It is our challenge to make economic growth happen and protect the environment at the same time.
Just making Eco-innovation work
The story of step-by-step co-creation with Van Maren Systems
Peter Hoffman is driving his brand new hybrid car home. He just dropped his son of at school. He is proud of his son. Marcus chose to do his school project about the subject of pallets. Today he has to present his work to his teacher and classmates. Peter arranged some real pallets for Marcus to show in the classroom. Easy to do for him, in his job as innovation manager at a large multinational pallet pool company, having millions of pallets circulating around the world.
He is not surprised that his son wanted to do his project about his dad’s work. Peter loves his job and involves his family a lot. Marcus is always asking about it. Peter likes to tell him about all the different types of pallets; how they travel around the world; that they are used for transporting all kinds of goods. And about how it is his job to make sure, again and again, that the pallets keep being perfected and changed for the better.
The teacher asked the kids to find out what the environmental impact was of the company or industry of their choosing. And what the company did to reduce the impact on the environment.
Struggling with sustainability
Peter would have loved to tell Marcus that they really changed a lot already, compared to the “old days”. But to be honest, they are doing pretty much the same for ages now. So the school report ended up with a lot of information about all the future plans they have about further reducing the environmental pressure of the pallets. In reality they are still struggling how to reduce the amount of virgin wood needed for their pallets. One problem is that the company is just not ready to change. Big changes are needed if you really want to switch from wooden pallets to other, more eco-friendly materials.
Today, Peter works from home. He has to finish his innovation business plan for the next 3 years. His main objective for the coming years will be to further lower the operational costs for the pallets, to keep their margin acceptable. That means cheaper pallets. For the pallets to be cheaper, they need to become better. Better in the sense that the need for repair must go down, and that the pallets have to live longer. He is doing this job for 2 years now, and his job actually has never been about something else. Making it cheaper and better.
However, this year, it should be different. After all the talking about sustainability, this year it has to become the real deal. The Board has instructed him to plan a test program, starting soon, for using fully recycled materials for at least 2 pallet types. “Please include this in your innovation business plan, due in 2 weeks, and thank you.”
Change the script
He cannot suppress some irritation. It must be pretty easy for the Board to say that. But how difficult for him to execute this. For the past year he has talked to so many people, in so many departments of his own company, about how to tackle this project. Everybody only seems to add problems to the list instead of solving them. The legal department sees problems with their customer contracts, when changing materials. The sales people think that their customers are not ready for changes yet, please try another type of pallet. His own department, product development, complains of not having the right expertise for recycled materials.
He must admit they have a point there. He himself is a “woodman”, and so is most of his staff. This company has a history of wood. They are good at that, but it does not get them any further now. What to do? He needs someone from outside the company to look at the problem with him. Someone who can change his script.
Peter decides to make some phone-calls. A former colleague tips him to contact Jean Marc van Maren, from van Maren Systems in The Netherlands. Although from rather a small company, this “eco-entrepreneur” apparently is the man to talk to about recycled plastics in the pallet industry. It is funny that his name pops up now. Peter remembers that he heard about him from his predecessor. Mr van Maren apparently had been making a round of calls to pallet pool companies, to gauge their interest for pallet components made from recycled plastic. At that time, his predecessor had considered the company too small to start discussions with.
Peter and Jean Marc agree to meet after the weekend. Because of their tight schedules, they meet at night, in a restaurant in Dusseldorf. Peter feels right at ease with him. Nothing formal about Jean Marc, and he is very open and amicable. They talk freely about the challenges and requirements in the pallet industry. It turns out that his former colleague was right about him.
Jean Marc has been working in the pallet industry since 1989 and seems to know pretty much about what’s going on there. He has worked with plastic pallets right from the start of his career. Jean Marc tells him that he started recycling plastic for pallets in 2003, founding his own business. At that point he had seen the ins and outs of big corporations. The fact that he was promoted to the level that he could now start using the company private jet for his business travelling made him think. It turned out not to be the right incentive for him to stay and work in the corporate environment. He felt that he wasn’t working on what was really important to him, anymore. He wanted to feel the materials and products in his hands again. Work directly with customers who are looking for economic advantages of new materials. Also, he was caught by the opportunities of recycling. This was long before the environment became a real issue in most boardrooms.
