Tag Archives: sustainability

The “New Plastics Economy” neglects Energy Recovery

When the Circular Economy model was introduced, it was built on finding ways to recoup value, especially as it pertains to the end-of-life. It was about finding ways to derive growth and increase value from existing infrastructures. Better value propositions with predictable results. It was an ‘all options on the table’ approach to looking at our resources through a different lens to ensure materials are “cycling” at the highest level possible, at all levels. Then, the “New Plastics Economy” emerged and something’s not adding up.

I know this is going to be confusing to some, but we absolutely cannot and will not be able to recycle our way out of the negative environmental impact plastics are causing. At their end of use, plastic can be captured, sorted, and it can be processed, all of which takes immense amounts of resources. But in the end, if the commodity is worth less than the processing costs, it’s an exercise in futility. It doesn’t make sense, if it doesn’t make cents.  Besides, recycling only extends the life of plastics (limited in cycles); it is not an end-of-life solution.

Companies like Waste Management (the largest residential recycler) have openly admitted this challenge and fully disclose that, if you want it to be “recycled” it’s fine by them, but both the processing costs and the profits will be baked into the contract… This does not mean that those non-recyclable plastics will get recycled into new products, just simply collected and processed over into the landfill.

And what’s the single largest recycler on the planet telling those in sustainability circles? If they really want the “biggest bang for the buck environmentally,” they should be focusing on the innovations within their “large-scale mixed-waste anaerobic digesters.” Actually, they say “today’s modern landfills,” but the word “landfill” can be a trigger word for some people.

Nevertheless, this industry has harnessed economies of scale and science, improving landfills and making “garbage dumps” a thing of the past. Today’s highly engineered modern landfills operate under strict federal and state regulations to ensure the protection of health and the environment. Today, 85% of U.S. municipal solid waste (including the vast majority of plastics) ends-up in landfills that trap gases which generate power for industries, provides heat for homes and clean burning fuel for vehicles. The industry is also advancing carbon sequestration in landfills, preventing carbon from re-entering the atmosphere.

Ironically, the New Plastics Economy paints itself as the group that’s all about exploring and driving innovation to solve the issues we face, even going as far as offering a $2 million dollar award.   While at the same time, blatantly dismissing the innovations that are available today.

Being unwilling to recognize and utilize the advances that are available to elevate the actual end-of-life value seems to be extremely shortsighted for any economic platform, especially when that value-add is ENERGY. By simply ensuring materials are designed for the ENERGY value that today’s modern landfills provide, not only could we begin to eliminate plastic waste from our environment, but those 64 billion lbs. of plastic going into a landfill each year has a value of over $15.5 billion in base load clean renewable ENERGY – predictable and measurable.

Most importantly, if the idea is to build a sustainable and thriving economy based on plastics, opposing the ability to include the fundamental aspect of recovering ENERGY at the final stage is an enormous lapse in judgement. ENERGY is one of the single-most important factors in economic growth. By its very nature, our economy is predicated on exponential growth. It is under constant pressure by many factors such as debt and population growth to continually and infinitely expand. What many policy makers and, by extension, people, don’t understand is that continued economic growth in our current system is completely reliant on a continuing increase in the availability of ENERGY to perform work. One cannot collect materials for recycling, process recyclate, nor make new products from recycled material without ENERGY.

The last two hundred years of accelerated growth in mankind’s numbers and achievements were only made possible by cheap, easily available fossil fuels.  It’s been reported that in the next 20 years we will need to harness 50% more ENERGY to support our economy. Everything, including the lifecycle of plastics, should be tied to utilizing the resources we have today to produce clean renewable ENERGY in the most cost effective manner as we possibly can.

The New Plastics Economy states that the reinforcing of recycling is economically more attractive than ENERGY recovery.  Systematically, this is not true and flies in the face of the Circular Economy model which is meant to replicate the nutrient cycles in nature. Most all carbon materials in nature are converted into energy during their natural nutrient cycle.  Plastics should be no different. Prosperity and the conservation of our planet will not be reached with platitudes about theoretical innovations in this theoretically-flawed New Plastics Economy.

By 2050, it’s estimated there will be more plastic waste in the ocean [by weight] than fish. Perhaps, we should start listening to Mr. Fish.

