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Paper beats plastic? How to rethink environmental folklore

Most of us want to do the right thing when it comes to the environment. But things aren’t as simple as opting for the paper bag, says sustainability strategist Leyla Acaroglu. A bold call for us to let go of tightly-held green myths and think bigger in order to create systems and products that ease strain on the planet.

Are sustainability efforts appeasing the myth or addressing the facts?

A recent blog on LinkedIn caught my eye, “9 Take-Aways That Resonated From SPC Advance.”  It was about the recent SPC Advance Conference, a GreenBlue / Sustainable Packaging Coalition members only plus guests event.

“SPC Advance is an amazing opportunity to gather different members of industry, academia, and government together to share perspectives, knowledge, and insight into sustainability,” said GreenBlue and Sustainable Packaging Coalition Executive Director, Nina Goodrich.

Sounds good, right? The who’s who of professionals, the decision makers on the environment, packaging and creating a more sustainable future… Then, you hear some of the feckless rhetoric that emerges from this brain trust and it leaves you wondering if this is just an exercise in futility.

Kim Carswell of Target commented, “Bio polymers move packaging closer to petroleum independence as part of our move to a circular economy.”

Kathleen Sayler, Assistant Director of the EPA’s Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery says that currently in the U.S. over 30% of edible food goes to waste resulting in significant social, economic and environmental costs, and it is estimated that Americans waste 141 trillion calories of food annually at a cost of over $161 billion dollars. Food production accounts for 50% of land use, 80% of freshwater consumption, and 10% of total energy use in the United States.

These two need to get together for a come to Jesus moment.  Land system change is a major environmental factor and our existing use in farming is already having perilous effects on our environment.  Let’s not be too quick to jump into corn, sugarcane or potatoes as something that’s going to save the planet.  We should not waste food and our farming should be to feed people, not our insatiable appetite for plastic, it’s not sustainable.  It’s a recipe for our economy and ecosystem to go down the circular drain.

Walmart Senior Sustainability Manager, Ashley Hall, said that customers should not have to choose between products that they can afford and products that are better for them and the environment. She emphasized Walmart’s focus on selling products in recyclable packaging, and stated that the company has made packaging made with recycled content a priority.

There is no term more ambiguous than “recyclable.”  Take a walk with me down Walmart’s isles and I’ll point out all the packaging that will not be recycled.   Heck, we can just visit one isle; you know the one that sells all the trash bags, tinfoil and plastic utensils and foamed plates?  Next time, take a look at all the Great Value brand items, along with the other brands – none of it is being recycled.  Don’t even get me started on those crappy light-weighted plastic bags that have “Recyclable” on them – nonsense.  We need to start basing our actions on facts and scientific data, instead of propagated myths.  If you’re going to make the claim, prove its happening.  It’s long overdue that we separate facts from fiction.  “Recyclable” – theoretically, and that’s the problem.

Kim Carswell, Group Manager at Target stated, “Packaging is a gateway to our consumers.”  She continued saying that Target likes to give consumers alternative options for the products’ and packaging’s end-of-life instead of the materials having to go to landfill, and that Target is constantly asking how its designs influence end-of-life.

Personally, I’m not interested in trying to find a non-existent alternative option; I’m not a garbage sorter.  When I buy the product, I throw away the packaging. There is nothing more counterproductive in advancing our environmental position than the demonization of landfills. Landfills are not the problem; packaging simply needs to be designed for the most common disposal method. If that’s a landfill, let’s not keep making decisions on folklore and pretending this isn’t happening.   Landfill Gas to Energy is the cleanest and most inexpensive alternative energy resource available; it’s the byproduct of the biodegradation process that is coming from the natural breakdown of organic waste in this specific anaerobic environment.  80% of all municipal solid waste goes to modern landfills that control or capture this natural gas.  Perhaps it would make it easier on everyone if companies like Target took genuine accountability and made all their plastic packaging Landfill Biodegradable, because it’s not getting recycled and I’m not getting in my car and taking it to my local industrial composter 80 miles away.

Amy Duquette, Sustainability Project Manager at HAVI Global Solutions, which represents the packaging department of McDonald’s, said that packaging is the consumer’s last experience with the brand, and that experience should be as positive as possible. Through mechanics such as the How2Recyle Label, brands can empower consumers to do the right thing, in this case recycle packaging.