Starting his own business meant that he had to figure out how to serve large customers, and helping them introduce new products, without actually having to produce pallet components himself. Therefore, he outsourced the actual production to another small company, Ecotech, in Italy, with whom he has worked for many years now. In this way he can focus on his own strengths: material and design. His challenge is to use the most difficult plastic waste stream, the post-consumer plastic waste, as a basis for pallet components.
Collect, prepare and produce: recycling all in one
He enthusiastically unfolds his further ambitions to Peter. He is working on a project to build a production facility in the Netherlands, close to where the plastic waste is being collected from the consumers. At this facility, the plastic is sorted, cleaned and prepared. This plastic waste is the raw material for new recycled plastic that will also be produced here. In addition, pallet components will be made at this same location. Used pallet components will be collected and come back to the facility, where they will be recycled again.
Having all these activities in the same place will be unique in Europe. The ecological footprint will be better than other recycling systems because the plastic does not need to be transported over large distances after sorting. The latter is common practice at this moment. Jean Marc is very proud that the European Commission recently awarded funding from the Eco-innovation Program to their project.
Help is on the way
Jean Marc wants to know everything about Peter’s challenges in product development. It turns out to be a long evening. When they say goodbye, they agree to be in contact later about how Van Maren Systems might help Peter with his ambitions.
When Peter drives home that night, he has a strange feeling. It’s like he is on the verge of entering a new world. Suddenly, he feels better about the hurdles to be taken in his own company. Sure, it will not be easy to change. But he feels he is not alone anymore.
The Plastic Problem
The next day at breakfast Peter tells his wife Angela about last night’s meeting. She is excited that he might start using recycled plastic for his pallets.
“You know, I say this documentary on TV the other night. They spoke about the huge worldwide plastic problem. Did you know that half of all plastic is being used only once and is then discarded? In 2010, 300 million tonnes of plastic were manufactured worldwide. And already 8% of all the oil goes to producing virgin plastic. They said that today, China uses only 10% of the amount of plastic they will need in 10 years. It would be great if you and your company could help out reducing the problem a bit by reusing plastic waste.”
Peter couldn’t agree more. It feels good to be able to change things for the better.
La bella Italia
Over the next months, Peter gradually gets to know the partners of van Maren systems. One day, he is invited to visit the production facility of Ecotech, in the Marche region in Italy, at the Adriatic Coast. His wife Angela decides to join him for the visit, after she finds out that it is close to Tuscany and Umbria and at least as pretty. They get a warm welcome from Walter Cognini, one of the two Italian owners of the company. They learn about the story of Ecotech.
The Marche area is known for its flourishing shoe industry. Walter and his partner used to own a factory where they made plastic parts for shoes. The famous brand Tods was one of their customers. This is when they learned the trade of injection moulding. They took an interest in recycling and started experimenting with making new materials out of recycled plastic.
They now own Ecotech, where they manufacture various items made of recycled plastic. They are driven by their ambition to show the world the many applications of recycled plastic. They even started their own plastic collection service. They are always trying to optimize production in combination with material choice. For example, by adding a mix of rubbers to recycled plastic, combined with specific injection moulding techniques. Walter tells them he thinks that the secret of the successful cooperation between them and Jean-Marc van Maren is their similar ideas about how to fit their products perfectly to their customer’s requirements. They always work with an integrated approach of design, materials and production.
At the end of the evening, after a delicious Italian meal they eat together, Walter gives Peter and Angela a quick tour around his own house. He proudly shows them the solar panels on his roof and the photoelectric installation to generate his own electricity. And in his garden, there is a compost maker for the organic waste. He tells them that with all this, he hopes to inspire other individuals to take their own environmental responsibility.