At the 2017 Waste Management Executive Sustainability Forum a message was delivered by Mr. Jim Fish, CEO of Waste Management (WM), echoing his predecessor, Mr. David Steiner.   “The goal is to maximize resource value while minimizing and even eliminating environmental impact, so both our economy and our environment can thrive.”  In 2016 Mr. Steiner told the National Recycling Conference in New Orleans that coupling landfill gas-to-energy with recycling would provide the “biggest bang for the buck environmentally.”   Mr. Fish concurs, specifically points out that WM’s day-to-day operational technology continues to evolve and it will play an even larger role moving forward, both on the collection and disposal sides of WM’s business.   And as Mr. Steiner indicated last year, what’s most exciting to Mr. Fish continues to be what’s happening with the materials that cannot be recycled or composted.   “Today, environmentally safe landfills play an important role for materials that don’t have viable end markets.” Why is this?   Because today’s modern landfills continue to clear all the hurdles, they work, they’re scalable, they’re economical and there are policies and regulations in place to support and encourage the developments of next generation alternatives in this space.   In short, these facilities are pumping-out clean, inexpensive, renewable energy like no other option!

This is where achieving true Circularity comes into play and it’s what most technologies are striving for when it comes to last/best option in handling waste – Energy Recovery. WM spends a great deal of time and expense exploring best possible options. However, one of the major pillars of WM’s strategy is adhering to the price discipline that is Mr. Steiner’s legacy. “In a business where there is no price elasticity in demand, we must stay dedicated to that discipline” and with the current low energy prices, “nothing can compete with the low landfill pricing.” According to Mr. Fish, other options have cost-structures that are at least 3-10 times the cost of landfill air space.

WM remains dedicated to a “sustainable” recycling business. As they should, not only are they the biggest landfill company in North America, they’re also North America’s biggest recycler – by an even wider margin.   In fact, it’s one of WM highest returns on invested capital, a business they want to ensure survives and thrives in the future. But Mr. Fish points out that we are in unchartered waters, the changes in products and packaging that are coming into our homes are significantly different and so are the recyclables going out, considerably increasing contamination rates and reducing value. This has led WM to take a hard look at what recycling means in term of environmental benefits.

When it comes to packaging, Mr. Fish wants us to realize that we’re an “on-the-go” society. This is translating into copious amounts of plastic packaging, much of which simply cannot be recycled.   This “convenience rules” trend is going to continue, causing tension between the desire to ‘recycle it all’ and the limitations of equipment, human behavior and the customer’s tolerance for cost.   With a 6-7% growth in non-recyclable flexible packaging, a 15% growth in E-Commerce and a recycling stream that’s 30% lighter than it used to be, Mr. Fish recommends evaluating the objectives to make sure we’re targeting that which achieves the greatest return value.   He explains, “Environmental benefits of recycling look very different when approached from a greenhouse gas emission reduction perspective versus simply looking at how many pounds or kilograms of material are averted from landfills.” So this got Mr. Fish and the rest of WM thinking, “What‘s the right goal? Is it to keep chasing that last ton to recycle or is it to achieve the highest possible environmental benefit? For years, recycle tons has been the goal and in response to high recycling goals, we’ve seen some creative efforts to achieve these goals. Even when the environmental impacts might be questionable and the economics just made no sense. We now believe that recycling should not be the goal in and of itself, we need to be a lot more specific to ensure that we are achieving the environmental benefits we want to and think we can.”

Mr. Fish goes on to explain that when it comes to the management of organic waste (including packaging) the first priority is in trying to reduce the amount of material from making it this far down the value chain – of course.  However, when this waste is collected for recovery (including non-recycled plastics, even the ones that say “recycla-bull”) it becomes feedstock for a process and a new product, either compost or an energy product.   Anything not designed to comply with either option reduces the quality of this feedstock driving-up cost and threatening the entire process.

To achieve real success, Mr. Fish emphasizes the need to be actively engaged in the entire value chain of material and suggests that we make-up our minds about packaging when talking about organic waste. “Do we love it for preserving food or do we loath it for making waste? Should we ban it, tax it, recycle it, compost it, burn it or landfill it? What are the comparative environmental benefits and the costs?”

