Letters From The Earth

Less clamor, more action

November 1, 2006

Sustainable packaging, sustainability, corporate responsibility, corporate social responsibility, environmental coalitions, and on and on, ad nauseum. What about "best practices"? What is all of this? Are these mere buzz words? Are these colloquialisms? Do companies and people really embrace this stuff? Are we going through some kind of line dance? What gives!

I don't know about you but I think I've received every sustainability report that exists on planet earth. It's frightening. Not only do publicly held companies produce annual reports, printed, by the way, on the brightest, whitest and heaviest paper made by man, but they have the gall to send another booklet, printed on the same stock, focusing on eco-efficiency, governance, social responsibilities, and the record on maximizing all of the above with graphics galore. For good measure they add a picture of the CEO in casual pose, sweater and smile, leaning against (not hugging) a tree. Remember, we just saw this guy in a regal CEO environment with the rest of the board wearing the smirk of superiority. Oh, my!

The incongruity of the pictures and reports speaks for itself. I don't find anything close to sustainability in this overabundance of information. The cost is enormous: not just the printed matter itself but the preparation and copy work have forced a line item in the P&L that could choke a cow.

I think sustainability initiatives are admirable. Somehow I would like less prose and public clamor and more action. With this column I want to introduce several ideas to our industry that support "best practices". As I have said several times in earlier columns, we need environmental solutions and commitments that not only talk the talk but walk the talk.

For our industry I define best practices as actions and initiatives that rely on recycling, reduce landfill waste and support product development that embraces renewable resources. That's quite a mouthful, and it struck me how complex it is while I was listening to a session on sustainable packaging during the recent Labelexpo in Chicago. There were two presentations at this session, one on environmentally benign adhesives (EBAs) and the other on polylactic acid (PLA) films, two of my favorite subjects. You could not help but take away from this session that while EBAs and PLAs embrace sustainable packaging, pressure sensitive labeling and labels, as they exist today, are diametrically opposed to sustainable packaging. PSA labels and labeling can't be part of sustainable packaging unless they embrace technologies and materials like EBA and PLA. What about liner recycling, another Calvin favorite? What about an environmental solution to matrix waste?

After this session I began chatting with John McDermott, vice president of Label World, located in Rochester, NY. [See page 38.]  John is new to our industry but I think his ideas are compelling and certainly supportive of the best practices idea. John suggests that we find an organization that will "act as a facilitating agent of change for the label industry" by:
-    Creating a list of best practices for label converters (offering a robust portfolio of EBA material, driving programs of recycling for its own waste materials, promoting the benefits of sustainable packaging among its client base, etc.);
-    Creating a logo trademarked by TLMI which could be awarded to any label converter who can demonstrate that they are following these best practices;
-    Devising a method of certification of self-audit to support the program;
-    Gradually ratcheting up the best practices list over time as sustainable packaging catches on and evolves;
-    Those awarded the rights to use the logo could use it in their own marketing programs, as many other industries have done;
-    Perhaps there could be a second logo printed on the back of the liner by the material suppliers to identify EBA compliant materials.

"This kind of program would have the benefit of providing a positive incentive for label converters to take a progressive view of this issue and use it to their business advantage," John McDermott says.
I couldn't have been more excited when he confirmed the above. These ideas are absolutely on target and I believe I could suggest an appropriate body to serve as the agent of change.

Facing facts

Look, our situation must change. We want to achieve sustainability status regardless of the demographic milestone that has just occurred. America's population is now 300 million. You'd think this would be cause for celebration, i.e., the best practices award for population growth. Quite the contrary. Trust me, there's no green medal for this achievement. This milestone contributes to water shortages, erosion (thanks, Rich E.), cropland conversion to non-farm uses (thanks Rich E. and John M.), traffic congestion, more garbage, overfishing, growing dependence on foreign oil, and other conditions that make the 300 million milestone anything but an achievement. Best practices, hmmm

Along with this "achievement" is the increased volume of pressure sensitive adhesive labeling, which means more matrix waste. If we don't get a handle on this issue we'll be heading down the same road as the mandates currently under discussion for the disposal of carbon dioxide. Certainly none of us wants that.

One of the best practices solutions for the disposal of matrix waste is thermal recycling. Funny enough, in America we call it burning, but in Europe it's called thermal recycling. I prefer the latter. It is more descriptive of good sustainable practices. The thermal recycling of matrix waste in an approved waste-to-energy facility gives us the following benefits:
    -    Equal or better BTU value than
        coal or oil;
    -    Less ash generated than coal;
    -    Fewer emissions than coal;
    -    Less dependence on foreign oil.

If all of this is true, where's the rub? The answer, of course, is that it will cost more than landfilling. We come back to the Lester Brown theorem of the environment being a subset of the economy. What drives us today, in my opinion, is not sustainability as much as our bottom line. How willing are all of us to commit to best practices as suggested by John McDermott if there is an additional cost? Will we wait for the end user to make the environmental disposal of matrix waste a prerequisite for doing business, or will we move forward committed to best practices? I agree, John. What a wonderful marketing tool. All of us, I know, would like to be able to say we are a zero landfill company like Ricoh.

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.
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