Letters From The Earth

Thanks for doing nothing

August 31, 2007

As I start this column, those of us who live in the Chicago area of the United States have just learned that the State of Indiana, right nearby, and federal regulators have approved the expansion of a BP refinery in Whiting that will lead to increased pollution in Lake Michigan.

Listen to this: Regulators have agreed with BP that they don't have enough room at their site in Whiting to upgrade the refinery's water treatment plant. BP will now be allowed to dump an additional 1,500 pounds of ammonia and 5,000 pounds of sludge into Lake Michigan each day. Good grief. BP adds 80 employees to its payroll and dumps 6,500 pounds of by-product into Lake Michigan. Ammonia promotes the growth of algae that kills fish and other aquatic life. Sludge is loaded with heavy metals (how many of you have seen a "dead lake"?). This is blackmail at its best: pollution for jobs. It gets me very angry because these folks don't get the message.

It reminds me of my continuing frustration with our industry, and I'm beginning to conclude that financial penalty may be the only way to get action.

Near the final paragraph of my last column I referred to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology which concluded that coal produces about 30 percent of America's carbon dioxide emissions, commonly known as greenhouse gas. The report stated that the way to reduce these emissions is to charge a tax, a penalty, which will force energy providers to look at alternative energy. In my view, the end of the story is that the utility will push the penalty back to you and me, the customer. We'll pay the penalty via increased rates. Therefore, we foot the bill for pollution, not the entity that created the emissions, but you and me. Get it? Now, who do you think will foot the bill for cleaning up the additional pollution in Lake Michigan caused by BP?

I didn't get a single response to that column, by the way. It really disappointed me and now I'm wondering to my editor if anyone ever reads my columns. Are my ideas, accusations and theories just blowing in the wind? Do people think I'm some crazy tree hugger, throwing unbalanced thoughts out to stir the pot; a bit like Dr. Jack Kevorkian, also known as Doctor Death? At least my ideas haven't killed anyone.

Over the last several years I've identified a number of practices that will make our industry more environmental. My impatience grows because I have seen no change or desire to change. There are very few success stories. We haven't developed practical and simple liner recycling programs. It is apparent to me that most converters do not want to take the time to offer solutions to end users, or end users simply don't care. I am amazed at the lack of response to a liner recycling program announced in Berlin at the recent FINAT Congress, for example. Europe, purportedly a greener region than America, won't jump on the band wagon. Large corporations in Europe and America will not participate in eliminating this by-product from their waste stream even when shown how to do it.

The same situation exists for matrix waste. Nevertheless, converters ignore the solution due to lack of interest or additional costs. Thermal recycling is a legitimate alternative to landfilling. However, generators will consider this alternative only if the costs are equal to or less than the costs of landfilling. There is no environmental consideration in decision making. Environmental concerns take a back seat in our industry.

I am coming to the conclusion that the only instrument that will cause change is exactly what MIT suggests: financial penalty. In Europe that might happen and an interesting dynamic may occur. The end user may decide that his printer is responsible for the liner waste that is generated during label application. The converter might decide that his supplier, the laminate manufacturer, is responsible for the matrix. Hold on. If the end user, the group that generates the spent liner, has an alternative to landfilling, why aren't spent liners being diverted from the waste stream? Don't they know? Then, back to the converter. Hasn't the converter ignored his or her responsibility? Now, do you understand my frustration? Solutions for improvement are there but inertia rules the day. Financial penalty seems to me to be a likely driver for better environmental practices.

In juxtaposition to the BP situation in Indiana is the fascinating development of new technologies by universities and schools of higher education like MIT. These institutions not only issue reports and studies but also sell or license patents, technology and other intellectual property to private or public companies. Battelle, the research giant on the Ohio State University campus in Columbus, developed much of the original technology that NatureWorks uses to manufacture PLA (polylactic acid). MIT has done the same by licensing technology that will commercialize PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoates) to a start-up company, Metabolix. I think of PHA as the next generation of resin after PLA. Both PHA and PLA are biodegradable. Both can be recycled and/or cleanly incinerated or degraded in industrial or backyard composting environments. However, the primary difference is their feedstock. PLA comes from corn, a food energy crop, while PHA is derived from switchgrass, which is a non-food source.

If I weren't so flabbergasted by the inaction of our industry I'd be tempted to say that these green technologies soothe the troubled waters caused by the BPs of the world. Remember, these are first generation technologies. These new films may not print or behave like the traditional petro based products like PE, OPP and so forth. But over time, in my opinion, changes will allow for successful integration into industry.

By now most of you know that Lester Brown is my environmental hero. He develops concepts that are just so practical and make so much sense to our world. I acknowledge that our industry would have to make catastrophic changes to adhere to his principles. I don't think we'll make these changes for a while because we need to go back to basic chemistry, monomers and polymers, and the ripple effect would be enormous. On the other hand we can, in my view, contribute to better environmental practices as individuals and companies by making an effort.

This was made clear to me last month coming back from Europe on an American Airlines flight. I ran into Captain Jon for the third time. Not only does Captain Jon serve American Airlines but he runs a 4,000 acre farm in southern Wisconsin. We've had numerous conversations about politics, religion and sex. We've also talked long and hard about the environment. Captain Jon walks the walk. He reminds me a bit of Lester Brown. He runs his tractors on as much bio-diesel fuel as possible. He is genuinely concerned about his contribution and effort to provide a better, greener farm operation. He was fascinated to hear about PLA and PHA and the very real possibility of making bio-fuel out of the PHA by-product which provides for zero waste. How many of us can say the same about ourselves, our companies and our practices? Do we have a "best practices" focus? Will we pay additional costs to be better environmentally? Hats off to Captain Jon and those of you who make the environmental effort.

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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