Regulations such as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) are predicated on the brand/producer doing the right thing, not the consumer.  The experience being created isn’t positive, it’s downright misleading!  Think of all the plastic applications used at McDonald’s, the white cup, the lid, straw, utensil, packaging for utensil, condiments, all of it, IS NOT getting recycled.  It’s not happening, it does not exist, stop it.   EPR simply means producers will be held accountable for the post-consumer stage, not the consumer.  It does not say you need to recreate a new disposal environment or champion one over the other.  It starts with an easy question, where does all (minus the idiots who litter) the McDonald’s plastic applications end-up?  If you said a landfill, you’re on the right track.  Honesty is the best policy.  Now what?    That’s the path to accountability.

Al Metauro, President & CEO of Cascades Recovery, Inc. said, “Doing the same things and expecting a different outcome is insanity.”  He’s absolutely right; we’ve been beating the same drum for a long time and it’s not improving our situation.  These Goliaths of industry need to understand where these plastics will be disposed of and implement solutions based on that environment and, as Laura Koss, Assistant Director of the Federal Trade Commission, points out:

  • Be as specific as possible.
  • Make environmental claims clear and prominent.
  • Don’t make qualifications about those claims only in asterisks and in tiny print.
  • Be honest about what your product represents and does not represent.
  • In the FTC’s eyes, it’s all about what a “reasonable consumer” might think about an on-package claim.

It’s absolutely unreasonable to take landfills out of the equation. Today, modern landfills are energy generating power plants and the vast majority of all of our waste ends-up in this managed and profitable environment. Let me emphasize this important and critical fact: today, nearly every State within the United States (including Alaska) already implements landfill gas to energy programs and each of these States count that energy creation as part of its green energy efforts. This is already an infrastructure that is in place and it’s a proven resource.   Spinning our wheels to create more programs and new infrastructure such as for recycling, composting, incineration, etc. will bear a significant environmental and economic cost to implement.

A recent study, “Plastics: Establishing the Path to Zero Waste” provides the most comprehensive and informative look at plastic disposal today and the environmental, economic and social impact of landfilling, recycling, composting and incarnation. The only way organizations will truly reach sustainability with plastics is if they take a step back look at the entire picture and evaluate the facts.

Let’s stop promoting environmental fairytales, get the science and data to make decisions about environmental solutions that will have the greatest positive impact today and begin doing something productive. We must strongly evaluate concepts such as bioplastics, recycling and compostable plastics that have no positive impact to our environment; show me the data!!! It’s time for these Big Boys to put their big-boy pants on and take responsibility and accountability for what’s actually happening. Let’s get past trying to just make the consumer “feel good,” progress feels good.

Study Finds Bioplastic Production More Damaging Than Climate Change

A recent study done by universities in Sweden and Australia, show the biggest risks to our planet are not in climate change as is popular beleif, as the levels of risk are still considered in the zone of uncertainty. Instead the critical risks to our planet are being caused by loss of biosphere integrity (the changes we are making to the land) are causing species extinction over 100 times faster than historical norms. The highest risk factors are found in the pollution not in our air, but in our water and soil from biochemical flows primarily nitrogen and phosphorus which are beyond the risk of uncertainty and have moved into the high risk zone. Fertilization use in farming is 8 times higher and the nitrogen levels entering the ocean has quadrupled. They clearly state that “the direct impact upon the land is the most important factor right now, even more than climate change.”

This brings into question the push for bio-based plastics that utilize farmed products such as corn, sugarcane and other crop based materials for plastic production. Is our drive for plant based plastics pushing our planet to the brink of collapse? What if we require all bio-based plastics to be made only with waste materials and not crops? Perhaps we should focus more on the overall environmental impact of materials rather than jump on the bandwagon with anything called “bio-based”?FREAHWATER

Click here for a copy of the original study: http://ensoplastics.com/download/2015_Steffen_1259855.pdf

Compostable Plastics Banned from Composting Facilities

Portland has announced a major change to their community compost system – as of March 1, 2015 they will no longer be accepting compostable plastics such as forks, spoons and cups. In fact, any food scrap loads with more than trivial amounts of compostable plastics will be diverted to the landfill. This also means that compostable plastics should not be marketed as compostable in Portland because they are not allowed in the system.

