Interview with Mark Gmelin of Labcon

Labcon is a manufacturer of disposable laboratory products designed and produced in Sonoma County, California. The company has a storied history of growth from their humble beginnings in 1959 as “Ways and Means” making a variety of custom plastic products. Today their product line is focused solely on laboratory wares: they produce pipet tips, culture tubes, centrifuge tubes, well plates and other lab plastics. Despite making so many single use plastic products, the company has a conscience, and in 1994 began to innovate new products with lower environmental impacts using less packaging, more recycled plastics, bio-based plastics and refillable packaging.

I recently talked with Mark Gmelin, Materials R&D Engineer slash Sustainability Coordinator with Labcon about the company’s sustainability initiatives. Before working for Labcon, Mark held a number of engineering positions working on projects such as automated robotics, stunt cars for Hollywood and motorcycle windscreens among other neat jobs.

SL: Mark, your resume is quite impressive. It looks like you have done quite a bit of work with robotics. Should I be preparing for when they take over?

   MG: [Laughs] No need to worry about robots taking over, just yet. The robots we use in our manufacturing facilities are very important to the production line and they actually enable us to compete with overseas manufacturers. So in a way you could call them a sustainability initiative because they are helping to sustain the company. In the last 10 years Labcon has doubled its output capacity while keeping the workforce size the same because of the robots we are using.

 SL: And these robots, who are not going to take over the world, get along well with your employees?

MG: Yes,  in fact the employees actually like them because they are making their jobs easier. As I was saying before, despite our expansion the workforce has remained the same and those same employees that were once racking pipet tips by hand are now operating robots that rack pipet tips.  It worked out well for the employees too because instead of providing manual labor they are now operating machinery and get paid more.

SL:  Sounds like a win-win scenario: robots helping humans helping Labcon. Nice! But I digress, back to Labcon.  When did sustainability really become a factor for Labcon and what were their first initiatives or sustainability-minded products?

MG:  Well, the driving force behind all of our sustainability initiatives and products comes from our President, Jim Happ along with Marketing/Sales Director, Tom Moulton. Jim is a sort of self-proclaimed hippy, but he’s traded his tie-dyes in for sport coats. He went to the first Earth Day celebration in 1970 and wants his business to take the environment into consideration. So before anyone was talking about sustainability, Jim and Tom were thinking about what they could do to make our products greener and have less of an environmental impact.

The first thing they did was work to reduce packaging. Centrifuge tubes were traditionally and are often still sold in Styrofoam racks, but you don’t need insulating foam to ship an empty plastic tube around, so they developed a recyclable paperboard rack to replace the foam rack in 1994.

SL: And that was just the first initiative, so twenty years later, how else are you reducing packaging of your products?

MG:  Well, right after replacing Styrofoam racks with paperboard, Labcon started to focus on pipet tips and developed the first reloading system for pipet tips in 1995. Before this system, when customers purchased pipet tips they would get a rack of 96 and when they were used up they threw out the rack. With this innovation the customer would now keep the rack and just refill the tips. The first version was the Pagoda refill system, named after the traditional Japanese tiered building, as the stack of nested tips look like a miniature tower. The metal reload device was big, we nicknamed it "the Toaster", and it took up considerable space on the bench top. We have many customers that still use and love the Pagoda! In 2008, we redesigned the system and came out with a minimalist version, the Eclipse, where the tips come in a paperboard box with an integrated recycle PET (polyethylene terephthalate) tip transfer device. It takes up no more bench space than the tip rack it refills.

Now, when you buy our tip refill, the usable tips make up 60% by weight of the total product [tips + packaging]. When you buy our competitors refill, only 30-40% of the product is actually usable pipet tips.  

MG:  Aside from product design and trying to reduce packaging as much as possible we also work with materials that are environmentally beneficial. This goal led us to bioplastics - plastics made from plants instead of petroleum. For some of our packaging we currently use plastic made in a fermentation process that creates high-density polyethylene (HDPE) which is the same plastic used to make milk jugs and yogurt cups.  The plastic molecules are actually built up from plant sources rather than broken down from large petroleum molecules. It’s the same exact recyclable HDPE plastic but from an environmentally friendlier and renewable source. The final plastic is also very pure with no biologically active residuals.

What’s more is our bioplastics are actually pulling carbon out of the air. Most common plastics give off about two times their own weight in CO2 during the manufacturing process but our bioplastics do the opposite as they actually sequester two times their own weight as the initial plants absorb CO2. This new plastic is a carbon sink.

SL: Whoa, you kind of just blew my mind there? Is Labcon the inventor of this technology or are other companies using this material as well?

MG: We are the only company using it in the labware industry, but other big-name companies like Coca Cola use bioplastics. Have you heard of Odwalla, the fruit smoothie drink? Well, all of their bottles are made from this kind of plastic. It’s great because the customers can use the existing recycling stream whereas compostable/biodegradable bioplastics, which we did offer for a short while, require industrial composting for proper disposal and we found that most communities don’t have access.