Peter also gets a chance to visit Ecopark de Wierde, in the province of Friesland, in the North of the Netherlands. It is here that the new production facility of Van Maren Systems will be built. At The Wierde, Friesland has built a unique waste management facility, managed by Omrin. Omrin means Cycle, in the official Friesian language. Omrin collects and processes waste for the whole province of Friesland, in a unique construction in which all Friesian towns are shareholder in this company. Omrin will be the plastic waste supplier for the new production facility. Steven van der Velde, their energetic commercial manager explains Peter that they are proudly working to convert all waste into useful and sustainable applications for the local economy, every day again. Peter understands why Van Maren Systems chose this partner. Sustainability seems to be in Omrin’s genes.
A few months later, Peter, Jean Marc and both their teams have started to work together. They are going to make a better and cheaper pallet. Peter feels he found a true partner in van Maren Systems. At first Peter struggled with the idea to introduce a whole new pallet from recycled plastic. Jean Marc suggested to take it step-by-step and start by integrating recycled plastic pallet blocks in their existing wooden pallets. Peter is very happy with this approach, because it will be easier to get the project approved and all involved headed towards change! And at the same time he is making a big step forward innovating his pallet, and reducing the environmental impact.
One morning, Peter wakes up feeling a little nervous. Today is a special day. After many lab tests, they will do an important live performance test. They have been working on the project for quite some time now. The process has not always been easy. A lot of experimenting has been done with the material mix and the design of the pallet blocks. But now it’s only about fine-tuning. Both companies have learned a great deal from the project. Peter appreciates that Van Maren Systems stayed patient and understood how a large company like his works. Things take time. Things change. Jean Marc is always there to help.
Peter makes sure he is in the office early. He smiles when he reads a text message from his wife Angela. ‘Everything will be fine!!’ After a cup of nice espresso, he picks up his boss Werner, who he has invited to be a witness of this special occasion. It’s only a short drive to the plant in Peter’s car.
Not so fine
But it then turns out that everything is not fine. The first test immediately shows that something has gone wrong with the production of the pallet blocks. The pallets are not working like they should; they’re just too weak. Peter is very disappointed and feels embarrassed. How could this have happened? Here, in front of everyone, including his boss. The lab tests had been positive. That means that somehow something went wrong in production. Jean Marc seems even more disappointed. He strongly apologizes and says that this never should have happened. He promises to do his utmost to fix the problem soon. Then he leaves for the airport. He will take the first flight out to Italy, to make a plan with Ecotech, to solve this.
Werner and Peter talk things over, over a cup of coffee, back in the office. Werner puts up the question if Peter still feels confident about his choice to work with a small company for such an impactful project. Peter doesn’t like him asking, but yes, he still is sure about his choice. Although he is rather pissed, he was quite impressed about how Jean Marc handled the situation just now. He was not making excuses, but hopped on the first flight to solve it. He is showing the right sense of urgency, by having dropped everything else, and wanting to solve this problem as soon as possible.
Later that day Jean Marc gives Peter a call. He tells Peter that he had a very constructive meeting with the people from Ecotech. Based on his experience as a Six Sigma black belt, in his early career days at GE, he has structured the investigation on identifying all possible causes of errors in the production process. After that, he will focus on finding and removing the root cause. He already made a list of possible causes, ranging from human error to the humidity level during production. Tests have already started and more tests will be done first thing in the morning.
He also invites Peter to come and join them for the tests and the meetings. He says: “I want to show you how we handle this. I do not want to hide and I want to make clear that we totally take our responsibility. This is also what co-creation is about. Being together when things go wrong. I am sure that we can make this work”.
So Peter clears his schedule too and leaves for Italy the next morning. He is happy to see with his own eyes that the people at Ecotech are doing the right things. They practice what small scale Italian business is known for. Flexibility and originality. Sure, they don’t have staff for every single specialised job. But they seem not to rest until they have found the cause and fixed it. Jean Marc is on top of it and Peter does not see him lose his temper once that day.
Flying back that night, Peter is confident that this project will come to a successful end. He realises that there will be other hurdles. If not in production, it will be in getting things done in his own company. But he is patient. He has the right team. He knows why he started this and he believes in it. It’s not about reaching some board-imposed sustainability goal in his business plan. It is about replacing an essential part of their good old wooden pallet. Replacing it by something new, something plastic, something lighter, something better ánd made of recycled shampoo bottles. He is about to ignite a revolution. And that feels great.