Sustainability and MWF Distribution Go Hand in Hand


Sustainability and MWF Distribution Go Hand in Hand
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The lubricants industry has been tasked with not just developing and working toward robust sustainability goals but also with actually meeting or exceeding those targets in a timely manner. What’s more, increasingly stringent regulatory requirements as well as shifting consumer expectations and other factors have spurred companies operating in the lubricants sector to ramp up their efforts even more.

While the job at hand may seem quite daunting, lubricant players of all kinds and in all regions of the world are rising to the challenge. One such company is Downers Grove, Illinois-based Univar Solutions, a chemicals and ingredients distributor with operations around the globe.

Having begun its sustainability journey in 2008, Univar Solutions is no stranger to the challenges associated with increasing the efficiency of its fleet and site operations. Lubes’n’Greases met with Federico Montaner, global vice president of lubricants and metalworking fluids for Univar Solutions, to discuss the company’s sustainability goals and how they are being applied to the lubricants and metalworking fluids segment.  

Lubes’n’Greases: What are some of Univar Solutions’ major sustainability goals? 

Montaner: At Univar Solutions, because we sit in the middle of the value chain as a leading global chemical distributor, sustainability is at our core, and it has been that way for years and years. We’ve been publishing a formal sustainability report for more than a decade.  

For us, it starts with a broad ESG (environmental, social and governance) strategy. On the environmental side, we have goals against everything ranging from climate action and resource usage to reduction and prevention of releases. Under the social pillar, we take a lot of pride in our safety record. In 2022 we achieved an all-time record low number of reportable incidents. We also have active initiatives around diversity, equity and inclusion, and community engagement. In terms of governance, we focus on sustainable sourcing, corporate governance and risk management. Lastly, sustainable solutions cut across the entire strategy and are really how we work with our customers and suppliers. 

Lubes’n’Greases: How have metalworking fluid formulations changed in recent years to become more environmentally friendly and/or sustainable? How do these formulations contribute to the sustainability goals of end users? 

Montaner: Within sustainability, we think of that as being part of three solution buckets, if you will. The first is all about sustainable or natural-based products. Within that, there are different elements as well—everything ranging from natural and biobased materials, carbon footprinting, circular materials, (i.e. recycling and reusing), safer substitutes and products that have different accreditations, whether they be social or environmental. This whole bucket around sustainability, natural-based products and sustainable formulations is really important and has helped us to have very productive conversations with customers and suppliers.  

Complementing what we do day in and day out within our metalworking and lubricant business, we also as a company provide services that are aligned with sustainability, such as our ChemCare business, which provides critical waste management solutions.  

The other thing I would add is that the way we collaborate with our customers is really important to supporting their innovation and formulation interests. If you look at current lubricant and metalworking fluid formulators, many of them want to engage in discussions around sustainability goals, as it’s an emerging and rapidly evolving field. That said, we have to keep in mind that these manufacturing and formulating businesses are different than distribution; we are intimately linked through the value chain, but they are different business models and their sustainability agenda should reflect that.  

We collaborate with customers primarily in three different areas. We support product development through our technical resources and our formulating labs. We collaborate in terms of the regulatory environment, as that’s a rapidly changing space. And finally, we work jointly with them to ensure we define an optimal supply chain and logistics solutions for the raw materials we are supplying them with, as that can reduce carbon footprint.  

Specifically in metalworking fluid formulations, like the rest of the industry, we’ve seen a lot of evolution. Everything ranging from biobased emulsifiers used to help increase the service life of fluids to eco-friendly extreme pressure and anti-wear additives being used to reduce tool wear and improve the finishing quality of some of these materials.  

On the metalworking fluid side, it’s really around helping the plants extend the life of the tools and the fluids as well as increasing the level of performance of the materials being used to reduce energy usage and lower waste.  

Lubes’n’Greases: How has consumer demand for more sustainable products affected how Univar does business? 

