Can a machine manufacturer mimic nature’s circular model of zero-waste production and consumption? GEA is moving systematically towards this ambitious goal by investing in new business models, developing digital solutions and ensuring more resource efficiency across the value chain.
With humans consuming resources and generating waste more rapidly than ever, the Earth is imploring us to reconsider our age-old, linear economic model of “take, make, consume, throw away.” The planet’s own circular model of reuse and regeneration offers a healthy alternative and way forward. And although many economies remain a long way off, the transition towards circularity is under way.
Circularity in manufacturing can be relatively simple. A glass bottle, for example, is 100 percent recyclable; it can be melted down and formed into a new one. But in the case of a 3,000 kg GEA Decanter, it’s a bit more difficult to imagine how a mass of steel – with its finely tuned components and state-of-the art electronics – fits into the circularity concept.
“The challenge of circularity is the challenge of sustainability from the very beginning to the very end of the product life cycle. GEA’s carbon and environmental footprint extends far beyond the limits of its own sites. So, whether the goal is zero emissions or zero freshwater usage, working towards circularity requires action across all aspects of our business, including engagement and collaboration with suppliers and customers."- Nadine Sterley, Chief Sustainability Officer at GEA
To move away from the old linear business model and embrace circularity, GEA is focusing on those five levers that we believe hold the most potential for transforming our business. GEA’s 5R approach is based on the established 10R model and particularly emphasizes the following strategies:
- Reduce: Increase efficiency in product design, manufacturing or use by consuming fewer natural resources and less polluting material
- Reuse: Repeated use of a product or component for its original or new purpose without significant modification
- Repair: Return of faulty, broken, worn or contaminated products or components to a usable state to fulfil their original function
- Remanufacture: Reengineer products or components to as-new condition with a slightly lower, same or improved level of performance as a newly manufactured one
- Recycle: Transform a product or component into its basic materials or substances and reprocess them into new materials of less, same or higher value
By 2026, all GEA spare parts and packaging for GEA machinery will comply with one of the 5Rs. By 2030, all GEA solutions will be enabled for zero freshwater consumption and 100 percent of packaging-related solutions will use more sustainable packaging materials.
"The 5R approach requires a mindset shift and helps us define targets. It also puts pressure on us and our stakeholders across the value chain to implement responsible and transparent sourcing, design products from the start with longevity in mind and collaborate with customers to ensure optimal performance over maximum product life cycles. Ultimately, we need to find ways to use less resources throughout the life cycle, use products longer or use them again." - Manfred Weidlich, Senior Project Manager Sustainability at GEA
Besides its 5R approach, GEA is focusing on four main areas of transformation towards a circular future:
- Evolving GEA’s business model
- Upgrading GEA machines and solutions for greater resource efficiency
- Promoting resource efficiency in GEA’s own operations
- Helping customers increase their resource efficiency in production processes
Evolving our business model
In the traditional linear economy model, a manufacturer’s responsibility more or less ends once their product is sold and leaves the premises. Under the circular model, it’s a (much) longer-term relationship. GEA Life Cycle Service supports customers throughout the entire life cycle of their installed systems and components – from project engineering, installation and commissioning to maintaining and improving machine and plant performance.
The integration of digital solutions, including the latest automation and control solutions, is key to improving efficiency and promoting longer lifespans for GEA machines. By connecting to customers’ plants and equipment, we have the transparency and operational data required to continuously optimize machine productivity and efficiency, which is why preventative assessments and repairs are frequently added to GEA service level agreements. This steady flow of machine and plant data also enhances our ability to create fit-for-purpose solutions and speed up innovation.
New plants and machines require significant investment from manufacturers. With our digital twin solutions customers can model and simulate the operation of equipment and processes throughout their life cycles before buying. Simulations can also be geared towards optimum environmental performance. And through our GEA Equipment Financing service, which includes leasing options, we make it easier for customers to invest in more efficient equipment, with optional maintenance plans to ensure equipment is always operating optimally.