Mr. Fish went on to highlight the importance of managing food waste. The main objective here is to reduce food waste and fortunately plastic packaging plays a critical role in preserving our food. Plastic packaging is not food and it should not be expected to perform like food, which would defeat the purpose. Nor should this material be comingled with food waste disposal, elevating the risk of more waste-stream contamination. Besides, industrial composting standards (ASTM D6400) require 90% conversion to gas in 180 days, leaving no nutrient value and losing any ability to capture the gas. In my opinion, compostable standards for packaging, although well-intentioned, simply overshoot any return value.   To jeopardize the entire supply chain with inadequate product performance and stability for the least common means of disposal doesn’t make much sense to me. Instead, more focus should be on the primary means of disposal (anaerobic) and the proven asset that this environment offers, the recovery of clean renewable energy.

Nonetheless, Mr. Fish emphasized that we can attack both sides of this problem. “We are in the midst of rapid change, changing demographics, changing consumer behavior, change in purchasing habits and packaging innovations, all of which are having huge impacts on recycling and the waste industry. Our response needs to be sophisticated and strategic… And as we tackle sometimes competing needs, all of us, producers, retailers, regulators and others, must use data to make the right environmental and economic decisions… We have the data, let’s put it to use!”

The data provides a clear pathway to achieving our environmental goals. Packaging should have the highest value and minimize environmental impacts in its most common discard method– without compromising the package quality. For the vast majority of packaging this does not equate to recycling, instead the environmental and economical winner is conversion to energy in modern, environmentally safe landfills. This shift in creating science and data driven solutions, rather than basing actions on perception or environmental folklore, is vital in reaching WM’s goal to process this material to its highest worth, maximizing the resource value and eliminate the environmental impacts of packaging in a way that’s both good for the economy and our planet.  Although this message seemed to completely elude the panel of experts that followed, discussing the conundrums of complex packaging, I hope others will begin to take Mr. Fish’s advice before we’re all swimming in it.

Is recycling the key to sustainability?

graphThe 2015 U.S. plastic bottle recycling rate posted a slight decrease of 0.6 percent compared with 2014, according to the figures released by the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) and the American Chemistry Council (ACC) in the 26th annual “National Post-Consumer Plastics Bottle Recycling Report.” At the current and projected rate of production, a plateau like this should ring alarm bells!  The data clearly shows we are not going to recycle our way to a sustainable future.

As someone who’s actively engaged in the sustainable management of plastics, I pay close attention to companies that are managing our waste. These companies are on the frontlines of managing the recovery and disposal of solid and hazardous waste materials, which include landfills and recycling centers. I strongly believe that integrating the advice from these groups and working with them hand-in-hand should be an integral aspect to any sustainability program.

For example, at the recent 2016 Resource Recycling Conference in New Orleans, CEO of Waste Management, David Steiner, specifically pointed out that in order to achieve the “biggest bang for the buck” environmentally, coupling recycling with landfill gas-to-energy offers the greatest return value. This is the “environmental” recommendation from David Steiner, not a shareholder perspective. And Waste Management should know, they are after all the ones actually doing all the work in collecting, processing and managing the vast majority of the our waste.

His shareholder perspective is profitability, as it should be.   In a recent interview with Bloomberg, David Steiner explains that when you look at the various commodities that are recycled, there are some that are profitable. Those are primarily fiber (paper) and metals. Once you start moving into organics (plastics) and glass, they become less profitable (and in most cases over the past few years, they have lost money). In places like California they’ll do things to subsidize those types of materials to ensure Waste Management makes a profit, and then people can recycle those materials… Elsewhere, this does not work economically and understandably so. However, Waste Management will do what the municipality wants, just not at the expense of its bottom-line.   They’ll be happy to recycle everything; it’s only a matter of how much you want to pay for it. But buyers beware if the commodity prices do not cover the processing costs, recycling becomes an exercise in futility.

Nonetheless, if the municipalities are willing to pay (increase taxes) for this exercise, Waste Management will be happy to oblige. They will “recycle” it, collect it, sort it and they will process it. For Waste Management, processing costs and a little profit are baked into the contract. If there’s no market, no problem for Waste Management, this material will end up disposed into a form that is not recycling.

Recently at K 2016, Patrick Thomas, chairman of the European trade group Plastics Europe, said that “every tonne of plastic that goes to landfill is a waste. It is too valuable a resource to go that way.” Really, if it needs to be subsidized by the government (tax payer money), what value is he referring to and is it sustainable?

