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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.

companies

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.

Moving beyond ‘recycle or die’


Mike Hower
Friday, February 5, 2016 – 12:01am

“It shouldn’t be ‘recycle or die,'” said David Allaway, senior policy analyst at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. “Not everything should be recycled, and some things should be landfilled. … It’s not recycling for the sake of recycling, but recycling to achieve an environmental outcome.”

Most modern recycling programs measure success through waste diverted from landfills — using weight as the unit of measurement. But not all materials have the same environmental impacts.

Given the predominant “recycling religion,” the assertion that the recyclable material isn’t always the best environmental choice might sound like heresy. But if the entire lifecycle of a product is considered, this actually can make a lot of sense.

“Sometimes the best choice in packaging is to use something that isn’t as recyclable but has lower upstream impacts,” Allaway said. In certain situations, for example, the best choice we have is to choose a material that has low upstream impacts and then sending it to the landfill.

Enter material management — that is, taking actions across the entire lifecycle of materials to reduce the impacts across the entire lifecycle of materials. According to Allaway, this broader view can give organizations a larger toolbox to use limited resources to make better decisions. A cornerstone of materials management is waste prevention through circular thinking.

While the circular economy has become somewhat of a buzzword in sustainability circles, its emphasis on viewing waste as nutrients has profound power to create production models that reduce reliance on raw materials by continuously cycling materials of all types back through supply chains — in other words: closing the loop.

“It isn’t one loop, but a series of loops from different systems,” said Jeff Wooster, global sustainability leader at Dow. “The circular economy can benefit society by taking waste from one loop and putting it into another.”
Starbucks’ systems-based approach to recycling

“I would define the circular economy by using the word ‘economy,'” said Jim Hanna, director of environmental impact at Starbucks.

The coffee chain has taken a systems-based approach to recycling, with an emphasis on upstream impacts. After hearing from its customers and employees that recycling coffee cops was a top priority, Starbucks established the goal of diverting 100 percent of its waste from its company-owned stores by 2015.

But achieving this was easier said than done.

“One of the things we discovered early on is that recycling is a hyperlocal issue, and for a global company our ability to have global targets and execute them at a hyperlocal level is a challenge,” Hanna said.

Starbucks faced a patchwork of recycling infrastructure and market conditions. Likewise, many of its store’s landlords control the waste collection and decide whether they want to provide recycling. These challenges require customizing recycling programs to each store and market, and may limit the company’s ability to offer recycling in some stores.

One key way Starbucks worked around this was by trying to increase the recyclability of its paper coffee cups, which Hanna said makes up the largest part of the company’s carbon footprint.

Starbucks engaged its paper suppliers to tinker with its cups. The results turned out positive: Paper mills came up with a way to recycle the cups, and profitably. Starbucks then was able to tell cities they should recycle their cups because there’s a willing buyer.

Despite its efforts, Starbucks failed to meet its waste diversion goal — just over 50 percent of its stories have achieved zero waste. Echoing Tierney, Hanna said that companies striving to achieve zero waste isn’t “realistic or ideal.”
Better metrics for recycling

Admirable as it may be to divert waste from landfills, our singular focus on this as a success metric may have blinded us from other negative environmental impacts — particularly upstream.

“We need better metrics we can all agree on,” Hanna said. “Carbon dioxide should be one of these metrics.”

When thinking about food waste, for example, significantly more greenhouse gases are generated producing food than emitted by food rotting in a landfill, according to Allaway. If we reduce the impacts upstream, this could multiply the desirable environmental outcomes downstream.

Climate change isn’t the only environmental impact — others are related to health, energy and the economy. If we equate circular economics with recycling, we may continue down the same unsustainable path that got us into our current predicament in the first place.

“One of the things that worries me about the circular economy is that it could be a red herring that prevents us from addressing the fundamental unsustainability of our systems of production and consumption,” Allaway said.

“I would rather see us recycle fewer things well, than more things poorly.”

Original article: https://www.greenbiz.com/article/can-circular-thinking-set-us-free-recycling-religion

Can circular thinking set us free from the ‘recycling religion’?

Mike Hower
Friday, February 5, 2016 – 12:01am
WM Forum
Courtesy ofWM2016

As blasphemous as it may sound, some things just shouldn’t be recycled. Onstage are John Tierney, author and The New York Times science writer; Dana Perino, former White House Press Secretary and now co-host of The Five on Fox News Channel; Adam Minter, author and columnist at Bloomberg.

Recycling waste is more trouble than it’s worth, according to John Tierney, author and New York Times science writer, in his widely read and contested Op-Ed, “The Reign of Recycling.”

“The recycling movement is floundering, and its survival depends on continual subsidies, sermons and policing,” he concluded in October. “How can you build a sustainable city with a strategy that can’t even sustain itself?”

But Tierney spoke of recycling with a slightly more moderate tone Thursday at the 2016 Waste Management Executive Sustainability Forum in Scottsdale, Arizona. WM produced the event, which GreenBiz hosted and livecasted.

Tierney conceded that “recycling does make sense for some materials at some times in some places. … My problem is with what I called the ‘recycling religion.’ The idea that recycling is an inherently virtuous activity, that the more we do of it the better, and that the ultimate goal should be achieving zero waste.”

At the forum, business, government and nonprofit leaders explored the idea that cities, companies and consumers should break free of their zealotry for recycling and open their minds to rethink waste from a more holistic perspective.

Originally posted at https://www.greenbiz.com/article/can-circular-thinking-set-us-free-recycling-religion

Landfill gas – Turning trash into clean energy – How Edmonton’s landfill powers 4,600 homes

Not many people give thought to what happens to their trash once it is placed in the curbside bin. They think of landfills as the old dry tomb polluting places of old. But landfills are quickly becoming centres of innovation when it comes to turning what we throw away into clean energy. Edmonton has had a landfill gas operation since 1992 and it was the first in Western Canada to turn old garbage into a new resource – clean energy. In fact most places that have green energy requirements utilize landfill gas to energy to meet those requirements and it is the least expensive form of green energy we have available on the planet today. Its funny that there are some people out there today that still promote zero landfill waste. Knowing that waste is converted into clean energy is innovative and futuristic.

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