eco ramblings

a dialogue with an Eco Patriot

Archive for the ‘containers’ Category

The Debate Over How To Label Compostable Products

Posted by Luke on July 12, 2010

I’ve been involved in the debate over having a standardized label for compostable products for several years now.  Many composting facilities and other industry stakeholders believe that creating a standardized label to indicate a product is compostable would solve the problems of contamination.  And the label they want standardized across all products is a printed green band.  The truth of the matter, though, is that contamination levels would only decrease a very small amount, but the composting industry as a whole would suffer tremendously.

The Biodegradable Products Institute is the leading body for verifying a product is compostable

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition recently released a report that includes results of a survey of 40 industrial compost facilities.  82.5% of those facilities think the biggest opportunity for improvement is a standardized label for compostable products.  They have a hard time knowing what is compostable and what isn’t.  I see their point.  A clear PLA cup looks just like a clear PET cup.  There’s more to it than that though.

72.5% of the survey respondents said that accepting compostable packaging allows them to increase their total food waste tonnage.  Accepting these products improve the outcome of the overall composting program.  If we require a label on compostable packaging, it will present obstacles to manufacturers of these products and deter them from making the products in the first place (more on this below).  Based on the results of the survey, if compostable products aren’t widespread, food waste composting programs will decrease.  These products are critical to drive total food waste diversion from landfills.  That means that the composting industry will take several steps backwards if compostable products become less widespread.

Most of the standardized labeling talk is around requiring a green stripe.  The problem is that a green stripe isn’t possible to print on the majority of products.  It’s possible on cups, but it can’t be printed on a disposable fork.  It can’t be printed on most food containers.  Actually, I take that back.  It could be printed on those items, but the cost of the items would quadruple.  Then people would complain about the product manufacturers charging too much.  This is what I meant above when I said that requiring a label would deter manufacturers from producing these products because it would significantly drive up their production costs (by 2-4 times).

Second, major brands aren’t going to get behind a green stripe.  Can you imagine a compostable Coca-Cola cup with a green stripe on it?  It doesn’t jive with their red brand look and feel unless it’s Christmas.  I can’t see them or other brands getting behind this.  Competing brands don’t want to look like each other and a green stripe would create too much unison between competitors.  If big brands don’t get behind it, the likelihood of it succeeding is slim to none.

Let’s Take a Lesson from the Recycling Industry

Similar to the composting industry, the recycling industry has faced the challenge of contamination for decades.  Recyclers struggle with contamination because people put every type of plastic container in the recycling bin.  Most people think that just because a piece of plastic has a recycling symbol on the bottom of it that it can be recycled.  Unfortunately, that’s not correct.  The recycling symbol is very misleading on packaging.  39 states require that all plastic products have a recycling symbol with the number indicating what type of resin it’s made from.  It has nothing to do with the recyclability.

As a result, all plastic products have recycling symbols on them even though they aren’t all accepted by recycling facilities.  Virtually the only products that are widely recycled when they reach the recycling facility are #1 and #2 bottles.  All other products (salad containers, produce containers, etc.) aren’t recycled at 95% of the recycling facilities in the country  The reason is because the companies who buy the recycled materials buy them in compressed bales.  If they know the bales only consist of bottles, they know what they’re getting.  If the bales contain various other types of containers, they don’t know what type of resin they are buying.  Most recycling facilities don’t have optical sorting technology to sort between various types of resins.

I draw the comparison to the recycling industry because they haven’t been successful in creating a standardized label, so why would the composting industry have any different of an outcome, especially when most stakeholders want the label to be a green stripe which is feasibly impossible to print on the majority of product shapes?

Here’s My Solution…

The only standardized label that I see as working is requiring compostable products to have the word “COMPOSTABLE” embossed on the product.  Since a resin symbol has to be embossed anyway to denote the type of material, it’s not difficult to also emboss the word “COMPOSTABLE.”  That precludes anything about color, so it shouldn’t upset big brands.  It also works with existing manufacturing processes, so there shouldn’t be an increase in the cost of production.  It would be up to the FTC and other industry bodies to regulate that any product claimed as compostable has ASTM D6400 certification and verification from the Biodegradable Products Institute.

The problem we return to, though, is that an embossed word isn’t as clearly recognizable to compost sorters as a color (I didn’t say my solution was perfect).  This leads me to believe that another solution is improved screening technology at composting facilities which would allow plastic contamination to be screened out and removed from the inbound organic waste.  I know that’s costly and we can’t expect composters to invest in that equipment on their own overnight.

All of this goes hand-in-hand with the need for educating the general public about what is compostable and what isn’t.  This will take time.  The recycling industry still struggles with this after several decades.

A Note to Industry Groups Trying to Solve This Issue… Let’s Not All Separately Try to be Heroes

There are several different industry groups trying to come up with their own solutions.  The worrisome part is that they aren’t communicating with each to develop a unified vision.  I just hope one of those groups doesn’t try to strong-arm a policy into effect without thinking through all of the various angles.  That would, ultimately, hinder the growth of compostable products and the composting industry.

Advertisements

Posted in bottles, compostable, compostable products, composting, containers, cups, environmental products, foodservice, packaging, recycling, RPET | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Sustainability is a Journey… Part 2

Posted by Luke on June 30, 2010

A month ago I wrote a post on how sustainability is a journey.  The two main points I tried to get across were that (1) everyone defines sustainability differently and (2) sustainability isn’t something that happens overnight.  I am continually reminded of this at Eco-Products.

