Letters From The Earth

Understanding balance

By Calvin Frost, Contributing Editor | July 17, 2013

I don’t get it. British Petroleum (BP), causing one of the world’s most catastrophic ecological disasters in the Gulf of Mexico, is still trying to take the easy way out at their Whiting, Indiana refinery. This is the company that admitted culpability in the Gulf tragedy, and went on (still ongoing) to spend millions to clean up the mess. This is the company that reports quarterly profits of $4-10 billion. And this is the very same company that finds excuses that allows it to continue to discharge unclean waste material into the south end of Lake Michigan, waste water that is far from EPA allowable levels for mercury, toxic ammonia and suspended solids. I don’t get it and it gets me so mad that the State of Indiana has allowed BP, since 2007, when they agreed to install “clean” technology, to continue the discharge practice. Must everything come down to politics? BP has told the state they will bring in new jobs, hire contractors for a $3.8 billion expansion if they can just have more time to continue with their unlawful discharge. It is totally disingenuous. This refinery, by the way, is the seventh largest refinery in America. The expansion is necessary so they can process more heavy Canadian crude oil from the tar sands region of Albert. Don’t get me going on that!

If that weren’t enough, CD sent me a very erudite editorial, “In Defense of Carbon Dioxide,” written by Harrison H. Schmitt, adjunct professor of engineering at the University of Wisconsin, and William Happer, professor of physics at Princeton University. In short, they try and prove that it’s okay to burn coal which creates CO2 because we have plenty of plants that will absorb additional emissions. My response: rubbish. Our world is straining right now. We have too many people, too much CO2, too many chemicals in our waste, and not enough water. We have lost balance. We have lost harmony and if we don’t change we will regret it.

We have the same problems with biodegradable packaging. Packaging today is more efficient, provides fresher food and longer shelf life. However, we continue to build and design without regard for end of life. There is no question in my mind that there is a disconnect between product manufacturing an end of life issues. Balance and understanding is needed.

Bryan Staley, president of the Environmental Research and Educational Foundation (www.erefds.org) wrote a wonderful column in the May issue of  Waste Age. He nails it. He writes that biodegradable plastic packaging is considered to be good for the environment. If the material cannot be recycled or reused then is has the added benefit of degrading naturally after being composted or landfilled. “It seems that product manufacturers in an effort to be more sustainable, have focused on making plastic containers and packaging as highly degradable as possible, presumably based on the assumption that the more quickly it breaks down the more environmentally friendly it is.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it? The more quickly something breaks down the more quickly it goes away. Not so quick. There’s a flaw. And this is the disconnect between the manufacturer and his understanding of what happens when the materials go to a landfill. If biodegradables are composted, speeding biodegradation is a good thing, yielding a faster conversion time from “waste” to soil (biodegradable packaging to soil). The problem is that only 8% of US municipal waste is composted, and of that, most is comprised of yard trimmings, grass clippings and food waste, not biodegradable packaging!

Non-paper packaging, which is recycled, including biodegradable packaging, ends up in a landfill. This is just a fact. One would think if it goes to a landfill that biodegradability is good. Not necessarily, and this is the disconnect. Life cycle analysis by several universities has found that landfilled biodegradable plastics may not be as good for the environment as originally thought. Remember, when degradation occurs in a landfill, microbes breakdown the material converting it to either carbon dioxide or methane, both of which are greenhouse gases. Unfortunately methane is 25 times more potent than CO2, which means, if the methane generated from a landfill isn’t captured, then the biodegradable materials can do more harm than good. Remember, balance.

A North Carolina University Ph. D. candidate, Jim Levis, found that because biodegradable plastics were designed to break down as quickly as possible, those put in a landfill degraded too quickly to be sufficiently captured and utilized. In other words, while the intent of the manufacturer is admirable, because they haven’t researched the end of life process, the biodegradable plastic may be more harmful to the environment than non-biodegradable plastics because it emits methane to the environment. Are you with me?

Staley summarizes by suggesting two solutions. First, landfills need to fully incorporate methane recapturing systems. While this is costly and a challenge logistically, it is a practical solution that would support the biodegradable plastic technology that we have available today.

Second, Staley suggests, that the manufacturers of biodegradable plastics should consider redesigning their biodegradable plastic so it degrades more slowly. That would ensure that materials that do end up in a landfill, biodegrade at a speed that is commensurate with the current methane capturing technology.

The bottom line to this story is that manufacturers need to understand where their materials finish their life and how this impacts sustainability. Dependent on behavior, dependent on average landfill conditions, the manufacturer must design and formulate for the best possible end of life scenario, not just to say, “This package is biodegradable.”

My friend, Jack Kenny, wrote in the last L&NW issue about an initiative introduced by Avery Dennison to help the industry find end of life solutions for our non-recyclable by-products. He was right. This kind of inventory of non-landfill alternatives is to be commended. It is a first step. It gives me pause to think, maybe, just maybe, there is someone who gets it. Finally!
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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