Where exactly is the value? Last year the average bale price of recycled bottles fell by 31%, meaning that the bottles were less valuable last year than the year before. Couple this with oil prices dropping by 47% and the result is a compounded decrease in the “value” of recycled plastics.

Today, 80 million tons of non-reusable/non-recyclable plastic packaging is produced annually. This volume is expected to double in 20 years. If this 80 million tons were simply designed to comply with the primary disposal method (a.k.a. modern landfills), this material could provide enough energy to power 30 million homes for a year!

Nearly 50 years has passed since the launch of the first universal recycling symbol, today only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling. When additional value losses in sorting and reprocessing are factored in, only 5% of material value is retained for a subsequent use. Meanwhile, in a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish [by weight].  What are we doing?

There’s a pervasive attitude that we must recycle everything at all costs, this is not sustainable by any definition. Plastics, unlike aluminum, can only be recycled 3-4 times; eventually it will find its way into our waste streams and into our environment.   Although recycling does provide us the option to extend the life of some plastics, it is not an ‘end-of-life’ solution. We cannot recycle our way out of the environmental waste problem plastics are causing. If companies continue to ignore performance compliance with todays’ primary means of disposal, facilities that actively control and convert biogas into clean alternative energy (intrinsic return value), progress will remain stagnate. The science and data validate David Steiner’s recommendation; including landfill gas-to-energy provides an environmental and economic value higher than any other option.  We can take the advice or not, Waste Management will come out ahead either way, but will we?

Orange County is packing power in Landfill Gas-to-Energy

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Do it for the OC! Can you imagine the concentration of plastic packaging that’s accumulated in Orange County alone?   Beyond standard recycling, did you know that Orange County has installed four Landfill Gas-to-Energy facilities? The most recent $60 million dollar investment will power 18,500 homes. Altogether, the four facilities will produce 400,000 megawatts of electricity per year, enough to power more than 50,000 homes. These projects are turning our waste into clean energy all over the country and right now they’re the single-most common disposal environment of plastic waste. Ensuring energy recovery in packaging design offers the greatest value in full-scale recycling. Get it out of the environment and into the grid, make today’s waste, tomorrow’s energy!  Design for disposal.

The Top 10 and Not a 1?

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This diagram represents the top ten producers of plastic packaging. The vast majority of the plastic applications that are produced by these brands become waste. All the film packaging, pouches, diapers, detergents, hygiene products, wrappers, coffee bags, food containers and much more, that’s produced by these 10 companies accounts for an astonishing amount of the plastic waste that is certainly not being reused or recycled in any meaningful way.

We hear a lot that environmental pollution is a consumer problem. We get told how to prepare our waste for recycling. “Put this here and put that there. No! Not that, this. Well, sometimes that, but probably not. Maybe, use water and wash it out. No wait – water..? Take it here or actually take it someplace over there.  Otherwise, it may need to be shipped somewhere..?”  And when you stop to take a look at the results of all this effort, you’re left wondering, are you kidding me, is all this even environmental? Enough already!

News Flash: In the last 50 years, we’ve invested heavily in how we manage waste and the infrastructures we utilize. They’re very impressive works of innovation and they’re regulated for environmental efficiency at the highest level. In fact, today 85% of all U.S. municipal solid waste ends-up in an environment that converts biogas into clean energy, generating a valuable alternative resource for our growing energy needs. Some of these companies are actually using the same means to power their own manufacturing facilities! Yet, accountability for this aspect in packaging design is scarce. How is this being overlooked?

We’re now dealing with decades of plastic waste that’s been left in our environment; we see the devastating repercussions and the projected damage it will cause. Plastic production has surged to 311 million tons and is expected to double in 20 years. Currently, plastic packaging accounts for nearly a third of the total volume of plastics used, and unlikely to be recycled. By ignoring the single most common disposal method of this material, valuable energy is being wasted and continues to compound the environmental problem.

If these 10 companies took one simple step to ensure packaging design for disposal compliance, the impact would provide tremendous and measurable value, for company and community. Getting plastics out of our environment and into the grid falls on the shoulders of producers not consumers.

Ensuring energy recovery should be paramount in packaging design, it’s the only opportunity to recoup value and it should be the top consideration in packaging sustainability initiatives. It’s the missing link to creating circularity; it’s recycling at its highest peak. With an immediate 85% capture rate at the fingertips of corporate sustainability leaders, what are you waiting for?