SL: So you have some really innovative bioplastics that are sequestering carbon during the manufacturing process. Are you doing anything else to reduce your fossil fuel footprint?

MG: Well, we have been really aggressive about installing on-site renewable energy at our facility.  We started in 2003 when we were building our new plant in Petaluma, however, we didn’t focus on renewable energy at first but on energy conservation where we purchased the most efficient equipment we could find. The same approach goes for our products where we try to make them as efficient as possible before using renewable materials. Our bioplastics cost almost twice as much as regular plastics, but we are investing in new green technology just like we are doing with the renewable energy that makes the products. Over the next few years we cut our energy use by half.

SL: Wow, 50% energy reduction through energy efficiency?!

MG: Yeah, we focused on our lighting, putting variable speed motors on our compressors, optimizing the HVAC system but the biggest savings came from switching from hydraulic to electric molding machines. That alone cut our energy tremendously and then once we tackled all the low hanging fruit we decided to invest in solar energy.  We put a massive solar system on our roof and having already cut our energy use in half we effectively doubled the impact of going solar. We now make 30% of our yearly energy on site and the plant runs 24 hours a day year-round.

SL: That must be a huge system!

MG: It is! We are up to 869 KW on the roof. There are so many panels (2,728 to be exact) on the roof right now we’ve run out of space to put more.

SL: Haha. You’re kidding right?

MG: No, seriously! We are looking to put panels in our parking lot because there is no more room on the roof!

SL: That’s incredible! And you are still adding more?

MG: Yeah we are going to keep adding until we hit a megawatt of electricity. In California, once you produce more than a megawatt, your status as a power producer changes and you loose out on certain incentives.

SL: So economically, investing in solar was probably a smart decision?

MG: Oh yes, definitely, and we get creative with the way we use energy.  For instance during the summer, when electricity prices are highest, we produce 200% of the energy we need to run the plant.  All of that excess electricity we sell back to the grid and then we buy it back at night for a lower price. It’s called net metering.

There were also a lot of tax credits and things like that but even without those rebates we would still be saving money. Right now we spend about half a million dollars a year on energy including our lease payments for the panels. Without the solar and definitely without our conservation efforts we would be spending well over a million dollars a year. In a few years, when we pay off the system, it will be ours and we will spend even less on energy while everyone else’s rates keep going up.

You know what’s cool about this too? It goes back to the sustainability of the company. If we didn’t do all of these sustainable things to reduce costs here in America, we wouldn’t be able to compete with those companies that produce their cheap products abroad. And we always beat them on quality of course!

SL: I mean you have to love products made in America! So aside from helping you reduce costs do you find that Labcon is creating competitive advantage by engaging in sustainability?

MG:  We have been doing this for so long now that people recognize us as the green labware company and it really separates us out in the industry. Some universities and companies give priority to environmentally friendly products so that has really helped us out.  All of these areas we are innovating in do not come cheap, so sometimes we have a hard time competing with other vendors, especially when their products are made overseas. But for those companies who are trying to reduce their own environmental impact through low waste and low carbon products plus want high quality labware we are the obvious choice.

SL: Yeah I think the industry is changing and companies want to work with suppliers who share the same values as them even if it means they may have to pay a bit more. I mean their customers are almost demanding it. So what are your sustainability plans for the future?

MG: Water is a huge priority today.  Since we are located in California, we are facing a huge drought and we want to do our part to reduce water use. Just like 10 years ago no one was thinking about carbon and now everyone talks about it. The same goes for water; no one really thinks about it until it’s too late and you have a drought on your hands.

So about a year ago we audited our water use and found that 2/3 of our water was going to irrigating our grounds. That’s something like 2 million gallons a year just for our grass lawns. To us, it didn’t seem right that we were using more water to make our property look nice than to actually manufacture our products! By adjusting schedules, fixing broken heads and reprograming the system to not irrigate when it rains we were able to cut our water use for irrigation by a million gallons. We are now pulling out our lawns to be replaced with drought resistant plants and this should cut the landscape water use by another half a million gallons.

We have also been working on reducing water use inside our facility. When you injection mold, you fill a mold with hot liquid plastic and then use separate water passages to take heat away as quickly as possible and solidify the part. The heated water is pumped outside to a cooling tower and chilled water brought back in to do the job all over again.  During this process, however, we lose a lot of water to evaporation - something like 750,000 gallons a year. This summer we are switching over to a closed loop, air cooled system that will have minimal evaporation loss. We expect by the end of the year to cut our water use by at least an additional half a million gallons. 

Last year we were using 3 million gallons of water a year and now were looking at using less than half a million gallons for a total reduction of 80%. Not bad for a couple years of work. It just took a few moments of awareness and a relatively small effort.

SL: Mark, this is remarkable stuff here. We at Labconscious are all very impressed. Thank you for your time and keep us in the loop with the progress of your sustainability program going into the future!

 

You can find out more about Labcon’s product line by going to their website linked here or follow up with Mark directly for anymore questions on their sustainability initiatives by emailing him at Mgmelin@labcon.com