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06-Jun-2018

An article published in The Guardian, written by Martin Wright

Inside the giant German factory turning potatoes into Pritt Stick

Henkel’s Düsseldorf plant was built at the turn of the century but is looking to the future - with solar panels, electric vehicle charge points for staff and a sustainability lab for children

Photo: Rüdiger Nehmz/Guardian News & Media

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For more than a century, the Ruhr Valley and the Rhineland have been the heartland of German industry. Sprawling cities and soaring smokestacks combine with surprisingly large swathes of forest to create a distinctive, and not unattractive, landscape. It is one that has seen more than its fair share of challenges, from the Great Depression of the 1930s through to wartime bombing and post-war reconstruction. But now comes perhaps its greatest challenge: how to transform that smokestack economy into industry that is sustainable.

Henkel lies at the core of the Rhineland, its headquarters straddling the Düsseldorf suburbs. Over its century-long history it has shared every one of those challenges. A global industrial and consumer chemicals company, Henkel may not be a household name in the UK, but its products, such as Pritt Stick and Schwarzkopf shampoos, are familiar.

The site bears witness to its long history, its buildings hugely varying in age and construction methods – many of them designed at a time when modern notions of sustainability simply didn’t apply. That hasn’t stopped the company from setting itself some ambitious targets, including reducing the overall carbon footprint of their production by 75% per tonne by 2030. To do this, they need to address everything from how efficiently their buildings and processes are run, to greening their energy sources.

Photo: Rüdiger Nehmz/Guardian News & Media

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At the heart of the site is Henkel’s own power plant, which produces both heat for all industrial processes, and electricity. The good news is that because the energy is generated right next door, transmission losses are relatively minor, and, as it’s a combined heat and power plant (CHP), it’s also highly efficient – running at around 85% efficiency on average, according to Michael Roling, head of mechanical workshops and infrastructure technology at Henkel. Surplus electricity is also sold directly into the mains grid.

The majority of the power is currently generated by gas, but 40% still comes from coal, says Roling. But site manager Daniel Kleine says they’re shifting the balance of fuels from coal to gas, and have set a target of ensuring that, by 2030, the equivalent of 100% of their own electricity consumption will be generated from renewable sources. (This would, incidentally, meet the requirements of the Climate Group’s respected RE100 initiative.)

Photo: Rüdiger Nehmz/Guardian News & Media

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Kleine hopes they can do more onsite, although it’s not proving easy. “We’re looking at installing more green electricity. But even though there are solar panels already incorporated in the office facade, for many other locations shade from surrounding buildings is an issue. We’ve explored putting up wind turbines, but we’re surrounded by houses and the residents wouldn’t be happy if we implemented the project.” So explorations continue. In the longer term using biogas rather than the fossil-fuel variety may well prove viable for both power and heat, Kleine adds.

Meanwhile, Henkel is making use of its own electricity to build up a fleet of electric vehicles (EVs), with the aim of making all its onsite transport electric in the near future. Staff can charge their own EVs in the company car parks for free.

Photo: Rüdiger Nehmz/Guardian News & Media

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Transport offsite is a somewhat different story: as much as Henkel would like to use rail rather than road, the needs of their main customers dictate that most of the products still travel by truck – although they’re exploring a pilot rail scheme with one customer group. Meanwhile, they have taken up to 60 trucks a day off the roads by using rail transport to move materials for the Schwarzkopf range from Düsseldorf to-and-from the production site, over 500km away.

Streamlining production processes is a key part of cutting energy use. The Pritt production line, for example, uses super-efficient heating and cooling systems (both of which are essential when manufacturing glue) and curbs waste by re-melting any raw material left over (what they call “Prittmass”) which is then sent back into the line. Oh, and if you’ve ever wondered, Pritt Stick gets its glue power primarily from natural sources – 93% of it is made from raw materials such as potato starch. “You could even eat it if you wanted to,” explains production manager Axel Saft, “but we don’t advise it.”

Photo: Rüdiger Nehmz/Guardian News & Media

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Why?

“There’s nothing alarming in it - just doesn’t taste too nice.”

Several of the site’s main office buildings date from the 60s and 70s, when efficiency standards were far lower than today. You could deal with it by knocking them down and starting from scratch but, apart from the cost and disruption, this would also be a waste of all the “embedded energy” in the existing building. So Henkel is embarking on a series of renovations, such as introducing motion-sensitive LEDs and natural ventilation systems. These features, along with special glass that cuts out heat and glare, and letting in natural light via sun pipes and atriums, will curb energy consumption, while making it a more comfortable space to work in.

Some of the sites have living roofs covered in vegetation that absorb rainfall, act as insulation, and provide a wildlife habitat too.

Photo: Rüdiger Nehmz/Guardian News & Media

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The office space has been redesigned to meet the expectations of the upcoming millennial workforce, says buildings manager Roman Quarten. “They want breakout spaces, sofas, pods and so on.”

A touch of the Googles, I suggest.

“Yes,” he replies, but adds that some rules still apply – like the one that allocates window desks to more senior staff. “We’re still German,” he smiles.

New builds offer even more opportunities, of course. So when Henkel extended its detergent warehouse – a vast steel cathedral of a place, with an all-pervasive smell of fresh laundry – it took the opportunity to introduce a fully automated system, using low-energy conveyers to shift goods, along with LED lighting and high-spec insulation. This earned it certification under the demanding specifications of the LEED standard, a green building ratings system.

Sustainability isn’t just about technology: it’s also about people, and what goes inside them. Henkel’s in-house subsidised cafeterias make a feature of local fresh produce, with a big emphasis on fruit and veg grown by nearby farmers, about 15% of which is organic, it says.

Photo: Rüdiger Nehmz/Guardian News & Media

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Each day, one in four of the Düsseldorf workforce choose to eat a vegetarian or vegan meal, says Ursula Kammelter-Reihs, director of infrastructure services. There’s a healthy interest in where their lunch comes from, adds chef Christian Groß. Not all the local specialities are popular though – swede, for example. “Young people just don’t like it. Don’t ask me why.”

Food waste, of course, is unavoidable. But it’s collected by a local firm for use in an anaerobic digester plant, producing biogas, which is then used to generate electricity.

Sustainability means looking out for the next generation, too – and that’s the focus of the Forscherwelt (“researchers’ world”) lab. Another example of a green refurb, the education lab hosts schoolchildren for immersive science learning – kids delve into what makes detergents, shampoo and glue, while exploring wider sustainability issues.

More than 49,000 of Henkel’s employees have also qualified as sustainability ambassadors, according to Kleine, with the aim to train the remaining employees in the near future. Once qualified, they help generate understanding and enthusiasm about sustainability in primary schools, but importantly, among customers and suppliers too.


This article was originally published on theguardian.com as part of a series paid for by Henkel.

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