sustainability, the use of recycled content in building materials offers several advantages. In addition to saving resources and reducing waste, it is a valued product attribute in many green building programs.

Handprint Expansion – A More Positive Life-Cycle Impact

Owens Corning’s commitment to sustainability encompasses our passion for developing energy-saving products, including many widely used insulation products. For example, insulation saves 12 times as much energy in its first year of installation as the energy used to produce it. Some of our other energy saving products include:

  • “Cool roof” shingles that use highly reflective granule technology to reduce cooling loads
  • Fiberglass-reinforced composites that reduce vehicle weight, increasing fuel efficiency and product durability

Owens Corning believes product sustainability is best viewed through the scientific lens of life-cycle assessment, yet it is often easier to communicate using descriptive attributes. In our ongoing efforts to provide sustainable products, and communicate their value, we are continually evaluating our product lines and designing new products with these common attributes in mind:

  • Energy and/or water savings;
  • Use of salvaged, recycled or plant-based content;
  • Natural resource conservation by reducing material use, using more durable and low-maintenance materials, and using renewable materials;
  • Avoidance of toxic or other materials;
  • Safe, healthy indoor environments; and/or
  • End-of-life reuse and recyclability.

At Owens Corning, we believe the path to operating a more sustainable company includes proactive environmental footprint reduction, design-stage optimization of raw material selection and usage, and the strategic choices to expand our handprint by focusing on the problems the world most needs us to solve.

Frank O’Brien-Bernini is vice president and chief sustainability officer at Owens Corning. He has more than 35 years of experience in sustainability, R&D, science and technology, and renewable energy.

Owens Corning’s 2020 Environmental Responsibility Goals (vs. 2010 baseline)

  • Reduce GHG intensity by 50%
  • Reduce toxic air emissions intensity by 75%
  • Reduce PM2.5 emissions intensity by 15%
  • Reduce primary energy intensity globally by 20%
  • Reduce waste-to-landfill intensity by 70%
  • Reduce water intensity by 35%
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