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Biobased Office Furnishings Part of HON Industries Environmental Stewardship Plan

By Dan Eshelman, Council Bluffs Non Peril


By taking advantage of technological advances, an Iowa firm has been able to achieve sound environmental stewardship while manufacturing high-quality products.  The HON Co., part of Muscatine-based HON Industries, makes such office items as desks, chairs, panel systems, filing cabinets, storage units and tables.

For more than 50 years, the company has practiced conservation of raw materials and waste reduction through its lean manufacturing processes, said Peter Atherton, vice president and chief technology officer.  "Today, environmental management is integrated into all aspects of manufacturing," he said. "Waste, defined as anything that does not bring value to the customer, is minimized at every step."

The company's brands include HON, Allsteel, Gunlocke, Heatilator and Heat-N-Glo.

HON Industries recently developed a process that utilizes wood waste to mold furniture components previously made from new plywood.  Working with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the company identified a source of recycled construction and demolition wood that could be used to make chair parts.  Now, Atherton said, nearly 5,000 tons of recycled construction and demolition wood "are removed from Iowa's waste stream on an annual basis as a result of this process."  The collaborative effort earned HON Industries the 2002 Murray J. Fox Recycling Innovation Award.

The firm is a member of the Iowa Business Council's Advanced Manufacturing Research and Collaborative Cluster and is presently leading an AMRCC project to explore opportunities for Iowa businesses to use bio-materials.  AMRCC, in turn, is working with the BIOWA Development Association to find ways to promote and expand the bio-economy in Iowa.

Atherton said bio-materials such as urethane foams, soy plastics, composites that include natural fibers, adhesives, and corn-based fiber for textile upholstery applications "all present opportunities for application in furniture."  HON Industries, he said, "understands that agricultural value-added products and components represent a sustainable, cost-effective solution for its customers."  The company has established a formal commitment to what it terms a "proactive" approach to protecting the environment, and is utilizing innovative technology to ensure that the goal is consistently met.

The strategy implemented by HON reflects a number of conclusions.

The company believes that eliminating waste is critical to environmental quality and to operating efficiency, and that products should be designed so that there is minimal environmental impact from the manufacturing process.  HON also believes that recycling and the use of recycled materials can have a positive effect on product quality, and on the quality of air and water as well.

In addition, the company's environmental polices include a recognition of potential environmental hazards and the importance of being prepared for possible emergencies.

For more than a decade, through improvements in technology, HON has modified its manufacturing processes to reduce their ecological impact.  The company is committed to "sustaining the well being of our environment," Atherton said.  Hot-melt or water-based adhesives are used in applying seating and panel fabrics on furniture, thereby eliminating volatile organic compounds that were present in older, solvent-based adhesives.  Solvent-based coatings have been replaced by solvent-free powder coatings in the creation of many of the company's steel products, and wood finishes have been converted to substances with a low content of organic compounds.

Regarding materials, the company notes that upgrades in technology have now made the use of recycled components a viable alternative, and the company incorporates recyclables in many of its products.  The steel used in desks and files contains a high level of post-consumer scrap, and procedures have been implemented to convert every inch of material into a finished product. Anything that isn't used is returned to mills for reprocessing.

To eliminate waste, overspray from the powder coating process is reused, and, where feasible, overspray from wet paint lines is retinted and reused as well.  For the seating products, many of the inner and back components are made completely of post-consumer waste, and the fabric selections feature material created from recycled polymers. Fabric scrap is recycled by turning it into sound deadening mats and carpet backing for the automotive industry.

A "co-mold" process that fuses recycled wood chips with high-solid resins is employed in the manufacturing of wood chair shells - a procedure that results in the practical use of wood fiber that otherwise would be wasted, and at the same time produces a long-lasting, solid substrate.

In making wood products, HON has found ways to divert most of what was once considered a waste item - sawdust - to alternative uses, such as for fuel, mulch and animal bedding.

Since the company ships its office furniture to distant locations, packaging is required to prevent damage during transportation and handling.  To minimize waste represented by the cartons that are left over once the furniture has been unpacked by a customer, HON uses as much recyclable material as possible in the packaging.  Corrugated board is combined with recyclable stretch wrap to reduce the amount of material that eventually will need to be disposed of by the purchaser.  To simplify the recycling process for customers, HON does not mix component elements that cannot be reused with recyclable packaging materials.

The 2002 farm bill established a new program through which federal agencies are to give preference to bio-based products when making purchasing decisions.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture has contracted with Iowa State University to develop certification procedures for such products, and Atherton said HON will be one of the initial companies assisting in the testing of the process that is being formulated.

Along with earning the Fox award, the company has garnered other honors for its success in blending environmental responsibility with top-quality production.  HON's Geneva Seating Plant in Muscatine earned the Iowa Governor's Award for reducing waste from chrome plating, and HON was the first firm in the state to participate in a waste reduction assistance program coordinated by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.  In Georgia, HON's Cedartown Casegoods Plant received an environmental award from the Georgia Chamber of Commerce for a project that removed contaminants from water and prepared the water for reuse.

In 1995, HON Industries was invited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to participate in a rule-making program for regulating emissions in wood finishing operations, and two years ago HON was involved, with the EPA, in establishing national emissions standards for hazardous air pollutants from metal furniture surface coatings.  HON this year was recognized for the third consecutive time as one of the 400 "best big companies in America" by Forbes magazine, and as the nation's "most admired company in the furniture industry" by Fortune magazine this year.