Letters From The Earth

Zero is zero

November 11, 2010

Our industry has become a more responsible steward of the environment during 2010. Further, it is exciting to see some of the changes that bring improvement to important parts of the supply chain. It is also disappointing to read that others still harken to prehistoric thinking. It gets me mad.

First, my anger! Steve Forbes wrote in his Fact & Comment column in the November issue of Forbes that the "energy crisis is over." He goes on to say that we have more oil and gas than ever because of new extraction technologies. Mind you, we finally shut down the leaking BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico at an extraordinary cost, not only to BP, but to the US government, the border states on the gulf, and the environment. Lest we forget, we also lost lives. Forbes talks about "fracking" for natural gas, which I wrote about earlier this year. I believe fracking is one of the most invasive, unfriendly technologies ever developed. Water, sand, and chemicals are shot at high pressure thousands of feet underground at rocks that contain gas in order to harvest this source of energy. Forbes finishes his explanation with, "the earth is awash in energy."

Here's what I don't get and here's what makes me so mad: Why do we spend billions of dollars chasing the same sources of energy? Why do our megacorporations continue to focus on unfriendly technology that supports and increases greenhouse gas? These same companies have token investments in alternative energy technology. A billion dollars to Shell, BP, ExxonMobil, or Chevron is nothing. These folks, Forbes included, still don't get the message. Our society needs change and the energy industry has an incredible opportunity to bring about change. We will not succeed in change by using water, a non-renewable resource, to harvest gas, a fossil fuel. We will succeed with a philosophical and cultural change in focus. Forbes is not listening, and maybe, at the end of the day, he simply doesn't want to listen.

Nevertheless, the changes in our industry and in industry in general are very exciting. The changes indicate that many of us are listening and realize that environmental improvement is necessary. I suspect some of this is driven by the brand owners. The cynic in me wonders if this is holistic or really based on cost savings. But it's the holiday season, so I'll put that thought aside and believe that there is sincerity in the moves by Walmart, Unilever, P&G, and others. Every aspect of our industry is on the train of environmental improvement.

TLMI, the Tag and Label Manufacturers Institute, launched its environmental standard, LIFE, in January 2009. But it has only been in 2010 that Label Initiative for the Environment has really caught on. As I write this there are more than 20 companies that have achieved the certification, and another 15 to 20 in the pipeline. That's 10 percent involvement by the membership.

During the recent TLMI meeting in Florida, 29 members entered the annual Environmental Awards competition. That is also 10 percent of the membership and indicative of a commitment to becoming better environmental stewards. The two winners, Toray Plastics of America and McCourt Label, made presentations that demonstrated "culture" change throughout their entire operations. Both entries embraced environmental stewardship.

During 2010, Mitsubishi Polyester films announced a groundbreaking initiative that uses spent polyester silicone coated release liners. They call it "reprocess." Mitsubishi has developed technology that closes the loop for used PET liners. It "establishes a cradle-to-cradle solution that the labeling industry needs." Mitsubishi is the largest manufacturer of inline silicone coated PET liners in the industry. Historically, PET liners were sent to the landfill or were shipped offshore for a variety of applications. With the reprocess development, Mitsubishi keeps the used liner here and blends new with old in a patent pending proprietary process which meets existing quality specifications. The percentage of spent PET liner being used is significant and there is no deleterious effect. Kudos to Mitsubishi. They are being proactive with a problem that our industry has. They have brought about major change in 2010.

By the way, Mitsubishi has put together two interesting graphs. One shows the lower energy demand to process spent PET versus virgin PET. The other compares the carbon footprint of spent versus virgin. The difference is dramatic and demonstrably in favor of the recovered liner.

In the meantime, our friends in the paper industry remain silent on the use of spent liners in their product. This group continues to represent 70 percent of liner for roll label and only a fraction, mostly in Europe, have seriously considered using repulped spent silicone coated liners in their product. I'd say there's an imbalance. What will it take to push this part of the industry to change? It will have to be a demand from the end user, the brand owner, and it is probably a low priority on their radar screen.

There is a wonderful story in the September/October issue of Green Manufacturer regarding Freightliner Custom Chassis Corporation's (FCCC) effort to achieve zero waste-to-landfill. FCCC is part of Daimler Trucks North America, which is part of Daimler AG, which owns, among others, Mercedes Benz and Chrysler. Indeed, the zero landfill initiative has worked so well that Daimler will take the initiative to all parts of its corporation. The change started at the top with Roger Nielsen, the North American CEO. Nielsen says, "You cannot run from your waste." Another senior manager, Bob Harbin, says, "If you say, 'I'm 75 percent or 80 percent,' it sounds like you're making excuses. It is much better when you can be definite – zero is zero." Nielsen finishes with, "Zero is absolute; there is no waste at the end. People ask, 'Does zero mean everything you can get rid of?' and we say, no. Everything. There is no waste at the end."

In January 2008, FCCC generated 180,000 pounds of waste per month – all sent to the landfill. By October 2009 that figure was zero. Alternatives to landfill were developed for wood, nylon, plastic, rubber, and organic by-product. They are sending used paint booth filters to a co-generation facility. The ash that is generated in that process goes to a cement kiln. Zero means zero. The initiative forced more reusable packaging and product redesign. Here's the point: If a chassis manufacturer can achieve zero landfill, so can everyone in our business supply chain. It is a culture change, it is ownership and empowerment, and it is driven from the top down. Kudos to FCCC.

The profoundness of zero is absolute. Kate Bachman, editor of Green Manufacturer, writes:
It is easy, even normal, to get close to a goal and then settle for 'almost'. Without a clearly defined, absolute goal, humans naturally become unfocused, slip, slide, and fudge. There's nothing like "nothing" to break the crutches of "almost" and evaporate the fog of "nearly."

-No trash containers leave the building
-No emissions leave an exhaust
-No more energy is consumed than is generated

Zero is unwavering. You're either at zero or you're not.

If our industry will approach its environmental issues with the same attitude, 2011 should be a very special year indeed.

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.