This decision comes as a surprise to many restaurants who have diligently converted to compostable plastics trying to “go green”. Unfortunately, what they were not told when they were sold on the “compostable plastic” was there is many different plastics that will compost, some provide value while others do not.  There are natural plastics such as starch and ENSO RENEW that are virtually identical to food waste. There are other synthetic plastics that will compost, such as PLA, that are not similar to food waste (and will not biodegrade in your back yard either). These second types of compostable plastics add absolutely no value to the compost system. Current ASTM D6400 requirements for compostable plastics require that the plastic convert 90% to CO2 within 120 days. These requirements are also built for commercial compost systems that operate at extremely high temperatures – much higher than most compost piles ever reach (why? because PLA requires the high heat to break down). The result? You end up with plastics that turn into greenhouse gas or don’t break down at all in the compost system. Either way, there is no value or benefit left in the soil.

Contrary to popular belief, these synthetic compostable plastics are not the same as plant matter in the compost. Plant matter degrades slowly over time and results in carbon retention in the soil as well as minerals and nutrients (together all of this known as humus). The value of composting is to create nutrient rich top soil – not to convert everything into air or to leave plastic fragments in our soil.

As we move toward more natural compostable materials such as ENSO RENEW, perhaps it will help Portland to reconsider accepting plastics in the compost system.

Read the full article

Sweden recycles 99% of Waste?

Today I ran across an article claiming that Sweden now recycles 99% of all it’s waste. Interested to learn how the Swede’s had figured out the recycling conundrum the rest of the world faces, I delved into the article. To my dismay, this was clever redirecting and marketing. Somehow it is now considered recycling to burn trash??
http://truththeory.com/2014/09/17/sweden-is-now-recycling-99-percent-of-its-trash-heres-how-they-do-it/

Sweden does have high recycling rates (in the traditional definition of recycling), here are the 2013 figures:

Material Percentage
Glass 89.00 %
Cardboard 77.20 %
Metal 73.10 %
Plastic 36.70 %
Drinking containers 88%
Biodegradable food waste 13.5 %
Office paper 66%
Batteries 65%

More sources of statistics can be found here (summary in swedish): http://www.sopor.nu/Rena-fakta/Avfallsmaengder/Statistik

However, when did we redefine recycling to include incineration? There is no environmental benefit to redefining verbiage to skew the data and make ourselves feel better. Let’s just stick with the actual facts and forget the clever re-directions: Sweden recycles about 49% of their trash, they incinerate about 50% and the remaining is landfilled. No sugar coating needed.

Paid to Recycle

Rethink Recycling

It never fails that at least once a week I see articles and reports regarding problems with our recycling system. Across the world we constantly see recyclers going out of business, china refusing to import recycled materials, governments and companies having to constantly funnel more money into recycling programs and an incredible media push to try and increase recycle rates. And yet, with all these problems I have yet to see an article that proposes a paradigm shift – instead it seems the thought is; “we will make up our losses with volume”.

Interestingly, you will never see recycling the way we attempt it today occurring in nature. I have yet to see a natural process that takes a wilted flower, chops it up and recreates a new flower; or feathers that have fallen off a bird reattached to another bird. Even if this is were theoretically possible, the resources required to do such a thing would make it too inefficient. This is similar to the problem we see in our current method of recycling – the resources required to complete the process are not equal to the value of the recycled material. This results in the unsustainable system we have today.

Perhaps it would make more sense to follow the example of what has worked for millions of years. In nature, waste materials are broken down into basic building blocks (soil, air, water) in a process that instead of requiring resources, provides value into the overall system (bio-degradation). These building blocks in turn are used to rebuild almost anything. This is a sustainable and resourceful process – true recycling. This is also a process that we can replicate today. Isn’t it about time we replicate the genius of nature and quit propping up unsustainable systems?

There is no arguing the serious growing environmental problem with the waste that is being produced and that recycling the way it is structured today will NOT solve that problem.  If we are to get serious about sustainability and solving the global plastic pollution issue we need to stop sticking our heads in the sand and incorporate various solutions, with recycling being one of them.  BUT, and that is a very big “but”, we have to stop pushing bad and misguided ideologies. All plastics are technically recyclable (meaning reusable as a polymer) and if society is going to financially prop up recycling businesses – we should be requiring them to take all plastics.  Additionally, for the long term objectives, all plastics should be biodegradable to ensure the polymer itself does not linger after it’s useful life.

