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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Greenest Factory in the World?

Air Date: Week of

Reporter Steven Beard travels to Belgium to visit the new factory of the Ecover company. Not satisfied with merely producing environmentally-friendly cleaning products, Ecover has built a minimum-waste, energy-efficient manufacturing plant.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

Scouring powder with chlorine in it. Laundry detergent made with phosphates. Tile cleaners with toxic hydrocarbons. Not too long ago, it was hard to clean your house without messing up the enivronment at the same time. But into that breach in recent years have stepped a number of companies selling more environmentally-safe cleaning products, products which are gentle on the people who use them and on the environment once they've done the job and been washed down the drain. But at least one of these companies has decided that selling green isn't good enough. Last year, the Belgian company Ecover decided that it should make its manufacturing processes green as well. So the company decided to build what it calls an ecological factory. We sent Living on Earth contributor Stephen Beard to Belgium to check the place out. He found that the factory is not only good for Ecover's image, it saves the company money, as well.

(Sound of European telephone ring, woman answering)

BEARD: Ecology comes first in the Ecover factory, but business isn't far behind. Gunter Paoli, president and chief executive officer of the company, doesn't waste his words waffling on about global warming and the ozone layer.

PAOLI: This type of production system that we have put in place with our own manufacturing technologies is very efficient, energy-efficient, employee-efficient, manufacturing efficient, no wastage, we've got no time to waste, we've got no waste.

(Sound of manufacturing process)

BEARD: Ecover has been making phosphate-free cleaning agents and detergents for a decade. Anxious to cash in on green consumerism in the late 1980's, supermarkets in Europe, Japan and the States began stocking the product. The company's annual turnover is now $15 million dollars. Last year the owners decided that an ecologically-sound product should be manufactured in an ecologically-sound factory, built out of the right kind of materials.

PAOLI: The bricks that are we using, are these bricks being manufactured, have they been two weeks in the oven or have they been two days in the oven? Well, our bricks only have been four hours in the oven, because we found the brick which is made partially of wood dust, partially of residues from the coal mines, and partially of clay. The bricks are important.

BEARD: So are the beams and rafters that support the roof - no energy-depleting steel or plastics here, just glued strips of Scandinavian pine, sustainably harvested of course. The overarching beams create an almost spiritual atmosphere inside the factory. Ecover's information officer, Duris Bademacher.

BADEMACHER: It looks like a church, when you come here, when the work is finished, you're all alone here, you'll really get impression of being even in a Gothic cathedral. It makes you feel holy.
GUIDE: The wooden stairs, as everything is in wood here, take us, take us up to the grass-covered roof, the largest ever . . . (fade under)

BEARD: The crowning glory of the Ecover factory is on top of the roof, a huge undulating lawn.

GUIDE: And there's roof gardens, and then if we go out again we have this grass-covered roof which is a turned roof . . . (fade under)

BEARD: The insulating properties of turf have been understood since Viking times, but as Ilsa Siegers points out, this is the largest lawn every to be laid on a single rooftop.

SIEGERS: Six thousand square meters, you can't imagine, this is a small football field. So, why we did this, mainly because it saves us between 10 and 30 percent of the energy. It is warm in winter, it's cool in summer.

(Sound of factory office)

BEARD: Other environmental features include a system for recycling waste water. Solar-powered rotor engines enrich the water with oxygen which is then filtered through a series of reed beds planted behind the factory. That reduces the taxes they have to pay for discharging effluent into the sewage system. The water is returned for use in the factory by means of a windmill pump, a further energy saving. Gunter Paoli owns 50 percent of the shares in the factory; the other half is owned by a large multinational company that runs a security-guard service. Profit is important. There are, says Mr. Paoli, sound financial reasons for ecological manufacturing.

PAOLI: It is obvious that when you can eliminate 60 percent of the heating bills year-in, year-out, the grass roof, which is an additional investment of $10 million, actually pays itself back in three years. It is clear that when you can reduce your taxes on water by a factor of ten the investment in the solar-powered water purification system - well, that's paid back as well, in approximately five years. So I think this is still a net positive contribution to the economy.

BEARD: For all his talk of payback times and the bottom line, Gunter Paoli is a dedicated environmentalist. Indeed, the corporate video suggests an almost messianic fervor.

(Sound of video soundtrack: "It's not greed, it's only a drop of water . . ." fade under)

BEARD: The staff of 45 earn only average wages, but appear equally committed to the company. Purchasing manager Claudia Jasper.

JASPER: It's more than a job, it's a philosophy, it's a way of life.
BEARD: Couldn't you earn more elsewhere?
JASPER: Yes, I could. This gives me more satisfaction.

(Sound of corporate video soundtrack: "We are in the first place dedicated to people. . ." fade under)

BEARD: Ecover isn't only intent on running the factory along ecological lines. They're trying to make the work force more eco-friendly too. Smoking is absolutely banned on the premises. Employees get a generous travel allowance only if they come to work by bike.

PAOLI: Another thing we're trying to do here is actively promote some of the principles that we adhere to. For example, are you eating meat every day or shouldn't you go for some vegetarian meals once in a while? I mean, I am complete vegetarian, I'm not imposing it on anyone else, but there is a very strong peer group pressure here.
BEARD: But that does sound as if it's a little totalitarian here.
PAOLI: I don't think it's totalitarian, it's so enthusiastic in its approach that it's contagious.

BEARD: Well, not entirely; I did spot two or three workers furtively smoking behind the factory's bicycle shed. And I did hear the occasional heresy offered beyond the earshot of the boss.

BEARD: Are you a vegetarian?
WORKER: No, not at all. I like a good piece of meat.

(Sound of factory in operation)

BEARD: While the ecological factory has been highly praised, Ecover's image recently suffered an unexpected blow. The international security firm that owns half the shares in the company has proved rather an embarassment. The firm's British subsidiary was hired to keep environmentalist protestors away from a controversial motorway development in the UK. The guards have been accused of manhandling the very people who buy Ecover's products. A mini-boycott of those products is now underway in at least one English town. It may take more than phosphate-free detergent to restore the company's whiter-than-white reputation. For Living on Earth, this is Stephen Beard at the Ecover factory in Belgium.



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