“People, Planet, Profit” – It’s not a triple bottom line.

Sustainability is a driving factor for many companies, however understanding how to measure and achieve sustainability has proven to be extremely complex. In 1994 John Elkington coined the phrase “people, planet, profit” at SustainAbility. This concept of the triple bottom line is now found in nearly all discussions of corporate sustainability. And while the newly commissioned sustainability executive will proudly tout their implementation of “people, planet, profit; I can’t help but feel they are missing the real solution.

The triple bottom line follows the belief that a business should account for and take inventory of environmental impacts and social impacts while maximizing financial gains. Inherently there is a constant struggle to justify the financial costs of environmentally sustainable solutions, and improving the community comes at a price as well. Inevitably all sustainability managers find themselves with ideas and solutions to improve people and planet, but without justification to implement these solutions because of the impact on profit.

The problem is that we need a fundamental shift in the understanding of the purpose of business and what “people, planet, profit” really means. Only then can these three aspects work together seamlessly.

Some believe the purpose of business is to make money – profit. The butcher makes money selling meat, the chef makes money cooking meals and the builder makes money buying houses. While each of these businesses could make a profit, this is not the purpose of business. If consumers don’t want meat, cooked meals or new homes, those businesses will never survive. The only way a business remains is if it provides a value to the community.

Obviously these are simplistic examples, but the overall perspective is the same. The purpose of business is to provide value. Value to the people, value to the planet.

Profit on the other hand is not a value provided. Profit is what you get in exchange.
In a truly sustainable business, “people, planet, profit” is not a triple bottom line – it is a math equation and it looks like this:

People + Planet = Profit

The profit is an inherent result of providing value to the people, value to the planet. In a sustainable business, profit should never exceed value, nor should it be less.

Perhaps the solution to the bottom line is simply creating a balance between the value you provide to people and planet, and the value you receive in return as profit?

Recovery Cannot be Ignored in a Circular Economy :

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There’s about 78 million tons of plastic waste produced each year that is non-recyclable, non-reusable, already light-weighted and unavoidable. The next feasible option we have to “cycle” this material at its highest level possible is in energy recovery.  Fortunately, the vast majority of this material is already entering a waste-to-energy facility and there’s no need for infrastructure or behavioral changes. For this to happen, these applications simply need to be designed conducive for anaerobic environments.

The recovery of Landfill Gas-to-Energy provides predictable results and a better value proposition for single-cycle applications than any other disposal method we have available today.   As we embark on creating a “Circular Economy” we need to harness the resources available to us.  The idea is to recoup, or recover, the greatest value possible within a products life-cycle, including disposal.  Plastics cannot be recycled perpetually, it is not an end-of-life solution.  In order to get plastics out of the environment and into the grid, it falls on producers, the brands and manufactures, to ensure its applications are designed to comply with this disposal method.

A collaborative approach is vital, yet there are still some companies, even ones who’ve pledged their commitment to creating a circular economy, that scoff at the idea. Unwilling to design for disposal and dismissing the returns of alternative energy, they stay committed to a recurrent single strategy for nearly half a century.  Is it because consumers won’t understand?  I doubt that, but using consumer comprehension as a litmus test in harnessing innovation may not be the best idea.  Besides, as a consumer myself, I’d prefer an honest approach that provides intrinsic benefits, and less of my own involvement, to being misled that anything’s really being done at all.

 

 

 

 

 

Finding Circularity with Single Cycle Packaging

Let’s look at the issue of plastic waste and how we can use the circular economic model to resolve some of the problems that we face, that’s ultimately spilling into our environment.   Some 300 million tons of plastic is manufactured globally each year and “plastic packaging” accounts for about 78 million tons of it. That’s 172 billion pounds of non-reusable, non-recyclable and unequivocally unaccounted for plastic waste. This includes items such as flexible packaging, films, foamed material, small items, contaminated material, complex/multi-layer applications and anything colored, where recycling and reusability are practically non-existent.  These are single use, single cycle, applications.  Also, there’s unanimous agreement that the vast majority of all these applications are destined for a landfill. And these are not the demonized landfills from days gone by; I’m talking about today’s modern landfills that are now energy generating power plants.

