Letters From The Earth

Waste & Consequences

February 27, 2007

During the last several months I've traveled to Russia, India and five or six countries in Europe. All of my travels are driven by business, not by some whimsical curiosity. I visit converters, press manufacturers, laminators, coaters, paper mills, and even an adhesive manufacturer or two. Conversations invariably turn toward the future of our industry: how we can make it better, how we can be more environmentally friendly.

During my last trip to Europe I read in European newspapers — at the close of the Inter-Government Panel on Climate Change in Paris — the following headlines:

Global Warming Called 'Unequivocal': Damage Will Continue for Centuries

Human Activity is 'Very Likely' to Blame, Scientists Conclude

Only Man Can Stop Climate Disaster

These are pretty sobering, horrific proclamations.

On another note, I don't know how many of you heard about the dumping of toxic waste on Africa's Ivory Coast. A Dutch company, Trafigura, shipped the waste to Ivory Coast. Ultimately it was dumped in various sites around several urban areas. The human toll was 10 deaths, 70 hospitalized, and more than 100,000 reported sick. Illness included blisters, nausea, high fever, and the like. It turned out that the waste was a toxic petrochemical.

In situations like this, the company Trafigura will be prosecuted, along with the ship, Probo Koala under Panama registration, managed by a Greek company. This is, of course, the tip of the iceberg. The generator in Holland, the Netherlands government, employees, environmental managers, all, to some degree, are complicit in this tragedy. This is just one story. Let's not forget about the polluting of the Yellow River in China several months ago and the Songhau River in 2005. Talk about global warming; every time we turn around there's another incident that creates disharmony in our environment.

I would like to suggest that there's an interesting dynamic that causes situations like the above to occur. Huge buyers, like Wal-Mart, Tesco and Target, offer reasonably priced goods and services. Our appetite for goods and services of every kind has become insatiable (easily available credit helps this along). With unbridled population growth, demand is hardly satisfied. America's population hit 300,000,000 in 2006. China's one child policy is generally disregarded and its population will go to 1,500,000,000 by 2020 or before. India will have the greatest population change, also reaching the 1,500,000,000 level by 2020. All of these people want goods, and the Wal-Marts of the world are only too happy to supply. As much as the huge mega chains try to require suppliers to meet acceptable environmental and labor practices, it is almost impossible to police. Ugly environmental incidents occur.

There's another interesting economic sidebar to all of this demand: price. It is cheaper for the mega stores to buy goods in third world regions, particularly Asia Pacific. (At least for the time being, Africa is China's playground!) Fleece jackets, for example, are now coming from the Asia Pacific region instead of the West. Weldon, an American plastic recycler, historically the largest buyer of scrap PET, supplied the domestic fleece jacket manufacturers with flaked PET as insulation. As the mega stores switched their buying to Asia Pacific, the demand and price for American PET for offshore use increased until Weldon could not be competitive with their purchase price. The result: a closure of the Weldon recycling facility (300 jobs lost, by the way) and a strategic investment in virgin PET manufacturing. In my view, recycling in America took a backward step.

More people, more demand

I think there's a cycle of shifting that is affecting us in so many ways, not the least of which is our environment. The collection and use of scrap PET bottles has changed dramatically because of the buying practices of the mega stores. PET scrap now moves to China and fleece jackets come back, all driven by demand because of population growth. The Asia Pacific region is just not ready environmentally for the high demand. While the incident in Ivory Coast was unusual, the environmental decline in the Asia Pacific region is becoming commonplace.

There was a wonderful series of reports in the Chicago Tribune in December which supports my theory. The articles reported on the demand for cashmere and wood products by the West. The articles track the environmental developments that push our ecosystem to the edge. All, of course, driven by a surging demand for "cheap" merchandise.

As I view our industry over the last 20 to 30 years, I'm afraid. I see some of the same signs. Demand continues to surge. Contrary to those who say our pressure sensitive adhesive growth has slowed to 1.5 to 2 percent, I think growth is stronger, more like 4 to 5 percent, particularly if we look at growth globally. The environmental impact is enormous. Everyone knows it but the cost for improvement doesn't allow for change. At least that's my conclusion. During the next several issues of Label & Narrow Web I'm going to discuss waste that is generated at several critical points in the supply chain and offer potential solutions. All of us are responsible to a degree and, therefore, all of us need to make changes, even if it includes additional cost. We can become more environmentally responsible. We must look at RCA's, liner recycling, diverting matrix waste from landfills, and designing labels more responsibly. Changes have to be well thought out so we solve problems, not create problems.

A typical change that at first glance doesn't make sense is the dramatic increase in interest in bio fuels. Our governments are pushing to increase the production of ethanol to lower our dependence on foreign oil despite concern that we will harm the world food markets. Remember, the largest feed supply for ethanol is corn. Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, says, "What we're beginning to see is the unfolding of an epic competition between 800 million people who own automobiles and want to maintain their mobility and two billion of the poorest people in the world, many of whom are spending more than half their income on food already."

My point is to rationally develop alternatives for the disposal of our byproducts that are environmentally responsible, practical and meet economic metrics. We don't need solutions that increase costs, which will make us less competitive than other identification technologies.

Solutions are available and every one of us has to take a hard look at making environmental change.

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.