Letters From The Earth

The environmental specialist

January 14, 2009

In a recent editorial, Cooks Illustrated Editor Christopher Kimball introduced me to a wonderfully humorous book, The Specialist, written by Charles Sale in 1929. The timing and content of Sale's book is more than appropriate. The Specialist is Lem Putt, a country handyman who wants to become the "champion privy builder of Sangamon County." Well, we all know that everything in our industry is, quite literally, in the toilet, and 2008 had some similarities to 1929. Therefore, a quick study of Lem's approach to the art of building the best outhouse might help us create solutions that, like Lem's privy, give us a path to survival through the labyrinth of environmental concerns in a severe economic downturn.

As Lem considered designing the best privy, his first priority was location. He suggests building a privy near a woodpile, because "a timid woman is too bashful to go direct out so she'll go to the woodpile, pick up the wood and go back to the house to watch her chance." This means the woodbox is filled by noon! He suggests beams over joists because nobody "likes a digging party. (Aunt Emmy ain't getting a mite lighter. Someday she might be out there when them joists give way and there she'd be catched."

He prefers "lean-to roof designs over a window for ventilation, and a nail to hang the catalog as well as a box for them corn cobs. (Pa's of the old school and would prefer the box). When asked how long the average mail-order catalog ought to last he says, 'by placing the catalog in there, say in January, when you get your new one, you should be into the harness sections by June." Lem was also pretty upset with "Mr. Sears Roebuck, who put too many stiff colored pages in the catalog. It was hard to figger."

I really wish I could be a "specialist" just like Lem Putt. I'd like to be a champion environmentalist, aka Lester Brown. I would agree with Charles Sale that privies are necessary but the development of an environmental plan could mean survival for your company. However, how can we develop an environmental plan if, for example, one of the metrics of best practices, recycling, has tanked?
Look what's happening. Traditional recycling, if you remember, refers to products that can be reground, repulped, or remelted. The markets for these reprocessed products have quite literally gone into the toilet.

Chinese demand for recovered paper is down almost 40 percent compared with this past summer and last year. Forty percent! This means that 350,000 to 500,000 tonnes per month of paper stock that went from the United States to China earlier this year is staying in the US. This dramatic change began in September and has continued during the last three months. Experts believe there will be no improvement before the Chinese New Year, which begins January 26. And if there is change after that holiday it will happen very slowly. By the way, 350,000 to 500,000 tonnes equates to 17,500 to 25,000 containers per month. Any wonder why we've heard stories of containers being abandoned at the ports and even on the water? The situation is unprecedented, and Europe is facing the absolute identical predicament.

In the US, paper mills that make linerboard and medium (materials for corrugated boxes) have announced downtime during the fourth quarter that represents 13 percent of capacity. That's about 1,500,000 tonnes. I suspect the real number is about 20 percent and approaches 2,000,000 tonnes. The demand for secondary materials has crashed and bulk grades are now going to the landfill. A wastepaper supplier on the East Coast was quoted in Pulp & Paper Week as saying, "Suppliers thought this market downturn was going to be like others, and they thought they might stockpile and make a killing on the turn. Now they are coming to the realization that the turn isn't around the corner those that seek movement at whatever price they can find will survive – those that stockpile will watch their business go under."

You see, whether it is carbon footprint or sustainability, it all goes back to the basic question of change and commitment. In my view, sustainability is necessary for long term survival. Have the Lester Brown messages fallen on deaf ears? Are the changes he advocates, his "eco-economy" message, sustainable in an economic downturn like we have today? Practically speaking, why worry about dependency on fossil fuel if oil is going to fall to $20 a barrel? What about greenhouse gases? Should we have any concern for emission reduction, the control of methane gas, or the dumping of pollutants into Lake Michigan? Aren't jobs more important?

I believe that green is here to stay. The traditional recycling markets will return. When the major end users like Wal-Mart, Unilever, P&G, McDonalds, and others require reductions in packaging and more sustainable identification technologies, one knows that times have changed. When our industry's leading trade association, the Tag and Label Manufacturers Institute, introduces the LIFE initiative (Label Initiative For the Environment), I think it is an indication and acknowledgment that environmental best practices are of paramount importance. These and so many other points indicate to me that an economic downturn won't affect the focus and effort to changing our industry's habits.

Just remember, cash is king, particularly in times like these. That's not going to change. It will be difficult for small companies to do anything environmentally beneficial that costs extra during the slow down. If you examine the requirements of LIFE, compliance to the metrics is more a change of practice or habit than adding cost. Consideration of the LIFE initiative brings about cost efficiency rather than additional cost. It is my belief that the time to apply for LIFE certification couldn't be more appropriate than right now.

Following the idea of Cooks Illustrated's Christopher Kimball, I endorse his suggestion that there is more satisfaction from knowledge that change has created a better company and a better product than anything else. Kimball ends his recent editorial with another quote from Lem Putt:

"Sometimes when I get to feelin' blue and thinkin' I hitched my wagon to the wrong star I just pack the little woman and the kids in the back of my car and start out, aimin' to fetch up at Elmer's place along about dusk. When we gets to the top of the hill overlookin' his place, we stops. There sits that privy on that knoll near the woodpile, painted red and white, mornin' glories growin' over her and Mr. Sun bathin' her in a burst of yeller color as he drops back of them hills. I heaves a sigh of satisfaction, my eyes fill up and I sez to myself, 'Folks are right when they say that next to my eight holer that's the finest piece of construction work I ever done. I know I done right in Specializin'; I'm sittin' on top  of the world.' "

Let's all start 2009 with a focus on specializing to become better environmentalists. Happy, Happy New Year.
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.
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