Upgrading GEA machines and solutions
The single greatest opportunity to minimize GEA’s climate and environmental impact is to reduce the footprint of our machines during their “use phase”, i.e. during their many years of service performing work in our customers’ operations. By 2030, GEA commits to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the use phase of its products (Scope 3) by 18 percent. We are taking a systematic approach, generating hard numbers on the environmental impact of our solutions through product life-cycle assessments. Identifying the consumption “hot spots” of GEA solutions during the use phase provides valuable insight for customers and GEA engineers, allowing them to prioritize future design improvements.
For greater transparency on the footprint of GEA products, we are developing a Digital Product Passport. This will help our customers make better and more informed choices by providing them important details about the product, its resource use and recyclability, as well as further aspects such as traceability, supply chain visibility and compliance with standards. A key component of the EUs Circular Economy Action Plan, the product passport will be accessed by both GEA and its customers via a digital ID.
Beginning in 2023, our Add Better label will be affixed to GEA solutions, indicating when a product performs significantly better than its predecessor in terms of resource efficiency, circular economy or carbon impact. “The Add Better label highlights the progress we are making towards more resource efficient products and offers customers greater transparency,” says Sterley. “It is another way to engage and encourage customers to make progress on our respective sustainability targets.”
Improving resource efficiency in our own operations
To improve the footprint at GEA’s 340 facilities, we have set targets to mitigate the impact of our operations on climate and natural resources. In line with GEA’s 2040 net-zero target, we aim to reduce GHG emissions from our own operations (Scopes 1 and 2) by 60 percent by 2030 compared to 2019. This will be achieved with the help of green electricity, energy-saving LED lighting, solar power, combined heat and power systems, as well as fully electric company and service vehicles. Many of these initiatives are well underway. For example, GEA already purchases 100 percent green electricity.
All GEA sites in water-scarce regions will have their own water strategy in place by 2026. Given our 2026 target of 95 percent waste recovery was achieved in 2022, we have set a long-term target of 100 percent.
In addition to these individual measures, our Factory of the Future concept provides the overarching blueprint for rolling out GEA’s global climate-neutral production strategy. Our new production facility in Koszalin, Poland offers state-of-the-art technology and flexible production to suit our changing needs and those of our customers. The integration of lean measures, enhanced connectivity and automation further improves resource efficiency in all forms at this facility. Construction of our second Factory of the Future – a pharma technology center in Germany – will be completed in 2024.
Helping customers use resources more efficiently in production
Our products and solutions help customers reduce and reuse waste in their processes, achieve their sustainability targets and lead their respective industries towards a greener future. On the climate front, we support customers with holistic solutions that minimize energy consumption and CO2 emissions along entire process chains. Our heat pumps, for example, help turn waste heat into valuable energy for reuse in production processes or district heating. In emissions-intensive industries such as cement and glass production, we offer waste heat recovery and gas pre-treatment technologies, as well as carbon capture solutions to support CO2 reduction and carbon reuse.
A growing number of producers from diverse sectors can achieve near-zero freshwater withdrawals or zero-water discharge in their plants thanks to GEA. Dairy processors, for example, are saving millions of liters of water per year using GEA Separation solutions with a water-saving add on, or reverse osmosis units, which allow condensate to be collected from an evaporation plant and the water to be returned to the process, greatly reducing freshwater withdrawals.
GEA solutions are valorizing waste from land-based aquaculture, turning sewage into usable energy for heating homes, producing biogas from animal husbandry waste and bio waste, converting “waste” grain from the beer brewing process into dry pasta, and turning unsalable fruit into delicious juices – to name just a few examples. Across a range of industries, GEA is helping customers reuse and profit from their side streams or even build entire businesses on the use of waste.
Innovating our way towards circularity
As a provider of solutions for so many of today’s key industries, GEA is uniquely positioned to drive the transition towards the circular economy – accelerating the speed of innovation while helping customers increase both sustainability and cost-efficiency. Mimicking nature’s ability to forever reuse and regenerate is a lofty goal, but companies that move towards this model – and at scale – will be rewarded. The future belongs to intelligent solutions that save energy, avoid emissions and conserve resources. In other words: circularity is not an option, but an imperative.