This discussion is not for the consumer, this is for the difference makers, the sustainability managers, the leaders that can make a difference. They’re the companies that, according to Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), are to be held accountable for the post-consumer aspect of its products and packaging. I’m talking about companies like Kraft, Coca-Cola, Nestle, PepsiCo, P&G, General Mills, Johnson & Johnson, Kellogg, Mars, Unilever and all the brands under them.

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We all know, or the data tells us, that this is the single most common disposal method of all this material. It should also be known that waste-to-energy has proven to be one of our greatest resources for alternative energy.   Whether it’s an anaerobic digester, a bioreactor or today’s modern landfills, most plastic packaging is ultimately ending-up in a unique anaerobic environment that is controlling and converting biogas into clean energy. Some of these companies utilize the energy from landfills, yet they haven’t put the pieces together to figure out that the very trash that their products produce could be the feedstock for the alternative energy resource they’re already harnessing. Too often, the end-of-life aspect is ignored or swept under the rug with theoretical contemplations about disposal methods that simply don’t exist and senseless confusion.

Yet, nearly all 50 states include landfill gas-to-energy as part of their green energy portfolios. It’s recognized by the United Nations, the EPA, as well as dozens of Fortune 500 companies and government organizations that all utilize energy from landfills.  However, the dots just aren’t being connected.   I recently asked the Director of Sustainability for one of these 10 companies about this topic and they honestly said that they’ve never heard of such a thing and can’t imagine that we’ll ever get our energy from slowly decomposing waste. Yet, three years ago this same company won top honors by the EPA as one of the largest on-site green power generators because of its use of Landfill Gas-to-Energy (LGE) to power its manufacturing facilities! Seriously, why the disconnect between what companies are doing and what companies should and could be doing to think more circular? Imagine if you will, this same company implementing landfill biodegradable packaging and then using the energy from landfill gas.  This is true circular economy thinking, especially when energy needs will increase 50% in the next couple decades.  Without requiring any change to the infrastructures in place today and without modifying consumer behavior, these single use applications can be designed to cycle at a higher level.

I’ve heard the idea that plastics should be made NOT to biodegrade in a landfill because one day we might want to mine for this material. This is completely asinine and assumes that we’ll have a need to mine for this material within the next couple hundred years.  The reason being, plastic will eventually biodegrade, we just won’t be able to capture the gases produced if we wait too long. Instead, if these applications were designed to biodegrade within the managed timeframe of these anaerobic environments, for every million pounds of plastic waste that enters a LGE facility, it offers the equivalence of over 422,000 pounds of coal, 52,000 gallons of gasoline and more than 1100 barrels of oil, which is used to power homes and factories, as well as fueling vehicles!

The technology is readily available to make most any polymer application anaerobically biodegradable, or commonly referred to as Landfill Biodegradable.   The technology does not change any processing parameters, there’s no change in any performance characteristics, and it’s not expensive. In fact, for about the price of a Tall Cappuccino, tens of thousands of Starbucks Coffee cups can be designed to biodegrade in a landfill.   These multi-layer applications are not being reused or recycled, but they are going to a landfill. So what gives, is it because of the misguided concept that landfills are bad? Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate the integral role of this disposal method that rely so heavily on; a lot has changed since the 80’s. In fact, you could say that we’re now diverting 75% of all MSW away from landfills, because the type of landfills that are being vilified are becoming obsolete – quickly.

A single loop system for handling our plastic waste is impractical, circularity does not mean singularity, there’s too much at stake, too much potential, and the infrastructure is already in place so there’s no need to implement Cass Sunstein’s “nudging” tactics to change consumer behavior. Besides, the fact that none of this material can/will be recycled is not because of consumer behavior, its feasibility and market demand, and it’s just not there. A company wanting to take accountability for its packaging needs to answer one candid question: What is the common disposal method of the application? Then, do what can be done to take advantage of this fact and understand the value in having our waste integrate into our waste infrastructures instead of working against it. The facts, the science and all the data, prove that there’s an enormous opportunity being overlooked.  I believe the circular economic model can work for plastics, but not if it’s simply a rebranding of the last 40+ years of rhetoric.

Sustainability with Landfilling

When considering landfills from a sustainability perspective, often the most difficult thing is to step back from the negative connotations of landfills. Too often, sustainability managers get caught in the trend of “zero landfill” because it is great marketing and it sounds like it would be more environmental. We must overcome the negative perception of landfills so we can evaluate them objectively.

