At Römheld & Moelle, we’ve made significant progress in reducing our emissions over the past year. A key ingredient and driver of that success is one very clever head. Economics student Eliane Tuchborn set up our sustainability department from scratch within a very short time, prioritizing initiatives and developing an action plan. After a year, she is now passing on the baton. But first, we caught up with her for a chat.

R&M: Ms. Tuchborn, how does an economist like you get into decarbonizing an iron foundry?

Eliane Tuchborn: It just looked like an exciting task. It was an open brief with a lot of potential. To build something from scratch and tackle sustainability systematically for the first time.

The job was originally pitched as „supporting a little“. But I was able to expand that role and do a land grab, so to speak. I got to be the driving force.

Of course, I didn’t know all that beforehand. But the combination of innovative medium-sized company, energy-intensive production, and an opportunity to do accounting and reconciliation for something completely different – namely emissions – really appealed to me.

I was supported by other departments, but was the only one wearing the sustainability hat. I was allowed to run things and was given the freedom to develop projects autonomously. My ideas and arguments were always taken seriously and many of them were implemented.

R&M: Where do you even start?

My initial task was to establish a sustainability management system. Before I started, a hot spot analysis survey had already been launched with the workforce, resulting in 80-90 employee suggestions that I could work through and use as a starting point for a programme.

R&M: What have you learned during your year here?

ET: I learned a lot about the subject matter itself and about the methodology – how do you go about creating an emissions inventory, avoid double accounting.

The greatest learning for me was to understand how the classic Mittelstand ticks. The sustainability department here links directly into senior management rather than being a support act. That gave me great insights. I was given a lot of trust.

But I also discovered many of the hurdles that stand in the way of sustainable transformation for a company like Römheld & Moelle. And found out that there’s not always an immediate way of overcoming them.

R&M: How would you describe your overall method, what characterizes the approach to sustainability at R&M?

ET: The approach is progressive, ambitious, and science-based. The scientific approach is an inevitable part of the corporate culture here. It’s rooted in the production process itself. Everybody here is technically minded. They’re engineers so work scientifically and are ‘fact-based’ by nature. As it happens, that’s also the most efficient way of doing it.

That was important to me, not least for accountability reasons. If you follow international standards such as the GHG Protocol, you simply have a safer starting point and a different basis for comparison.

All my work took a long-term perspective. It makes sense to comply with standards such as the GHG Protocol now, in order to be futureproof. Whatever specific carbon accounting standards are introduced for our business, they are likely to be very close to today’s GHG Protocol.

In general, I would say the approach here can be summed up as ‘hard numbers matter more than mere words’. The work is very tangible. We want to build something, not do marketing.

R&M: And we’ve achieved a lot in a year. How can you reduce emissions so dramatically in an energy-intensive environment like a foundry?

ET: I have to say that we had a perfect starting position thanks to the induction furnace, that is electric melting. It meant we were able to achieve a lot in one fell swoop by switching to green electricity. Before that, we had half a tonne of CO2 per tonne of cast iron. Now that’s down to 60kg.

Our neighbours here in Mainz melt glass; you just can’t do that with electricity. And many of our competitors are still melting with coal, so they don’t have the same levers.
Another advantage is that we only have one product: cast iron. Other companies have to differentiate much more in their processes and in the emissions that occur. Emissions accounting is much more straightforward for us.

R&M: How’s that?

ET: I can determine the „Product Footprint“ via the „Corporate Footprint“. To put it very simply, you take the overall emissions footprint of the entire company and simply calculate it down to the tonne of good casting output. This covers all emissions (unlike basing it on the amount of liquid iron, for example).

Using good castings as a reference means that scrap and rejects are also included in the footprint. Everything is included that contributes to the production of a tonne of good castings that leave the foundry.

Internally, we also look at the footprint of liquid iron, but externally, for the customer, it is important that there are no gaps in the balance sheet and that the actual overall footprint is shown.

R&M: Otherwise we’d be rewarding waste. If we have a lots of scrap, it goes into the footprint.

ET: Exactly, all emissions must be assigned. That’s why we have it comparatively easy. We have tonnes of CO2 emissions on one side and tonnes of good casting outputs on the other. If we had different products, we’d have to take a closer look at the split.

R&M: The sustainability strategy at R&M is based on the carbon budget concept – what does that mean?

ET: To stay within 1.5ºC warming, the world has an emissions budget. A maximum threshold of global emissions. Against this background, it makes no sense to set a goal of “being climate-neutral from 2030” and to continue emitting at full tilt until then. With that approach, you are guaranteed to exceed the „budget“. It’s also wildly inefficient.

Thinking of it as a budget means that we are already initiating and working through measures today as part of a gradual process. For example, it’s inefficient to buy a new gas heating system now and then turn it off in ten years’ time, even though it’s still working.

That’s our approach. The goals we’re developing are aimed at having a clear pathway, reducing emissions today and thereby staying within the “budget”.

R&M: Do you already see the path to climate neutrality at R&M?

ET: Yes, we have broken down our emissions quite thoroughly by energy source, identified the main drivers and are tackling them in projects in a structured way. Investment decisions that are pending are taking the carbon footprint into account. To assess the potential there.

R&M: What more is possible?

ET: We are now at 60kg CO2 per tonne of good castings. But there are still production-related sources of emissions that cannot be switched off. For us, it’s two: firstly, the styrofoam/EPS of the full-mould casting process, which simply burns up during pouring. There is no alternative other than 3D sand printing. And we still need gas to preheat the ladles because you can’t reach the temperatures we need with electricity.

With the current state of the art, I don’t see zero emissions being possible quite yet. But I’m confident that these remaining sources of emissions can be eliminated through technical progress. The strategy is to tackle what can be done now, and then direct the focus of innovation on technical solutions to those residual emissions.

R&M is a bit of a pioneer here, from an economic perspective too. We’ve introduced 3D sand printing as a process that allows us to completely dispense with EPS in production. It means we’re playing our part in creating demand to further advance the technology and make it more and more efficient, so it becomes economical for more orders.

R&M: What advice would you give to other energy-intensive companies?

ET: Do sustainability in-house. It’s such an individual issue. Even if you limit yourself to energy-intensive industries, it is difficult to find a consultancy that is specialized in your business and has sufficient know-how to efficiently support you.

My advice: find a person, whether it’s full-time or part-time, who wears the sustainability hat and does it all in-house. That’s the only way to efficiently work through highly individual requirements, actions and problems.

You’re simply closer to the production process. I’ve walked through production here many times, looking into waste containers, asking questions. That gives you a much deeper, closer understanding of the production process.

And you inevitably have to take a deep dive into the technical stuff to really make a difference. In a company like R&M, most of the climate-relevant emissions happen in the production process. So you need someone who is able to handle technical processes.

Some companies have issues with solvents or with energy use, other have a diversity problem. You just need someone who tackles all that in a really individual way. Sustainability issues aren’t all the same. They are very individual to each company.

R&M: Ms. Tuchborn, thank you very much for the interview and good luck with your master’s thesis.