Letters From The Earth

They just don't care.

May 11, 2006

I've just returned from chairing a roundtable forum in Europe on liner recycling. The forum was part of an AWA Alexander Watson Associates conference on release liners and, with only one exception, was attended by representatives of all parts of the supply chain. The one group that needed to be in attendance, the end user, was not represented at all. I sought an explanation for their absence and to my dismay I was told that their absence was expected. I was asked: Why would an end user want to attend a release liner conference? Surely their focus is on more important aspects of their business. Not on liners, certainly not on liner recycling.

From my point of view, that was just the beginning of the bad news. The message that I took away from this conference was "They don't care" about liner recycling. That's the same conclusion that a number of us have arrived at in North America: They don't care.

Do any of you remember:

"Excellence is an art won by training and habit. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but rather we have virtue and excellence because we act rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."

I wish I could say this was a Calvinism. It's not. It's Aristotle. When I think of liner recycling, however, I think of the practice occurring because of "training and habit". Recycling is not an act but a habit. Anything that requires extra effort or costs more, regardless of the contribution that occurs, will not happen because it is not habit. Wow, I'm getting carried away.

This wasn't the only message I brought back from Europe. I was unexpectedly involved in a discussion on the economic aspects of wind and solar energy versus the more traditional fossil fuel, oil. As much as I want to say that the economies for wind and solar energy are favored, I can't. For example, if crude oil were to decline to the $40-$45 per barrel price, this would portend a reverse interest in renewable energy sources.

I'm sure most of you realize that there are investment funds for every imaginable field. Renewable energy, which includes wind, solar and clean-coal technology, is tracked by environmental investment funds such as Winslow Management. A discussion with these folks during my European trip made me understand a different dynamic. Winslow is a US investment firm and looks at companies like Solar World of Germany, Suzlon Energy of India, Ballard Power Systems, and Evergreen Solar, to name a few in the States. Winslow's take on these companies working with renewables is that when crude oil tracks upward, the renewables become attractive. However, once oil returns to the $40 or $50 level, watch out. In other words, "the environment is still, and will be, until something dramatic occurs, a subset of the economy." I honestly do believe that oil will track to the $100 level, perhaps not until late this year but surely in 2007. (You might want to look at Winslow Green Growth Fund, keeping in mind that companies like Ballard Power haven't made money since 1998. They're a manufacturer of fuel cells and their stock is up 40 percent). Boy, I really am getting carried away.

Without a doubt, Europe is genuinely more green than America. Here's an example. Large industrial regions like Germany just don't have the space for solid waste. They've legislated zero new landfills for the foreseeable future. They certainly can't transport their garbage to France. The French don't want, nor will they take, German solid waste. So the Germans have developed alternatives: traditional recycling and thermal recycling. The US states of Pennsylvania and Virginia and Michigan and New York, on the other hand, consider solid waste from New York City and Toronto to be a positive contribution to their fiscal budgets.

Talk about an interesting dynamic. The Europeans say to each other, "Solve your own problem." Americans say, "Dump it here so we can make money." You'd think the Nimbys would rule. Not so. If there's money to be made the hell with the Nimby rule. Think of these: the cost of transportation from Toronto to Detroit, the cost of fuel and tires, the cost of road use and maintenance, the generation of large volumes of carbon dioxide, and the disposal of goodness knows what in the wonderful green state of Michigan. Something just doesn't work. At least that's the way I see it.

Getting warmer

While I was in Europe I kept hearing about the USA's six past Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrations holding a roundtable to celebrate the EPA's 35th anniversary. Allan Gerlat, editor of Waste News, provided a nice summary of their get-together:

Six former heads of the US Environmental Protection Agency, along with current chief Stephen Johnson, discussed the state of the environment at a roundtable meeting to commemorate the EPA's 35th anniversary. What they talked about most was global warming. All the ex-administrators agreed that there should be a greater sense of urgency about addressing this issue than is taking place under the Bush administration.

More than one of the participants made the strong point that we can't wait until 100 percent of the scientists in the world agree that global warming is a problem, or how much of a problem it is. Even if that happened, by then it'd be too late.

That's one of the difficulties with global warming, and a lot of environmental issues. Depletion of resources, overpopulation, water treatment infrastructure, recycling vs. disposal — they all can be seen as down-the-road matters, not in-your-face emergencies. The solutions are enormously complex and challenging.

Johnson, not surprisingly, defended the administration, saying it's spending $20 billion in research and technology to reverse global warming. Bush wants the EPA to reduce greenhouse gas intensity, while maintaining economic competitiveness. There's the rub: Let's address global warming, but within reason. Is that good enough? Johnson's peers don't seem to think so.

But no one's going to know for sure. What it's going to take is a leap of faith on the part of enough politicians in the United States and abroad to make this a priority. Essentially, if we're going to err, let's err on the side of the environment.

It's basically the same philosophy the Bush administration took toward those infamous weapons of mass destruction. We weren't sure they were there; but better to be safe than sorry, was the thinking.

Isn't the risk of global warming just as big a threat, one over which we don't want to be caught unprepared?

Christie Whitman, former Governor of New Jersey, darling of the Republican party, potential candidate for you know what office, to run against you know whom, had to bail out before her term as EPA director was complete. She was one of the six at the meeting and chose to keep a low profile. What am I missing!

When I returned from Europe I had a letter from Robert Redford. I admit that it was not addressed to me personally. It was sent to "Dear Fellow Environmentalist." Because it was from Robert I read it and also the accompanying letter from Frances Beinecke, President of NRDC, the acronym for Natural Resources Defense Council. As if my trip weren't enough. From Don't Care, to the economics of renewable resources, to the disposal of solid waste, to the EPA commemoration. Try to handle that and then digest a four page single spaced letter from Francis Beinecke.

The message: "We've got problems." We have a chance to solve and correct them, if we want. However, there has to be sacrifice, commitment and habit.

Another Letter from the Earth.
Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group (CRG), headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His e-mail address is cfrost@channeledresources.com.