Sometimes, Sustainability Is Hard—as Concrete

The company I work for, Herman Miller, sweats the details. We come by that passion honestly. Almost 50 years ago, Charles Eames said, “The details are not details; they make the product.” Bringing his designs to life shaped us—and many would say set the course for modern design. So, when it comes to sustainability, just how fixated do you have to be on the details?

Here’s one we’ve been working on for seven years. It’s about spray, or overspray, to be more exact. We paint many parts for our products with a process known as powdercoating. In our spray booths, there’s always some paint that doesn’t stick. That’s the overspray. How much can that amount to?

Well, imagine a few million homeowners in their backyards applying aerosol paint to an old lawn chair. Now imagine those million spraying paint nonstop for eight hours a day, six days a week. That’s a lot of overspray, from us and nearly every manufacturer who needs to put a hard finish on an object. For years, all that overspray was collected and sent to landfills.

And all that overspray sent to landfills—our relatively small amount multiplied by the overspray collected by thousands of other manufacturers—really bugged us. So we kept working on a solution. And we’ve finally come up with the answer: mix it into concrete.

Working with a local West Michigan supplier, VanderWall Brothers Concrete, two of our environmental specialists, Tom Egeler and Dan Broersma, helped develop a way to recycle the overspray powdercoat: It’s being added into cement. Testing has shown that adding the recycled powdercoat improves the binding qualities of the cement, producing a stronger concrete block. We’re hoping concrete laced with overspray makes its way into the building industry, or at the very least that overspray can be useful, instead of landfill.

How can that happen? For us, we’ve replaced the counterweights that sit in the bottom of our filing and storage units—to prevent them from tipping over when the drawers are extended—with concrete blocks made with waste overspray. And, we’re telling everyone we know about our idea, so waste overspray becomes a thing of the past.

Herman Miller Inc.
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