Montaner: I’m not suggesting that this is specific to metalworking fluids—it’s very relevant to lubricants and greases as well—but the pull from the consumer side is very much influencing our lubricant and metalworking fluid customers (formulators). Really, they’re demanding that more sustainable and naturally derived products be used in the products that they consume.  

Our portfolio lends itself nicely to that. We have renewable oleochemicals and complex esters that help with lubricity. We have fatty acids and soaps that help emulsify oils and bio-derived surfactants that extend the life of fluids. It wouldn’t be a complete story if we didn’t look down the value chain and talk about the kinds of demands that we as consumers have of our industry and how that’s driving some of that change.  

Lubes’n’Greases: How has Univar adapted its transportation and logistics to align with its sustainability goals? 

Montaner: A very big trend in our industry is electrification. It’s very well documented, and Univar Solutions is taking actions that are very aligned with that. We began with investments in electric trucks and have a pilot program in the U.S. to evaluate that capability. We’re very much aligned with making sure that we take a leadership position in that process at all levels.  

On the flip side, our current private fleet is very robust and a continued area of investment. The kinds of conversations we’re having with customers are really quite interesting because as they take a look at their carbon footprint, it’s driving discussions around what opportunities exist to optimize and subsequently decarbonize the supply chain.  

All of these are solutions that are well known in the industry but perhaps haven’t been looked at as deeply as they are now. For example, you could take a look at a supply chain that is highly dependent on trucks and perhaps consider being able to consolidate into rail cars. We always look to discuss with customers how to consolidate demand of different products, maximize loads and reduce complexity.  

We had one example where our supplier was delivering product to a customer in the Midwest from the Gulf Coast. We subsequently collaboratively transitioned to taking rail from the supplier, packaging the material locally and shipping on a just-in-time basis to the customers, thus optimizing that supply chain. These efforts resulted in more than an 80% reduction in carbon footprint. That’s just one example of one product/customer combination. When you look at a business that has thousands of customers and thousands of those opportunities to work with them to find better ways to decarbonize the supply chain, it represents a very significant opportunity for us and for them.  

Lubes’n’Greases: What are some of the major challenges associated with improving the sustainability of metalworking fluids? 

Montaner: For decades now, the overall lubricant and metalworking fluid industry has moved its offerings in alignment with sustainability, as product performance has improved considerably. If you look at the history of the industry, you see this constant and very thoughtful evolution, some of it regulatory driven and some of it is industry driven. We’ve seen higher performing, higher quality materials that are extending the intervals of fluid changes. If you look at that, that is a large part of the sustainability message.  

More recently, you’re absolutely seeing smaller sumps, tighter tolerances and higher pressure. All that poses a significant number of challenges in the way that the industry is formulating to meet those needs.  

At the end of the day, that’s really where the challenge is: ensuring that the level of performance is maintained as we try to reduce the amount of energy required to operate and as we incorporate more biobased materials.  

It does pose challenges for the formulators, for sure. But as a distributor, the way we go about ensuring that we’re bringing the most innovative products to help address those challenges is by triangulating the new innovations that suppliers are introducing with the needs of our customers. We’re ensuring that those conversations are taking place.  

Our labs and our technical resources are at the center of being able to provide that connection. What are we hearing from our customers that they’re needing? How do we support them in that development with people and lab capabilities? What are we pulling in from the suppliers that help us to deliver those requirements?  

Sustainability is a central theme in our industry. It’s a topic that is rapidly evolving in terms of what it means to our customers and what it means to our supplier partners. We are absolutely committed to maintaining a leadership position in helping our customers move their sustainability agendas forward. We’re excited about how we’re positioned in this space because we have the unique advantage of having decades of experience in driving initiative around this topic.

Sydney Moore is managing editor of Lubes’n’Greases magazine. Contact her at Sydney@LubesnGreases.com

Federico Montaner is global vice president of lubricants and metalworking fluids for Univar Solutions.