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Seeking change, finding results



Published March 6, 2009
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So today we dumped another 70 million tons of global warming pollution into the thin shell of atmosphere surrounding our planet, as if it were an open sewer. And tomorrow we will dump a slightly larger amount, with the cumulative concentrations now trapping more and more heat from the sun.

As a result the earth has a fever. And the fever is rising. The experts have told us it is not a passing affliction that will heal itself. We asked for a second opinion. And a third. And a fourth! And the consistent conclusion, restated with increasing alarm, is that something basic is wrong.

– Al Gore, former US vice president, upon accepting the Nobel Peace Prize

I wasn't much of an Al Gore fan when he served under Bill Clinton. He was a democrat, liberal, associated with hurting big business and manufacturing, you know, all those really terrible virtues. After eight years of George Bush Junior, Gore has become more palatable. I even have begun to believe him … a bit.

His reference above to global warming would be questioned by those of us who live in the US Midwest. This has been as cold a winter as I can remember. The temperature was minus 42° F at our plant in the middle part of Wisconsin in early January. What means "global warming?" Suffice it to say, change is occurring and the experts blame it on a thinning of the ozone shield caused by earth's inability to re-digest its carbon dioxide.

How do we fit into this? How do label converters, coaters and laminators, end users, everyone in our supply chain fit into this? In my view, it's pretty simple: We design and consume without any concern for life cycle. The whole concept of sustainability in the Western Hemisphere is marred because we haven't learned to consume our byproducts internally. In other words, the infrastructure for the use of byproducts generated in our supply stream doesn't exist. I find this totally inconsistent with statements of sustainability compliance, life cycle analysis, and the like. In fact, it's plain incredible. To be sure, there are a few initiatives that may work, such as UPM Raflatac's Profi, the decking material made from PS material waste. However, for the most part, our print technology continues to generate 50 percent waste without any commitment to develop alternatives. What is fascinating is that the concept of sustainability is even under more stress: survival or green? Which comes first? Well, if you're not around tomorrow how can you practice green? So, obviously, economic survival is first.

During the last several years several companies have learned that focus on sustainability earns positive economic success. For example, McDonald's replaced the polystyrene clamshell food container with paper based packaging. The change cut sandwich packaging volume by 70 to 90 percent, with corresponding reductions in energy use, pollutant releases and landfill space over the lifetime of packaging. McDonald's made other changes, by the way. They converted carry-out bags, coffee filters and wraps to unbleached paper; they reduced paper use by 21 percent and incorporated 30 percent post-consumer fiber in napkins; they mandated that all suppliers use a percentage of post consumer fiber in their corrugated shipping containers. In the 10 years since McDonald's initiated sustainable practices they have eliminated 300 million pounds of packaging and reduced restaurant waste by 30 percent. So, there's an economic benefit to embracing green.

We all know about the Wal-Mart Scorecard. What many of you probably don't realize is that the scorecard was created in a meeting in Arkansas in 2005, hosted by Lee Scott, the chief executive. At his "Choice Meeting," Scott asked his senior management team, "Why should I care about an endangered mouse in Arizona?" Scott, who retires at the end of February, was provoking his colleagues, of course, but the meeting developed dozens of initiatives that have resulted in enormous savings for Wal-Mart and its suppliers.

Procter & Gamble has changed the way it manufactures liquid laundry detergents because of the Wal-Mart initiative. By selling only concentrated laundry detergent, Wal-Mart claims its customers will save more than 400 million gallons of water, 95 million tons of plastic resin, 125 million pounds of cardboard, and 520,000 gallons of diesel fuel in three years. So, "green is mean."

What about us, I mean our supply chain? Our print technology is the most innovative and versatile in the world, yet it has one fatal flaw when it comes to sustainability: waste. Every part of the supply chain, in my opinion, is guilty. We design for profit, not for sustainability. Everything has to be virgin. There is no "use and reuse." Adhesive and paper and film manufacturers are all guilty, in my view. Driven by shareholder focus, profit takes a front seat to environmental responsibility. For sure you can buy paper with a percentage of post consumer fiber. And, yes, paper manufacturers meet FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) requirements. What about film manufacturers? Why aren't they using a percentage of secondary? Why don't the glue guys push their green technology? Why aren't the laminators more involved with designing laminates with cradle to cradle concepts? Why aren't converters participating in diverting their byproduct, matrix, from the landfill? And, finally, why doesn't the end user, heaven forbid, say to his supplier, "Find me a solution for this spent liner?"

My frustration was calmed the other evening when I met Joyce Caldwell, a fifth grader living in a Chicago suburb, at a local restaurant. Joyce and her mom were celebrating Joyce's selection as the 2009 recipient of her school's public speaking competition. Later that evening her mom emailed me her presentation. I was astonished. Joyce has put her finger on the problem. Read what she has to say:

"What is more than 25 stories tall, covers more than 1,200 acres of land and puts out more than 35 million cubic feet of gas per day? Give up? Well, it's America's largest dump just outside of New York City. Today we as Americans are known as the most wasteful country on the face of the Earth. I know what's probably going on in your head right now. "Are we really that wasteful?" "How did we become the most wasteful country?" Well I'll tell you why we are so wasteful, how wasteful we are and what we can do about it.

It all started after WWII. We needed to spur the economy. So companies began something called mass production. Mass production is the manufacturing of goods on a large scale that aims for low cost and high output. The products were designed to last only a short time so that when they wore out or broke, people could easily buy new ones. Luckily, new ones weren't that expensive. This was called planned obsolescence. As a result, Americans were trained to throw away items rather than try to repair them or use them longer. Nowadays, it's cheaper to buy new than to repair something that's broken. Here is an example. In the olden days, people used to have one everlasting fountain pen. You kept this special pen for most of your life. When the Bic pen company introduced the cheap and disposable ball point pen, people no longer needed to save their pens because they were so cheap you could always throw them away and buy a new one. You see, manufacturers planned to make us feel dissatisfied with anything that isn't new or modern or fashionable. Like my mom's old cell phone. It works fine, but it's like … so … yesterday!

If we keep living like we do today our world won't survive. Our landfills will overflow. World water levels will rise because the ozone will be depleted. The air we breathe and the water we drink will be polluted and unhealthy. We as Americans have to STOP wasting our resources and start to be more aware of the effects of wastefulness in America and on the planet. The truth must be FACED, we must STOP the WASTE!"

What was it that Kipling said about "keeping your head when all about you are losing it and blaming it on you"? We are so fortunate to have fifth graders like Joyce, who is wise beyond her years. Thank goodness for Joyce and initiatives like those of Wal-Mart and McDonald's. They help me keep my head together.

It is understanding, design, and initiatives that will move our industry forward. Because of this, because environmental change brings better results to the bottom line, I see so many opportunities for our industry. My fear is that we won't see through the forest until it is too late. The anchor of success will be environmental sustainability and corporate social responsibility. If you don't make the right changes, regardless of the economic environment, you won't be around.

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.


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