Concerns about sustainability and the environment in the United States have been around since the 1960s, chief among them, the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 and the Cuyahoga River fire in 1969. These events helped lead to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in December 1970.

Important early legislation included Clean Water and Air Acts and subsequent amendments. Improvements in smoke emission and fire propagation in cable designs followed disasters such as the Brooklyn subway fire in December 1990 where an exposed power cable short-circuited, exploded and burned the PVC jacket releasing toxic gases. Two deaths resulted and another 188 people were treated for injuries. Even in 1982 concerns were raised with the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) about cables with PVC and the potential for deadly fumes in the event of fire. The MTA declined to remove installed cables saying the presence of PVC did not constitute a hazard, but opted to use safer cables in the future. In Europe similar high profile fires led to the development of new cables.

Role of NGOs

Safety, performance and environmental considerations necessitated the establishment of standards bodies comprised of industry experts to define minimum acceptable performance requirements. Some of these committees are well known and are shown in Figure 1.

The primary raw materials used by the world’s largest cable manufacturers are copper, aluminium and petroleum-based products such as PVC and polyethylene. But the growing complexity in meeting sustainability targets for global companies is underscored by the use of as many as 4,000 materials suppliers.

To address this complexity, global manufacturing companies likely have a function that collects and aggregates data and is responsible for its management and analysis. This function also coordinates company policies with RoHS, REACH, Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) and Safety Data Sheet (SDS) standards that can be disseminated across its global footprint. A company may seek to reinforce its commitment to sustainable practices by adopting a Code of Ethics by which suppliers consent to abide.

One approach is to conduct a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) that involves not only a phased approach from raw material acquisition to manufacturing, but also seeks to efficiently deal with waste by-products. LCAs help define the goal and scope of work. Once defined, an inventory assessment is conducted followed by an environmental impact assessment. Last, the results from the second and third phases are interpreted against the goal to determine the appropriate product, process or service to be used.

The LCA approach covers the environmental criteria such as volumes of raw materials used and CO2 emissions and waste materials produced. Slide 3 shows the criteria that a major cable manufacturer uses to comply with internationally accepted sustainability practices.

Although this company’s total waste in tonnes increased by 5% in 2012, the amount of hazardous materials generated year-on-year fell by 19%. As a percent of total waste material produced, the hazardous waste accounted for 5.1% in 2012 compared to the 7.2% share achieved in 2011.

Some Logistical Consideration

Manufacturers have substituted wooden battens on cable reels with plastic wrapping, and re-designed wooden drums to reduce wood consumption. Reel collection rates as high as 70% for re-use in domestic markets has also been reported by some manufacturers.

Another initiative which reduces waste is the use of eco-friendly or re-useable containers for holding and transporting petroleum-based products such as the filling and flooding compounds used to prevent ingress of water from contacting optical fibres.