The Environmental Impact: Sustainable Welding Practices in Industry

October 26, 2023 · Leave a comment · Red-D-Arc
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At first glance, the environmental impact of welding might not seem like a significant concern. At its core, you’re using electricity to generate heat to melt and fuse metals together; where is the environmental impact?

At closer examination, there are many ways that welding can impact the environment.

  • The process of welding generates metal fumes, both from the metals being welded, from the fillers being used, and from the fluxes or shielding gasses being used. These fumes, released into the environment, can lead to poisoning the air, land, and water, as well as people or animals in the area.
  • The electricity used in welding has to come from somewhere. As a very energy-intensive process, any steps taken to reduce energy consumption or make welding more energy-efficient can be beneficial to the environment, even if it is many steps removed from the generation of that energy.
  • Welding has many consumables, many of which have debris or remains that are simply discarded as waste.

This only scratches the surface; a comprehensive analysis of welding processes shows a wide range of potential environmental contaminants and impacts across the industry.

Two things are undeniable.

Welding can be hugely damaging to the local and global environment.

Welding is absolutely essential to modern life.

As long as welding is necessary for the manufacture of modern necessities, it can’t be abandoned. Therefore, anyone using welding should take any steps they can to minimize their environmental impact. The question is, how? There are many options, so let’s discuss them.

Skip the Feel-Good, No-Impact Gimmicks

Before digging into real techniques and practices, it’s worth mentioning that there are a lot of gimmicks for “green” welding and supplementary practices that may feel good but don’t really do anything for the environment at the scale necessary to make an impact.

One of the more common ideas is to repurpose old, worn-out welding helmets as flower pots. While sure, this gives a purpose to an otherwise-discarded item, it’s almost silly compared to any other item in this list.

Moreover, as a welding helmet is not designed for this kind of use, it can leach contaminants into the water and soil around it, making it not as green as it might seem.

We will skip the gimmicks and the greenwashing and focus on the things that really matter. We’ll keep our helmets on our heads!

Make Sure Any Materials are Cleaned of Oils, Paints, and Coatings Prior to Welding

Many metals, both workpieces, fillers, and even electrodes, often have coatings on them. Whether it’s paint, oil, or another chemical, these are meant to prevent the base material from corroding or rusting when exposed to the atmosphere or moisture in the process of manufacture, shipping, and handling.

When welding, these coatings must be removed.

From a sustainability standpoint, burning away these coatings through the process of welding will atomize them and send them into the atmosphere as fumes. These fumes are generally very harmful because they contain all manner of toxic chemicals and heavy metals. While you can handle these fumes in other ways – and we’ll mention them later – it’s better to avoid producing them in the first place.

If possible, find a way to strip these coatings in a way that doesn’t simply push them into the environment in other ways. For example, some can be removed with specialized solvents that react chemically to leave inert chemicals instead.

Even if you aren’t concerned with sustainability, removing these coatings is good practice to avoid contamination of the weld pool, which leads to pocking, cracking, and poor joints.

Examine Waste and Recycle Anything That Can Be Recycled

Welding produces a lot of waste. Some of this waste is in the form of scrap metal; others are from empty and used consumables.

Empty gas cylinders, worn-down electrodes, mostly-gone filler rods; all of these bits of consumables are generally just discarded in a welding operation.

“Waste management is crucial to reducing the environmental impact of welding. Properly disposing of welding waste products like spent welding electrodes, empty cylinders, and other by-products is important. Properly labeling and storing the waste can also reduce the risk of spills and accidents, adversely affecting the environment.” – SEC Industrial.

Some materials can be recycled or reused. Metals can be recycled, gas cylinders can be refilled and reused, and some other materials can be repurposed. Anything that can’t be recycled should be labeled and properly disposed of to prevent environmental contamination.

Choose a Less Impactful Welding Process

Different welding processes produce different emissions. Some are much more energy-efficient or less damaging to the environment than others. Whenever possible, pick the least impactful welding method you can.

Several of the less impactful welding operations include laser welding, friction stir welding, and vacuum soldering.

“Different welding techniques generate different amounts and kinds of pollutants, so selection of technique has an impact on environmental impact. Two solid-state welding techniques, friction stir welding (FSW) and magnetic pulse welding (MPW) create less pollution because they eliminate the need for fillers or flux and do not produce dangerous fumes. Another solid-state technique, diffusion welding, also eliminates outgassing, but it is impractical for large jobs.” – Global Spec.

Among traditional welding processes, TIG is generally the most sustainable, though it’s still not as green as other options.

“TIG welding generates lower levels of nitrogen oxides and ozone. Unfortunately, the process is expensive and more suitable for small-scale projects. For larger projects, opt for metal inert gas (MIG) welding but take precautions to reduce the amount of fumes.” – Sam’s Welding.

Of course, you may not have the option of using many of these processes, depending on the kind of work you can do. Obviously, it would be best if you chose the kind of welding most suitable for your project; a green welding operation used inefficiently can be worse than a less sustainable process used quickly and effectively.

Use Automation to Increase Speeds and Decrease Waste

One of the most powerful investments you can make in your welding operations is to invest in automation. Automation, whether it’s as simple as a mechanized welding table to make pipe welding faster and easier or full robotic, automatic welding systems, can be much more sustainable than human operators welding by hand, even when the same process is used.

