Letters From The Earth

We just don't get it

March 14, 2008

To build a future of energy security, we must trust in the creative genius of American researchers and entrepreneurs and empower them to pioneer a new generation of clean energy technology." Or, " … Such a product fulfills the manufacturer's desires and some of the customer's expectations. But, from our perspective, products that are not designed particularly for human and ecological health are unintelligent and inelegant – what we call crude products."

The first quotation, in my opinion, is nothing more than political rhetoric. It is analogous to the recent announcement that the US Forest Service has given approval for a British mining company to explore for uranium just outside the Grand Canyon National Park. Just outside? How about three miles from the South Rim! How many of you have been to the South Rim and sat in the silence and splendor? It is absolutely breathtaking. And now Vance Minerals has received approval to explore seven sites for uranium without a full environmental assessment. The Forest Service explained that the Grand Canyon could be "categorically excluded" from a normal review because exploration would last less than a year and might not lead to mining activity.

I guess I don't get it. Platinum is now up to US$1,800 a troy ounce, so we should allow additional exploration to increase the supply which will reduce the cost. Please. Dow and other silicone producers are doing their best to give us options that do not include additional mining. Do any of you realize how intrusive and damaging to our ecosystem uranium, platinum and gold mining is? It is horrific. Norm Kanar of Dow and Wolfgang Wrzesniok-Rossback of Heraeus (a huge metal trading company) looked at options for less platinum use at the recent AWA Release Liner Conference in Amsterdam. These options did not include additional mining. I am very angry over political rhetoric and what seem to me to be politically and financially motivated decisions to take something from us that is irreplaceable. (Where do you think I found that first quote?)

The second quote, from Cradle To Cradle by McDonough and Braungart, continues with a wonderful example of how our current industrial infrastructure fails to meet complete life cycle criteria. "For example, the average mass produced piece of polyester clothing and a typical water bottle both contain antimony, a toxic heavy metal… The questions: 'Why is it there? Is it necessary?' Actually, it is not necessary, it's a catalyst in the polymerization process and is not necessary for polyester production." They continue and talk about burning, breathing, wearing, even exercising, and so on. The point: Design continues to be a function of cost and performance, not of life cycle. Remember my references to my favorite environmentalist, Lester Brown? You cannot create product without consideration for all aspects of the life cycle. At the end of the day, the product may very well be only a small percentage of the "total footprint." There are several examples in my mind that reflect this phenomenon.

One of my pet peeves for years has been plastic bags. We see them all over the place, all over the world for that matter. They're not biodegradable. We see them blowing though parking lots, shopping centers, on fences, in oceans, rivers and even, yes, the Grand Canyon. If we consider the total footprint, the bag itself is quite small. We can make gazillions of them for next to nothing. However, now we're getting them from China, because of cost. What about the carbon footprint of shipping from China! We use them once and then, some of us, try to recycle. But most of them end up on fences, in farm fields, and on the sides of roads. What about that carbon footprint?

One country, Ireland, passed a plastic bag tax in 2002, charging users 15 cents per bag (it's now 22 cents). The result: no more plastic bags on the sides of roads or in landfills. See, sustainability is possible. But harken to my message in the last issue – what still drives us is money. I'll stop using plastic if it costs more. It is so simple. We still don't get it. All this stuff we create, without life cycle analysis, throws us out of whack.

The other example comes from a wonderful presentation by Steph Carter, Director of Packaging Sustainability at Unilever. Carter contends that Unilever uses three drivers when it looks at packaging: water, waste, and greenhouse gas.

The biggest mistake that the public makes is its understanding of sustainability. Most people focus on the environment and/or economics (profit). Hence, reduction is the first option. (Think about WalMart's scorecard: a 5 percent reduction in packaging will result in 5 percent savings for Wal-Mart. I believe they're looking at a cost savings of $5 billion per year; a big number, to be sure, but driven by environment and/or economics). Carter maintains that the entire supply chain – OEMs, converters, end users, and customers – must avoid the isolation mistake. According to Carter, here's what we need to do:

1)    We can't look at components separately.
2)    We need to look at specific regions and be ready to adapt to regional change.
3)    We need to be proactive, not reactive.
4)    We need to understand waste management and recycling requirements and capabilities from the point of design.

When we're looking at the footprint we need to be careful and look at the entire metric, not just a reduction of packaging. Carter stated that water represents 93 percent of the carbon footprint of shampoo. Think of that. It's not the shampoo, or the label, or the container, it's the water we use when washing our hair. Holy moly, maybe women (and men) need to reduce time in the shower by keeping their hair short.

Shampoo is a fascinating example. Let's keep tracking this for a moment. Shampoo manufacturers make a shampoo and sell it under a brand. Most of them are not concerned that water differs from region to region. With simple changes we could improve the carbon footprint impact. This isn't Carter now, it's McDonough and Braungart. They tell us that soap and detergent and shampoo manufacturers design for the world even though water qualities and community needs differ.

"Customers in places with soft water, like the US Northwest, need only small amounts of these cleaners. Those where the water is hard, like the Southwest, need more." These substances "are designed to lather up, remove dirt and kill germs the same way anywhere in the world." The used water continues through the system into streams and sewage treatment plants. Manufacturers just add more concentrates to solve more aggressive requirements. We have to clean grease from a greasy pan. "Now imagine what happens when that substance comes into contact with the slippery skin of a fish or the waxy coating of a plant." Wow. You see, there's the whole carbon footprint.

As I look at us mere earthlings, I see that time and time again we miss the whole picture. Nature provides us with such wonders. And we abuse them. Some of us are trying to create change because we know there is such a delicate balance between nature and harmony. Yes, there may be additional costs in making changes. However, the costs and appropriate changes far outweigh the ultimate price.
Another Letter from the Earth.
Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group, headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His email address is cfrost@channeledresources.com.