Narrow Web Profile: Metro Label

By Jack Kenny | July 17, 2006

In Canada, a major converter pursues an aggressive environmental strategy.

Sandeep Lal, president of Metro Label Group.
Photos by Geoff Scott
The Lal family could have been quite satisfied simply owning one of the largest and most successful label manufacturing operations in Canada, banking the profits and resting comfortably. But no. Not this family. The Lals possess another layer of consciousness, one that impels them to consider their business as part of society, of humanity and of the environment. This awareness has reshaped Metro Label Group figuratively and literally. The results are both visible and unseen, but beneficial both to those who work for the company and for the rest of us as well.

Sandeep Lal is president of Metro Label Group, which has its headquarters in Scarborough, ON, a suburb of Toronto. The group, which has annual sales in the range of $60 million (Canadian), employs nearly 300 people and has operations also in Langley, BC, in Montreal, QC, and in Napa, CA, USA. He is the son of Narinder Lal, the chairman, who founded the company in 1974. Nandini Chaudhary, Sandeep's sister, is a partner and heads the purchasing department.

This year Metro Label moved into a new headquarters building, quite close (by design) to its former plant. To describe the 132,000 square foot facility as eco-friendly is correct but inadequate. The structure and the workplace, from top to bottom, was built to aggressively pursue environmental cooperation. Among those aware of this effort and investment is the government of Canada, which has bestowed upon Metro Label the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified manufacturing facility in the country.

"The light went on many years ago when we changed from solvent to water based inks," says Sandeep. "We worked with water based inks for a short period of time and switched to UV inks. By 1997, most of our machines were UV flexo. Some can talk about the advantages of UV flexo from a printing perspective, but one of the things that is not quite well known about UV printing is that it has the smallest amount of VOC issues if exhausted properly, compared with other types of inks that are used in our business.

"Changing the ink is a small but significant step, because there's a significant investment involved in converting machines to add UV capabilities. When we added litho capability in our building many years ago, in the late '90s, we went to waterless offset rather than conventional offset for rollfed printing, which also is the cleanest way you can go from an environmental perspective.

"When we bought the property to move to this location, we wanted to make sure that we would differentiate ourselves with our environmental stance. The printing industry is a polluting industry, if one can call it that; not very environmentally friendly is the best way to say it. We use paper as one of our products; we use petrochemical products; we exhaust our VOCs into the air. When we look at our industry as a whole, the reality is that we are not going to change what we do today. We have to deal within the boundaries of our current business model, but try to do the best we can from an environmental perspective.

"When we hired the architect, an engineer and an interior designer, all three were made aware of what our goals were with the building, the features inside the building, and the reasons for them. We looked at everything from wind turbines to solar panels to geothermal heating and air conditioning by using underground pipes and water. Everything that was available was evaluated as part of the building process. We basically said with anything that had a five- to six-year payback there would be no discussion about it; they could just implement it. Anything with a five- to nine-year payback we need them to point out to us and we would consider going for it; anything that had a longer payback we would have to contemplate how we were going to deal with that. The wind turbine had a very long payout, and so did the solar panels. Neither of those is subsidized by our government. So the decision was made not to do those. Geothermal fell into the same category.

"But a lot of things were done internally that made up for those. For example, we wanted to have natural lighting for our plant employees. On the south side of our building we have a lot of windows, and we have skylights. We installed a number of heat recovery units on the roof, so all the UV lamps throughout our plant, all the IR dryers and UV lights are exhausted.

"Our previous building was 54,000 square feet, this building is 132,000 square feet. We went through the whole winter in this new building and spent the same amount of money on our heat and electrical output as we did in the old plant, which was almost one-third the size. Some of that has to with the heat recovery units in the winter. Some of that has to do with the insulation values that we used in the exterior and the roof of the building.

"All of the exhaust ducts are insulated so heat doesn't escape from the ducts. The hot air is cleaned and scrubbed, the VOCs are removed, and it comes back into the building in the winter months.

"From an environmental perspective we did a lot of things that have a soft benefit, but the benefit is strictly for the employees who work in the building. All of the paints chosen for the inside of the building were low VOC or zero VOC paints. All fabrics for all furniture that was acquired are all natural fabrics rather than synthetics: cottons, wools, silks. Even the wallpaper that was chosen had to meet that criterion. All the doors and other paneling that has wood veneer on it had to be glued with water based adhesive rather than solvent based adhesives. The carpeting is all natural materials and is glued down with water based adhesives.

"We also acquired new system furniture for our building as part of the move. Panels in the cubicles and elsewhere appear to be wood but are made of wheat straw. It wasn't just the building infrastructure that we looked at; we looked at all the things we were going to acquire so that we would make the smallest environmental impact with our actions. The drywall used in the building, the ceiling tiles, all had to have a recycled component. There's a slightly larger cost involved in going that way. All doors in the building are made from a material called Medite, which is considered environmentally friendlier than using wood doors. Glass panels in reception area are made from recycled glass. We created bicycle stands for our staff. A patio for staff outside. Showers and locker rooms for staff so if they choose to shower and change before they come into work.

"All the landscaping utilizes native species. We do not have a sprinkler system to irrigate our lawn or our trees. Our goal is to let the lawn dry out in the summer and let it come back the natural way. The rest of the trees are going to survive because they are native species and are meant to survive without being irrigated.

An Omega Digicon converting machine from AB Graphic.
"We created a system for collecting rainwater and snow from the roof of our building. It comes down into holding tanks under the ground. We filter it and bring it up and that's what we use for our toilet water in the building. The urinals utilize a new chemical process that uses no water. We have encouraged our cleaning crew to work with us to find the appropriate cleaning agents to clean the plant with.

"We are looking at ways to recycle some of the waste that we generate, both plastic and paper waste. We are talking to companies to see if some of the recycled waste can go to make things like plastic park benches and products like that. For paper waste we are looking into coal burning facilities that generate electricity that might want to burn some of that because the silicone as it burns supposedly helps to clean the stacks. We are looking at some different ways of dealing with our waste as part of our ISO 14000 initiative. We had ISO 14000 at our previous site, and our goal is to be certified before the end of this calendar year. We have had ISO 9000 certification for about 10 years, and we are also working on ISO 18000 certification, which is health and safety. We are a good way into both 14000 and 18000 from a documentation perspective. After that we will get into Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma.

"We have made a number of other little changes in the plant. We cured our concrete floor with water rather than with solvent. There's a process called cement hardening which we utilized so we do not have lacquer on the floor, and we keep it very clean using soap and water. We require stainless steel cabinets and work benches for every single press in the plant, which enables us to keep them clean without using a lot of chemicals and solvents. We have a policy that our employees have to wear hair nets in the plant; the reason is that we make products for people in the food industry and some of them are starting to have strict requirements about how they expect our employees to deport themselves so our product isn't contaminated when it goes into their building."

The people

This thorough environmental effort had a dramatic effect on Metro Label's employees.

"We run a pretty informal company," Sandeep says. "There was no formal way that the process was introduced to them. There was a huge sense of excitement about the news. They came to the building while it was being constructed. They had opportunities to provide input.

"We chose this location primarily because it was close to our old plant. We did not want to lose any employees as a result of moving our business. This is not the most tax effective jurisdiction for us to be located in from a property tax perspective; if we had located 10 minutes east of here we would have reduced our property tax by half and our land acquisition cost by more than half. It probably wouldn't have made much of a difference, but we didn't want to lose anybody. People are what make our business.

"Companies talk about how important their people are, and how hard skill sets are to get. But then you have to walk the walk to deliver that."

Metro Label Group

999 Progress Ave., Toronto ON Canada M1B 6J1