A Conversation With…Paul Chalmer

Business Area Manager, Environmentally Conscious Manufacturing, NCMS

Sustainability guru Paul Chalmer is responsible for environmental programs at the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS; Ann Arbor, MI). He directs sector-specific environmental compliance assistance Web sites, including the National Metal Finishing Resource Center (nmfrc.org) and the Paints and Coatings Resource Center (paintcenter.org). Recent projects with NCMS member companies include everything from development of advanced no-mask tooling for plating, to a new trivalent process for plating hard chrome surfaces.

How did you become involved with the finishing industry?

P.C.: Back in my college days, I had a summer job in a plating shop. The shop also sold test equipment, including a device that measured plating thickness using backscattered beta radiation. Customers could buy a test setup that included a small radioactive source and a radiation detector. Hundreds of those radioactive sources were shipped to platers all over the country. Those were the days.

And then you got into sustainability issues?

P.C.: Another former employer was responsible for my introduction to sustainability issues. The company generated large volumes of wastewater containing a variety of solvents, and in those days wastewater disposal consisted of letting the wastewater soak into the ground, because everyone “knew” the solvents would break down harmlessly. Much to everyone’s disappointment, one of the solvents turned out to be remarkably stable and eventually started showing up in neighboring wells. I was tasked with supervising the remediation effort and rebuilding the wastewater system. That was an education in itself.

What’s the difference between sustainabililty and the regulatory compliance that finishers practice?

P.C.: Ideally, the rules and sustainability are pulling in the same direction. Unfortunately, the world is not always so ideal. Regulations are political compromises, not prescriptions by thoughtful professionals who have carefully weighed the competing needs of a profitable company and a healthy ecosystem.

But there’s an even deeper problem with regulations as we now understand them. We’re operating now on what you might call a “sin and redemption” model: the regulatory agency draws a line. If the facility’s emissions stay on the virtuous side of the line everyone is happy. But, if they transgress by the slightest margin, facility managers are evildoers, exposed to the scorn of the community and a hefty fine.

That’s the wrong mindset, because once a company is on the good side of the line, there’s no real incentive to improve. It also makes it difficult to discover problems and to fix them once they are discovered, because it effectively forces companies to act defensively rather than responsibly. These issues are discussed in detail in a recent report called The Future of Finishing, available on the NMFRC Web site for free (in a sense that you’ve already paid for it—your tax dollars at work).

How can “green” and “sustainable” be prevented from becoming just two more marketing buzzwords?

P.C. The root of the problem isn’t that they are buzzwords, it’s that they are words. Words are fine for poetry and courtship (to name two particularly influential contributors to effective marketing), but numbers tell the real story.

Here’s a vision for the not-too-distant future: A provident and responsible shopper goes into a store and looks at several competing products. On the label of each is the price, the energy consumed over the full product life cycle and the carbon footprint, all in government-approved units. The shopper makes a buying decision that takes into account both personal cost and cost to the environment. Utopian? Well, if companies had to invest in a full life cycle assessment for each product, starting from scratch each time, the cost would be prohibitive. But if the data were routinely collected every step of the way and communicated down the supply chain, it would be no more difficult than cost accounting is now.