Meet the Sustainability Innovators at Corning

Innovation at a large company like Corning cannot come from just one person or one team; it must be ingrained into the company culture and supported at all levels. Corning has been inventing and innovating for 170 years to meet the needs of an ever-changing world, and it's now applying that same spirit to the climate crisis with the aim of expanding corporate sustainability.

Sustainability Innovators Make Positive Impacts

Corning Life Sciences piloted a Design for Sustainability program in 2022. As Michelle Vessels, Senior Product Manager for Corning Life Sciences Advances Surfaces and 3D explains, "Designing for sustainability means looking at our innovations from conception to launch to see how we can decrease waste and energy use."

For example, Corning® Elplasia® Flasks were designed to use less material and a more energy-efficient manufacturing process when compared to standard molding and assembly procedures. Corning U-shaped cell culture flasks were designed with rounded shoulders that improve usability and allow the flasks to be made with about 23 percent less plastic than traditional T-flasks. Less plastic means fewer emissions associated with plastic resin production and end-of-life incineration.

"Our U-flasks were redesigned to make them mechanically stronger, even though they used less plastic," Vessels says. "The project began as a one-off idea and grew to a whole family of flasks that are very successful for our customers and reduce our plastic usage by millions of pounds per year."

Corning EcoChoice™ products

Corning U-shaped flasks are part of the Corning EcoChoice™ program, which launched in September 2023. EcoChoice products are produced, packaged, and/or distributed in an environmentally friendly manner following U.S. FTC Guidelines. This means that all product sustainability statements are specific, evidence-based, and traceable.

"Corning EcoChoice provides customers more transparency on how their purchasing behaviors impact the environment" explains Sarah Dowdall, Director of Strategy and Sustainability lead. By using EcoChoice products, customers "will also accelerate the life sciences industry towards sustainability—whether through innovation, scale up, or other new ideas."

To be included in the EcoChoice program, products must meet at least one of the following criteria: recycled content (pre-consumer or post-consumer), source reduction, environmental attribute certificates (EACs), or intensification. Intensification means that a product is designed to enable greater cell production per volume of plastic waste.

For example, the multiple layers of Corning HYPERFlask® and HYPERStack® vessels allow more cells to be produced per vessel footprint, which reduces the amount of plastic used per unit of output. To intensify production and reduce plastic usage even more, the Corning Ascent® Fixed Bed Reactor (FBR) System provides something close to a 3D growth environment and ideal conditions for cell growth.

Small Steps Can Yield Big Results

Of course, it's not always appropriate to scale up to reduce plastic waste. There are ways to reduce packaging materials or other factors, even for applications that require single-use virgin plastic. Small savings can add up.

For instance, packaging for Axygen® Brand products has recently been redesigned with recycling in mind. The cartons now feature 100 percent recyclable unbleached natural corrugate, a recyclable aqueous coating, and less ink than the previous design (the ink is now plant-based). All upgraded product packaging is planned to transition by the end of 2024. As another example, reloadable pipette tip boxes are now made with 100 percent recycled polypropylene.

According to Todd C. Gilmore, product line manager for Automation Tips and Reservoirs at Corning Life Sciences, the pursuit of innovation and desire to reduce waste has intensified following these latest advancements. Development teams continue to push for new breakthroughs." Our products are incorporating regrind plastic where possible, mostly in racks and lids," he explains. "Many production lines have been modified to feed the "runners," which is waste plastic from tip molding, directly back into the resin stream as part of the manufacturing process. I am also working with engineering on a new method of injection molding racks that could reduce the amount of plastic used by over 50 percent."

Nitin Deore, business supply manager for Corning Pharmaceutical Technologies (CPT), provides more examples of sustainable impact, such as advancements in product packaging. "We have implemented a reduce/reuse/recycle (3R) program within CPT," he says. "Last year, we reused 30 percent of the pallets that were used for shipping glass tubes from our Vineland, New Jersey, facility to internal and external customers. At our facility in Durham, North Carolina, we recycled 180 metric tons of plastic scrap from pallets and trays, diverting them from landfill. We are also working to narrow distances in our supply chain by localizing products to reduce carbon emissions."

Building on a Legacy of Innovation

The Corning legacy provides motivation and inspiration for sustainability innovators like Deore. "From my perspective, sustainability is in the blood of Corning culture and has been inculcated in every employee through innovative actions," he notes. "For example, 50 years ago in response to the U.S. Clean Air Act, we started delivering a ceramic-based emission control technology for motor vehicles that has prevented 4 billion tons of hydrocarbon and the same amount of nitrogen oxides from polluting the air." Deore goes on to explain that, even more recently, CPT started offering "better quality, higher efficiency, and sustainable glass vials and tubing."

Gilmore adds to the employee stories, noting that what's most exciting about sustainability in life sciences right now is the feedback customers are providing. "Back in 2003, when I started my career in life sciences, most customers were not overly concerned with the size of the waste stream generated by their research," he says. "I have seen a big shift in attitudes over the last five to six years, as younger researchers seem to be more in tune with the impact their actions have on the environment."

Corning Life Sciences teams are working toward a closed circularity loop for lab plastics by pioneering chemical recycling methods with the potential to drastically reduce single-use plastic consumption and waste in biological research. Their approach envisions taking used plastic, breaking it down to its base-level elements, and reconstituting it into virgin-quality material to make new lab tools, such as pipettes and petri dishes, that meet lab-quality standards.

"It's all about innovation and good attribute definition," Vessels notes. "There are promising new extrusion and molding technologies being developed. Many of us are hopeful that we'll be able to work on these game-changing technologies more, as there is a great need for this worldwide. We truly believe these technologies are vital for our future."

In its push toward sustainable operations, Corning is also investing heavily in renewable energy and energy efficiency and was named a 2022 Energy Star Partner of the Year by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Corning continues to build on its legacy of innovation to clear the way for cleaner air, cleaner water, and healthier generations to come.

Curious to learn more about Corning's latest strides toward sustainability? Explore Corning Life Sciences' initiatives.