Why is this? Primarily, it’s all about speed and accuracy. A robot can be programmed to execute one weld extremely effectively, with as little time spent in operation, as little fumes generated, as little energy consumed, and as little room for error as possible. Meanwhile, human operators tend to be slower, less efficient, and less precise.

Automation isn’t suitable for every purpose. Break-fix style welding (such as what might happen in an automotive shop) can’t really be automated. However, for fabrication and for large, repeatable tasks, automation can be a huge boost in efficiency and sustainability.

Use a Fume Extraction System to Avoid Releasing Contaminants

Since fumes are inevitably generated by welding, and they are one of the primary sources of direct environmental impact from welding, one of the most impactful things you can do is use a comprehensive fume extraction system for your welding operations.

Fume extractors run the gamut from small, individual units that use vacuum systems to pull air away from an individual operation, run it through a filtration system, and return it to the room in a cleaner form, all the way up to facility-wide air exchangers that cycle the atmosphere within a room or building rapidly and regularly. Picking the best system for your operations can be a challenge.

Regardless of the option you pick, you want to make sure that you clean the filters on your fume extractor regularly to maintain efficient operation. Don’t forget that the debris in those filters is made up of all of those environmental contaminants, so you can’t simply wash them or blast them out with compressed air; that defeats the purpose. Follow proper disposal procedures for the hazardous materials involved.

If you are interested in exploring the options available for fume extraction, we’re more than happy to help. You can browse the fume extractors we have for rent here, or you can reach out to contact us with any questions you may have. Our agents are standing by to provide expert advice for any questions you may have.

Switch to Eco-Friendly Consumables

Many of the fumes generated from welding, other than the ones that come from coatings or from the metal materials themselves, come from flux. Flux is tricky because it’s designed to do what it does: burn into a gas that saturates the area surrounding the weld to shield it from contamination. That very same effect, however, is what leads to the fumes that present such a hazard.

One option to help solve this issue is to switch the kind of consumables you’re using.

“One of the best ways to reduce environmental impact when welding is by using eco-friendly materials. Many of the traditional welding materials, such as nitrate-based fluxes, generate harmful fumes and can produce waste products that are toxic to the environment. The use of eco-friendly welding materials like water-based fluxes or electrode coatings, on the other hand, can reduce environmental impact greatly. These materials help reduce the fumes generated and waste produced during the welding process.” – SEC Industrial.

By switching to more environmentally friendly consumables, you can save on both environmental impact and on the consumables themselves.

Invest in Energy-Efficient Welding Systems

There are a number of different ways that you can adopt energy efficiency into your welding process.

Automation, as previously mentioned, is a big one.

Another is to invest in modern welding machines. There is a wide range of welding machines for all processes, but the general trend toward better technology, greater efficiency, and the ability to stop as necessary to avoid burning excess energy are all more modern features. Whether it’s computerized or manual operation, modern welding systems are going to be more energy efficient than older systems.

Some systems will consume less power than others. There will also be variations between models, brands, and the capacity settings on the machine itself. There are many factors to balance, but investing in efficient machines can be a huge source of impact, both in terms of environmental benefits and in the financial expense of energy costs.

Invest in Supplementary Energy Generation

Speaking of energy costs, you need to get your power from somewhere; why not try to

supplement or add to your energy sources in ways that can benefit you and the environment?

One of the simplest options is to invest in solar. A solar system can provide energy for a shop, and while a high-consumption machine like a welder can consume a day’s worth of solar energy in minutes, it’s still a net benefit over getting 100% of that energy from the grid.

You won’t be able to shift your energy sources entirely to these renewable sources, but you can supplement your grid usage with additional resources.

Consider Using Virtual Reality for Operator Training

What’s better for the environment than welding? Not welding.

No, we’re not saying that you should abandon welding entirely. However, when training new welding operators, one thing you might consider is investing in non-welding training options. An increasingly common option is the use of Virtual Reality systems for basic training.

These systems aren’t quite like the real thing, so your operators will require hands-on experience at some point, but VR can help with basic training and the core concepts of welding without the danger, risk, or environmental impact of actual welding.

There are a variety of virtual welding simulators available, so feel free to explore the options.

Making a Sustainable Impact

The welding industry is at a crossroads. On one side is the undeniable necessity of welding for modern life. On the other is the undeniable impact welding can have on our environment. Striking a balance between these realities is crucial for the future of our planet and the sustainability of the industry.

Companies and individual welders can significantly reduce their carbon footprint and environmental impact by adopting and investing in the right technologies and practices. Two primary methods stand out:

  1. Energy-Efficient Welding Systems: The modern age offers a plethora of advanced welding systems designed with energy efficiency at their core. Making the switch can significantly reduce energy consumption, leading to reduced costs and a smaller carbon footprint.
  2. Fume Extraction Systems: Apart from the evident environmental benefits, fume extraction systems also ensure the health and safety of welders. By removing harmful materials from the air, these systems protect both the environment and the people working within it.

By focusing on these two areas, businesses can take giant leaps towards sustainability. Not only is this good for the planet, but it also positions these businesses as forward-thinking leaders in their industry.

For those ready to make the switch and champion sustainability in welding, know that the journey might be challenging but is undoubtedly worth every effort.

If you need advice, have any questions, or want to know what you can do with your configuration to help boost the sustainability of your operations, feel free to contact us. We’ll be able to offer our expert opinions and analyze what you have and what you need to make the most out of your setup. There’s always room for improvement, so don’t hesitate to make the changes you need to be a progressive frontrunner in the industry.

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