Letters From The Earth

Albert Schweitzer’s carbon footprint

By Calvin Frost | January 18, 2012

Alan Gates came to town.  Wow, what a message.  And, it was so apropos to my thoughts for this column. Alan introduced his Sunday morning message with a story about Albert Schweitzer. For those who don’t remember, Schweitzer was a writer, missionary, doctor and musician who dedicated much of his life to helping the less fortunate in Africa. He opened a clinic to treat the ill in the early 1900s in what is now known as Gabon. Gabon is in western Central Africa, and in Schweitzer’s lifetime was part of French Equatorial Africa. If you read about Schweitzer and his activities you’ll realize how primitive the environment was. We wouldn’t have had a chance!

While treating all maladies in his clinic, he was fascinated with “sleeping sickness,” which was often fatal. Ever the philosopher/scientist/theologian, he would frequently analogize actual to postulating. Hence, sleeping sickness became sleeping sickness of the soul. Enter Alan, who had researched Schweitzer, and told us of the three symptoms of this illness: disinterest, lack of caring and lack of enthusiasm. My ears pricked up. I thought immediately of my topic as we begin 2012 – carbon footprint. Alan Gates and Albert Schweitzer have it right. It is all about interest, caring and a passion to improve, to change and to start a new beginning. Thank you, Alan, and, of course, Dr. Schweitzer.

All of this really started several months ago when Tim called me. He wanted to know the carbon footprint of a pressure sensitive label. He wanted to know if the carbon footprint of a PSA label was greater than the carbon footprint of a glue applied label. Interesting stuff, because I was in the process of questioning the carbon footprint of developing energy from “fracking” and from “sand oil.” I had just written my 40th letter to my congressman asking why we are considering financial support for a pipeline from Alberta, Canada to Houston, TX, for oil that has been extruded from sand at an unbelievable cost and that is invasive of natural resources versus supporting renewable energy. Tim’s call and Alan’s message from Dr. Schweitzer really hit me.

First, what is carbon footprint? We seem to use the term almost daily, without, I think, understanding the true definition. Carbon footprint is a measure of the impact human activities have on the environment in terms of the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions generated.  We measure GHG emissions in units of carbon dioxide (C02). I know that’s a mouthful. Suffice it to say, every action we take, everything we do, has a carbon footprint.
Driving a car, shipping printed labels from the printing house to the point of application, even making pressure sensitive labelstock, each one of these actions leaves a carbon footprint. Each action generates some greenhouse gas footprint that we measure in units of carbon dioxide. Sadly, the more sophisticated we become, the more GHG we generate. The real key is to make sure the impact of improved product development is offset by efficiency and reduction of material usage. Indeed, to make sure we leave a neutral impact on the environment.

Interestingly, I was part of a group that calculated the carbon footprint of a pressure sensitive label. We considered every aspect of the supply chain: manufacturing the laminate, trucking, printing, ink, etc. We did not measure paper and/or film manufacturing. In other words, we did not go back as far as the forest or the oil well. This analysis, while preliminary, proved that PSA labels generate less greenhouse gas emissions than glue applied labels. To be sure, the study was done by a variety of industry representatives, so not completely impartial. To really confirm the carbon footprint of a PSA label we should complete the analysis through an independent party. I wonder who will pay for this.

Many of you who follow my column know I am a strong proponent of renewable energy, however, not at the expense of adding to our carbon footprint. For example, in my view, it is admirable to try to be landfill-free, to reduce the amount of byproduct going to the landfill, but not if you have to ship the byproduct long distances for processing. All you’ve done is save here but add there. There have to be regional solutions for renewable energy to reduce carbon footprint. And this, of course, has been my cry for years. State and federal governments need to support renewable energy, not redeploying fossil sources of energy.

I suspect that some of you know what is going on with the movement of “sand oil” from Alberta to Houston. TransCanada Corporation has proposed an almost 2,000 mile pipeline from the sand oil fields in Canada to the U.S. refineries in Houston. President Obama has blocked the proposal for the moment but lawmakers in Congress are trying to override his Administration and start the pipeline construction. The usual tug of war is going on: the big guys – Conoco Phillips, ExxonMobile, Shell, Chevron, Marathon, Statoil, Total and a few more – versus the environmentalists. Eventually the big guys will win because of lobbying power and the promotion of new jobs. The environmentalists’ claim that the pipeline promotes a “dirty and energy-intensive form of oil extraction” piped through environmentally sensitive areas and aquifiers will fall on deaf ears. As John Bussey of the Wall Street Journal noted, “there is a compelling argument for abstinence: until Washington stops dithering and charts a clear road to cleaner energy, remove the temptation to burn more oil by preventing access to supply.” He really is right. At the end of the day, it is all about supply and demand. Population growth means more energy demand. Sadly, if Canada doesn’t strike a deal with America, the sand oil will go to the West Coast and on to ships destined for China. It is a fact that sand oil will be produced. 
There’s demand, the production process creates jobs, and companies can make a profit. The question in this case is whether it is better to build the pipeline and have the oil processed in a regulated environment in the US for consumption here and abroad, or, is it better to let the oil move to Asia with all the carbon footprint that will occur, including: pollution from shipping, possible substandard refining, and use of the energy in China where weak emission rules exist.
Worse, the byproduct of using oil in China is that mercury, hydrochloric acid, and other effluents from their power plants will drift back this way, across the Pacific to North America. I think the real solution is to determine which has the smallest carbon footprint.

Schweitzer’s ultimate message is a “reverence for life.” I share that same reverence and hope that in 2012 all of us will make an effort to reduce and use less. If we do this both professionally and personally, we will leave this wonderful earth a better place.

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