To achieve success, we must all work together, recyclers should be accountable to embrace new technologies and join the group of us trying to solve the global pollution issue rather than simply cherry picking ideal applications, holding a facade of environmental motivation and ultimately simply looking to return a profit.

East Mesa firm’s new product biodegrades synthetic rubber

By Maria Polletta The Republic | azcentral.com Fri Oct 18, 2013 10:08 AM

East Mesa company ENSO Plastics has developed a treatment for synthetic-rubber products that will enable quicker decomposition in landfills.

ENSO RESTORE RL, being pioneered by a handful of manufacturers, launched this summer after a roughly two-year research-and-development process.

ENSO, which primarily focuses on mitigating the environmental impacts of plastics, took a detour into rubber technology after receiving multiple requests from industry players looking to make their products more environmentally friendly, according to Teresa Clark, ENSO’s vice president of product development.

“Plastics aren’t the only thing that cause a problem,” Clark said. “A lot of that (rubber) stuff gets thrown into a landfill, because it’s not recycled. For example, there’s some recycling of tires, but the majority of tires are still just disposed of.”

ENSO RESTORE comes in pellet, powder and liquid forms. The treatment is applied to products while they are being manufactured, but its effects don’t kick in until after the products are thrown away.

“Say someone is making a rubber band. The huge value of it is it doesn’t impact the use of the product — it’s still going to be just as stretchy, and it’s still going to last just as long,” Clark said. “The microorganisms in the waste environment just recognize it differently than the traditional, non-treated rubber later on.”

An independent lab test showed certain rubber products treated with Restore biodegraded about 17 percent in the first 20 days after disposal, while untreated products didn’t biodegrade at all, according to the company.

The biggest commercial user of RESTORE RL so far is an international manufacturer of rubber-gloves, according to Clark. Though she declined to name names, she said makers of rubber bands and products with “elastic-type fibers” also are interested in using the product, though most are still in the trial stage.

“While the plastic industry has had a lot of pressure to move environmental, the rubber industry, for the most part, has kind of flown under that radar,” she said. “They’re beginning to realize it’s just as important for all of our materials to be environmentally sensitive.”

Read the original AZCentral.com article: http://www.azcentral.com/community/mesa/articles/20131018east-mesa-firms-new-productbiodegrades-synthetic-rubber.html

Plastics Recycling-Where Did We Go Wrong Mentally?

 

Ok before the recycling folks and their allies come Para Trooping into my office and try to seize my computer, I need to get out right away that recycling IS good and should be pursued to every extent possible.  This rant is about how best to accomplish this without essentially putting our heads in the proverbial sand!!!

I came across an interesting article in Waste & Recycling, “Coffee makers wrestle with recyclability of single-serve pods” where it speaks to the challenges with recycling single serve coffee pods made by Keurig which was acquired by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc.  Apparently since 2009, the company Terra Cycle has been able to capture 25 million of similar discarded single-use cups, and has been attempting to make good use of them, but it sounds like it is very difficult to nearly impossible to recycle them.  Also, the article says that, “approximately 13% of the U.S. adult population drinks coffee using these single-use cups.”

So let me get this straight:  Approximately 40 million (13% U.S. Population) of these containers are discarded EACH DAY, and the recycling efforts over a 2 year period to recover these cups has amassed a whopping 25 million?  Of which there has not been any useful value found for these lucky cups?  Am I the only one that sees a problem here?  In 2 years it has taken a noble attempt by Terra Cycle (I have much respect for this organization, awesome innovators!) to get nearly half of ONE days worth of consumption of cups, to then turn around and make a useless pile of cups, all in the name of recycling!!!???  Is there no other way to approach this end of life issue?  Is this the best thing we can do with this issue right now –today?  Why does recycling feel so good for the marketplace?  I repeat; 1/2 days’ worth of material collected over the span of 2 years, with no outlet in sight, yet we turn a blind eye to this complete failure because it is labeled “recycling”…so many questions and comments.

So at this point, I should proclaim the easy answer -after all it is easy to be a critic and to point at what is not happening -or flat out failing.  But I do not propose to have an easy answer or “silver bullet” to cure all, but I do have sense enough to see that we need to quit being so brainwashed into thinking recycling is the silver bullet as well.  It is clearly not working alone in that only 7-9% of all plastics are being recycled.  And lets not forget that a vast % of our recycled plastic WAS going to China, and now may not find a home as China’s “Green Fence” is clearly revealing.  We need to incorporate a multifaceted approach to our waste issues and material resources.

