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issue: June 2009 APPLIANCE Magazine

Feature - Electric Housewares and Floorcare Appliances
It Isn’t Easy Designing Green


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Lisa Bonnema

Engineers at Bissell found that designing “green” required more than just reprocessed plastic.

At last year’s Housewares show, Bissell Homecare Inc. (Grand Rapids, MI, U.S.; www.bissell.com) made headlines with its Little Green multipurpose compact deep cleaner that used 10% post consumer reprocessed (PCR) plastic. But even then, the company knew it could do better.

According to Scott Boles, Bissell’s director of global quality: “We decided, ‘We’re going to launch what we have, but that’s not good enough. Let’s put a product development team together to make a product that is at least 50% reprocessed material.’”

But reaching that goal involved a lot more than the company initially bargained for. Specifically, the vacuum manufacturer had to get all of the recycled plastic it intended to use to build the vacuum’s main housings and base certified by UL—something the 133-year-old company never had to do before. “We are an OEM, not a material formulator,” Boles explains. “So we had to find out all of the actions that were needed to qualify our materials.”

Wearing a New Hat

In most appliance manufacturing applications, plastic comes from the suppliers already certified. In other words, OEMs never have to think about it. The only material certification issue they have to worry about is staying within the 20% regrind threshold to keep their product UL rated.

However, because Bissell wanted to use 100% postconsumer plastic to make components that housed electrical components, it had to go through the entire material certification and testing process. This required about $20,000 to qualify two materials and nine months of education. Boles quips: “When the project was finished, our UL contact shook our compliance person’s hand and said, ‘You are now in the material processing business.’”

The OEM’s first step? Find a resin reprocessor and get that facility UL certified. “We did the research and visited the supplier to make sure they were set up for the UL audit,” Boles tells APPLIANCE. Fortunately, the supplier already had most of the controls in place and really only needed to update its paperwork. “Some documentation was missing, so we just really focused on making sure the processes were documented correctly,” Boles says.

Once the reprocessor passed the UL audit, Bissell then went through the proper procedures to have the reprocessed materials qualified. However, this involved more than simply testing the material and declaring it certified or uncertified. “UL requires that suppliers run three lots of materials so that there is control and consistency in material properties, with very little variation,” Boles explains.

As part of this process, materials have to meet about eight different physical properties, which include tests such as flammability and impact resistance. “We had to make duplicate plaques to compare all the lots,” Boles explains. Also, once the material is approved, it then has to go through the entire process again, this time as the molded components in the product.

According to Boles, it was well worth both the time and effort. “We think it makes a difference, and we need to do what we need to do to save the environment,” he says. “We don’t have to take oil out of the ground to make the virgin resins to make this product. We are able to use what has been returned to us. It’s about reusing our resources.”

Material Details

The two materials Bissell had qualified were polypropylene and ABS resins. For the sake of efficiency, Bissell simply had its supplier find materials that matched the specifications of its UL-rated virgin resins and match those properties to the reprocessed plastic. “They took the material, tested it, and chose the additives,” Boles says. “It’s not an easy process. You have to keep materials consistent, but additives aren’t free. It’s a balancing act. But they did their black magic and got the properties to where they needed to be.”

The challenges didn’t end once the materials were certified. When manufacturing the new floor-care cleaner, Bissell found it was difficult to achieve clarity and color consistency. “Virgin resin is very uniform,” Boles says. “It is either all white or clear, and it mixes well. With reprocessed material, you may have a white recycled component or a green component. You have to pick and choose to make sure color is consistent and that you don’t get imperfections like black specs.”

The OEM’s aesthetic goal was to make the 50% reprocessed Little Green vacuum look as close to its predecessor as possible. That was no easy task, according to Boles. “Maybe we had on rose-colored glasses,” he says.

The first manufacturing approach the company took was sending the base material to the molder to blend the color at the molding machine. However, Bissell found that each machine mixed the color differently. That led to a second approach, which involved precoloring the base resin during compounding and then sending that material to the molder. This strategy, combined with specialized blending equipment developed by Bissell’s supplier, created the consistent color that the company was seeking.

Even Greener

The company uses every bit of its PCR plastic but has to supplement about 30% from non-Bissell material streams to make its latest Little Green model. Boles says that finding available material for opaque plastics has been the biggest challenge, but the manufacturer has been able to work with a recycler to reuse refrigerator interior door panels, computer panels, and printer panels.

Currently, the reprocessed material can be found in the floorcare cleaner’s main housings, base housings, float stack, accessory tools, and exterior plastic parts. Long term, Bissell would like to certify V-rated PCR material to make the units even greener. “These are more-engineered plastics and are hard to get certified because they house actual electrical components, such as motor housings,” Boles says.

For now, Bissell plans to use its knowledge and experience with Little Green and apply it to as many of its other products as possible. “We are going to go after this thing and stay after it,” Boles says. “But we are going after it in a smart, strategic way—leverage what we have and move forward.”

 

 

 

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