Letters From The Earth

Good stewardship

July 17, 2006

A few weeks ago I attended a global warming conference. Because I read and constantly hear about the loss of water tables, wind energy, environmental taxation, lack of environmental leadership in Washington, the decline of oil, and on and on ad nauseam, I thought I would sneak in just for the keynote address and pick up a few choice nuggets on cause and solution. Little did I know that the speaker was a retired journalist who had taken up the environmental cause about 10 years ago. The audience was bombarded with facts and figures that none of us will remember. Regardless of your view on environmental leadership in the United States, this speaker assured us that the cause for global warming is the current president. After an hour of ranting and raving, and attack upon attack, the speaker finished and was given a standing ovation by the audience. In my opinion, the speaker was terrible, the presentation left no message, and I can only conclude that the group in attendance heard only what they wanted to hear. I hurried away more frustrated and angry than ever.

There is nothing that gets me more riled up than criticism without solutions: negative without positive. Presentations similar to the one I attended remind me of what Sydney J. Harris, a well known newspaper columnist, said about winners and losers:

A winner goes through a problem; a loser goes around it and never gets past it.

A winner knows what to fight for, and what to compromise on; a loser compromises on what he shouldn't, and fights for what isn't worthwhile fighting about.

In recent months a dialogue has developed in the State of Wisconsin on the use of pressure sensitive adhesives. As of this writing I'm not sure where the issues and solutions will go. However, the situation is worth a quick review, particularly in light of the misguided message that our global warming expert was trying to give.

The State of Wisconsin has a committee, the Council on Recycling, reporting to the governor and charged with making recommendations for legislation on issues of solid waste, recycling and the like. The committee has seven members and most are experts or have backgrounds in solid waste or recycling. As I have written on several occasions, one of the difficulties in making quality paper and paperboard from recycled fiber is the contamination caused by "stickies", those bits and pieces of pressure sensitive adhesives (PSAs) that cannot be removed by either cleaners or screens. These fragments of PSA are estimated to cost the paper industry upwards of $1 billion per year in downtime and in rejected and contaminated product. The State of Wisconsin is still the number one producer of pulp and paper in the USA and uses large volumes of recycled fiber. Obviously, the industry is impacted by the contaminants caused by PSAs.

I've reported to you on the development of "benign" adhesives, that same family of adhesives used with the postal stamp application. These adhesives are screenable and do not cause contamination in the repulping process. I've also mentioned that President Clinton signed Executive Order 13148 in April 2000. This order stipulates that the US government will use benign adhesives in label products, not just the postal stamp, whenever economically and technically practical.

The Wisconsin governor's committee is considering recommending legislation that all PSAs used in Wisconsin must be benign. At first blush this sounds exemplary. Benign PSAs will improve recyclability and make more paper related products available as raw material.

Not so quick. Let's think about the ramifications:

First, if I'm a laminator or converter in Wisconsin I would have to switch all of my adhesives to benign qualified adhesives.

Second, if I'm selling PSA roll label product in the State of Wisconsin all of my products would have to use benign adhesives.

Is the industry technically ready? Who will police this herculean task? Do we have benign adhesives that have been tested on all substrates and are suitable for all environmental applications?

In my opinion, the state needs to study carefully the results of such an action. Is this kind of potential legislation more disruptive than the current contamination that exists? There are practical and realistic approaches to solving the stickies issue and I would urge this group to consider a different solution.

I suggest that the state start with its own purchasing department. Follow the guidelines and recommendations outlined in E.O. 13148. Interesting note: When you talk to the major suppliers of roll label PSAs, not one of them has received requests for a PSA product with benign adhesive. Doesn't the game begin with demand? If the state wants pressure sensitive products with benign adhesives, it need to start with its own government procurement, not with the industry. This will drive the change.

Is the dialogue healthy? Yes, in my opinion, the discussion is necessary and potentially can drive our industry to create greener PSA products. Twenty years ago most of the uncoated paper used in offices and printing companies contained 100 percent virgin fiber. Today, that same product, almost universally, uses 30 percent post consumer fiber. The US government changed its purchasing requirements and industry has followed suit. Go into an Office Max or Office Depot and look at the specification label. The same change can occur with adhesive. Demand has to inspire the change and I advocate gradual implementation as the solution.

I read a column recently on product stewardship and the importance of EPR, extended producer responsibility. I don't think solutions are as simple as saying: "You made it, therefore you're responsible." In other words, EPR says that folks who make the chemicals for PCBs should be paying for the superfunds we have that cover the cost of river contamination, not the paper mills that dumped the PCBs in the rivers. I don't think it's as simple as that any more than I think the Bush administration is responsible for global warming (though it hasn't helped matters).

Good stewardship, to me, incorporates all aspects of product and application from design, to the use of materials, and to the afterlife, which incorporates reuse, recycling and disposal.

I love the prayer that I heard recently from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer:

We thank You for the gifts of Your creation and pray for those who make decisions about the resources of the earth, for those who yearn for its proper use, for those who work on the land and sea, for those who work in the city and in industry, and for those who work in the countryside.

What a wonderful message. Let's hope that this message, and the message of good and practical stewardship, reaches our friends in Wisconsin. I'm afraid it's too late for our global warming zealot!
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.
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