What if these cups were made to biodegrade in a landfill where they most likely belong?  75.8% of all Municipal Solid Waste goes into landfills that capture the biogas created by biodegradation.  There has been unprecedented growth in utilizing Landfill Gas to Energy (LGE) in the U.S. recently as the experts now understand that it is better to promote and capture this alternative source of energy, rather than try and stop nature taking its course and entomb or dry landfill our waste.  The “no smoking” signs on an old landfill turned golf course has to make one nervous and draw some obvious conclusions-we cannot stop nature from taking its course. (:

Lastly, the Utopian Societyists say we need to move to 0% landfills.  I say that this is wrong and absolutely impractical.  We should rather be saying we need to achieve 0% waste.  If composting is considered Organic Recycling (which by the way creates 0% energy and captures LITTLE to no emmissions) then similarly, LGE is a valuable alternative to creating useful end of life values towards 0% waste.  Picture that huge pile of unusable “lucky because they were recycled” coffee cups and tell me I’m wrong.  Can we PLEASE do more than bury our heads in the sand and actually address today and tomorrow and not let “best” practices get in the way of the good we could do NOW?  If the total recycling rate of all plastics is 7-9%, that means roughtly 91-93% of our plastics is going to a landfill where it has no further value.  If they were biodegradable plastics like the kind ENSO Plastics assists brands and manufacturing to create, they would slowly biodegrade and be an excellent feedstock to LGE.  If you are one that thinks that recycling is the only answer, I ask you to shift your mentality and question status quo, question what is popular as “best practices” with our waste and push for a multi-pronged approach to our sustainability.  People are smart if they open their eyes and minds to innovations and bury their head in a more progressive endeavor like answering the question, “What more can we do?  Today?”   

-Del Andrus

 

Looking Beyond the Borders for Plastic Pollution Solutions

Plastics rock!  In a brief moment, if you focus on the role of plastic in our lives, it’s incredible all the applications we use it to our benefit.  Unfortunately, the end-of-life for most plastic is hundreds of years away, if not longer, a fundamental problem.   Over the course of the last few years I’ve had the privilege of playing a role in the Sustainability efforts of numerous producers of plastic.   I’ve heard about their attempts at previous technologies, their struggles of processing and performance, the regulatory quagmire they face, what they’re trying to hang their hat on now and everything under the sun and including the sun.

During this time, I’ve also been privy to some remarkable advancement in technologies and I’m amazed at the innovations that are available today as well as what is on the horizon.  It’s that focus on what tomorrow brings that truly provides a synergistic sustainable solution for a company.  It’s about implementing a solution that understands that plastic, and the issue of plastic waste, is not an island unto itself.  We must look beyond the borders to see the true possibilities, the interaction of multiple elements and cooperative action.  It’s why ENSO applauds the efforts and recent announcement by NatureWorks, for recognizing the possibilities beyond its current technology.   The silver bullet may not exist today, but with concerted efforts, we can move closer and closer to the goal.  The value proposition of methane capturing is far beyond any of its counterparts and it is increasingly being recognized as a more logical and fundamentally sound platform to adopt.

Methane, despite the perceived negative connotations, is one of our most inexpensive and cleanest energy resources.  This naturally produced gas can be used either in combustion engines or for conversion to electricity.  To include the possibility of harnessing methane for plastic production would be a huge game changer.  It is why current technologies such as ENSO RESTORE®, which proves to accelerate the natural biodegradation process in landfill environments, are being sought after.  Many initiatives being touted today are simply incapable of proportionally meeting the increased production rate of plastic.  What may appear to be “green” in theory essentially remains inadequate at meeting the greater objective of a cleaner planet.  It is why ENSO RESTORE® provides a significantly more dynamic solution to stand behind when it comes to adopting technologies that support sustainability goals.  Beyond bans and regulations, the objective is to provide a clear end-of-life solution in any plastic application (PET, HDPE, LDPE, PE, PP, EVA, PS, nitrile, rubber or latex); otherwise, we’re merely offering lip service in addressing the plastic waste in our environment.