 The truth is always in the facts. Landfills are an important part of any sustainability strategy. Most all of the waste worldwide goes into landfills. Landfills can be the most environmentally and economically beneficial disposal options for certain items. Technology has completely changed landfills; they are not the same as they were prior to the 1980’s. And landfills are an important part of many municipal green energy initiatives.

The design and operation of landfills has completely changed over the past few decades. Landfills are now actively managed to avoid leachate absorption into the surrounding soil, to avoid air emissions and they are a valuable and consistent source of renewable energy. Modern landfills are by far the most inexpensive method to dispose of materials and they allow a means to provide economic and environmental value through the conversion of landfill gas to energy.

 There is no doubt that most all plastics are disposed of in landfills. Even after 40 years of efforts to divert plastics from landfills, we still landfill over 90% of plastics. Many companies’ products and packaging will have closer to 100% landfill disposal. History has shown that we will continue to landfill plastics for a very long time and attempts to divert plastics from landfills usually causes more damage to the environment and economy than any benefit it may provide. Because of this, we must understand how to create sustainability with landfilling of plastics.

 Plastics in the landfill should biodegrade during the managed life of the landfill, 2-50 years. When compostable plastics enter a landfill many will biodegrade too rapidly and the methane is released into the atmosphere and most traditional plastics biodegrade over hundreds of years meaning, again, the methane goes into the atmosphere. We must use plastics that biodegrade during the 2-50 year managed time of a landfill so the methane can be managed, collected and converted to clean energy. Once collected, the methane provides energy, fuel, and reduces the methane’s global warming effects.

Ultimately, we cannot disregard landfilling because plastics are, and will continue to be, discarded into landfills. Instead, we must design plastics that provide value in the landfill. In this way, we can create sustainability platforms that are more realistic and beneficial.

For more details, check out the Sustainability Managers Complete Guide to Plastics: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0175AQ24K

 

Connecting the dots between plastic waste and renewable energy

With the recent United Nations Conference on Climate Change, there’s a lot of talk about harnessing renewable energy.  Take a company like Unilever who’s committed to becoming ‘carbon positive’ by 2030.  Meaning, 100% of Unilever’s energy across its operations will come from renewable sources, in just 15 years!  Interesting, now let’s quickly switch gears and take a look at plastic waste and the sustainability efforts taking place there.  With the advent of Extended Producer Responsibility, brands and manufacturers will be held accountable for the post-consumer stage of its product.  What is the common disposal method for the majority of Unilever’s packaging and products?  Well, if we’re being honest and using the facts and data available, it’s all ending-up in a landfill.  Recycling comes in a distant second and composting and incineration are practically nonexistent.   However, considering this new agenda Unilever proposes, is this really a negative thing?  Not if someone can connect the dots.

Today, the bad thing about landfills is in name only.   Perhaps we need to start referring to this single most common disposal method simply as Bioreactors.  The vast majority of all MSW ends-up in “landfills” that capture and control the gases being produced in these environments and turning it into energy.  This valuable resource, Landfill Gas-to-Energy, is considered the most economical form of green energy available today, even when considering the costs of hydro, solar and wind.  Once converted, landfill gas can be utilized in many ways: to generate electricity, heat, or steam; as an alternative vehicle fuel; or sold on the energy market as a renewable “green” power or gas. All States in the U.S. (including California) utilize gas to energy as part of their green initiatives and companies like Mars, Dart, Toyota, Frito Lay, SC Johnson, Tyson Foods, Kimberly-Clark, Coca-Cola, Anheuser Busch, just to name a few, are already harnessing this energy resource.

If Unilever’s plastic products and packaging where designed for this specific environment, it could essentially power itself with the trash it produces.  Today, we have the ability to make plastic waste naturally biodegrade in these amazing anaerobic environments, Bioreactors.   The Recycling industry and the Compostable Plastics industry will continue to rail against this, but it’s time more companies rely on facts and scientific data instead of myths and emotions that simply coddle consumer’s inaccurate perceptions.  Today, and in the foreseeable future, Landfills/Bioreactors will absolutely play a major role in the way we manage waste and harness renewable energy.  The demonization of this fact is counterproductive to the goals being set.  The power is in the hands of companies like Unilever to see beyond the status quo and implement solutions that provide accountability and viability for itself and its customers.  Connecting the dots is the key to a sustainable future.