The challenge I face is that with a name like Eco-Products, people expect us to be the absolute, most sustainable business in the world (oh, and did I mention that everyone defines sustainability differently?).  We definitely want to be the most sustainable company possible, but it will take time.  Sustainability is a journey.

When Eco-Products built our brand of environmental products, like most young companies, we started at a sales level of nil.  We knew what we wanted to do – to green the packaging industry – but there was a long journey in front of us.  We knew we couldn’t change an industry over night.

One of the first steps we had to take in launching our brand was to find factories who were willing to bet on us.  They had to be willing to process new environmental materials on their multi-million dollar pieces of equipment.  We couldn’t tell them how much we’d be ordering because we had no idea.  Forecasting sales of a new product in a new market is nearly impossible.

These complexities narrowed down the field of potential factories very quickly.  We couldn’t find one manufacturer in the U.S. who was willing to bet on us.  The only companies who were willing to take a chance were in other parts of the world.  As we dug into this, we found that a global supply chain had some major benefits.

First, the energy used in some of the places we chose to manufacture was as clean or cleaner than in the U.S.  Second, we learned that the carbon emissions of shipping our products across the ocean was only 11% of the total carbon emissions of the product’s entire life cycle emissions.  Upon learning that, we made the commitment to invest in carbon offsets to completely offset the emissions from the transportation of our products.

Third, manufacturing in the U.S. would only yield a 1.6% improvement to our carbon footprint.  We hired BCS, Inc., an excellent independent environmental consulting firm, to do this analysis.  I was shocked at this number, but the reason it is so low is because we would have to truck products further distances which has more of a carbon impact than shipping containers on a boat that carries thousands of other products.

At the time, we didn’t have the sales volume that justified investing millions of dollars into U.S.-based manufacturing equipment (nor did we have the money), and we had to start somewhere if we wanted to green an entire industry.  Leveraging the technology and manufacturing capabilities overseas also gave us the opportunity to create nearly 50 jobs based in the U.S. at our headquarters doing sales, marketing, accounting, product development, and more.

All along, we have felt that if we could build enough critical mass we would be able to make even more meaningful changes to our carbon footprint when we could later afford to do so.  We essentially had to compromise early on.

George Siemon, the C-I-E-I-O of Organic Valley, talked about this very point in a recent interview.

“My enlightenment was to not try to do everything at once, but to build a broad, solid foundation, and then we would be able to do more of what our mission was, instead of trying to do it all at once, and failing—so we have found the happy medium. Now that we’ve reached maturity, we’ve been able to turn back and do some of the idealistic things we always felt were important.

Compromise is a part of doing business. A simple example would be we’ve hauled milk into North Carolina from Ohio and built up a business. And then we started working with farmers in North Carolina so we could start a local business. You could say it was a compromise to haul milk that far but we had market realities to address.

We’ve now reached the point where we are looking throughout the company for more opportunities to do things and invest more in sustainability.”

Eco-Products seems to be at a similar place to Organic Valley in our company’s evolution.  We have matured to the point that we are on the cusp of being able to make significant changes to our carbon footprint and invest more in sustainability.  We have had to make compromises early on to get us to that point, but we are nearly there.  And there’s no doubt that sustainability will continue to be a journey.

Posted in containers, Eco-Products, foodservice, footprint, GHG, green jobs, management, packaging, shipping, sustainability | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

A Boat Made Out of Bottles

Posted by Luke on May 9, 2010

Most people have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  It’s estimated to be twice the size the state of Texas comprised mainly of plastic litter.   Scientists estimate that 1 million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals die every year from ingesting or getting entangled with plastic.

Not as many people have heard about what a group called The Plastiki is doing to bring attention to the problem of marine litter as well as to recycling.  A group of people got together and built a boat out of 12,000 plastic bottles to sail from San Francisco to Sydney.  Right now they are halfway through their journey near the Line Islands in the middle of the Pacific.  Their website has a really cool feature to track their every move.

What I like about the group’s approach is that they recognize plastics have both upsides and downsides.  They acknowledge that plastic has a place in the world.  However, they want to bring attention to importance of recycling plastic and the need to make products (like boats) out of recycled materials.  One of the people behind the sea vessel, David de Rothschild, said, “Plastic is an amazing material and it is still misunderstood. I’m trying to get people to think about plastic as part of the solution.”

Less than 25% of the plastic bottles used in the U.S. end up being recycled.  That’s the crux of the problem.  Manufacturers have the capability to and are willing to make products out of recycled plastics.  One of the biggest obstacles is accessing high quality reclaimed materials.  With a dismal national recycling rate and increasing contamination in the recycling process, it’s difficult to make products from recycled materials.

Another challenge is that the recycling infrastructure is currently only setup to primarily recycle #1 and #2 bottles.  All other containers (those big plastic containers that lettuce comes in, yogurt containers, and much more) are largely not recycled in the majority of recycling facilities even if people put them in the blue bin.  The technology is not widespread enough to recycle those products into a  quality stream of recovered materials.  There isn’t enough market demand for them either.  That’s why it’s important to “buy recycled.”  It builds demand for recycled materials which encourages further recycling.

In the coming year, I’ll be working with some industry groups on understanding how we can solve this problem.  Eco-Products has also launched a new product line of cups and containers made from up to 100% recycled bottles which further promotes the importance of buying recycled.

Posted in bottles, containers, cups, Eco-Products, plastics, recycled products, recycling | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Container Man

Posted by Luke on April 27, 2010

The other day, my lovely wife, Brie, wrote a post on her blog about my obnoxious habit of always inspecting take-out containers when we go out to eat.   See, I have a lot of passion for my profession and sometimes that carries over into my home life.  Brie’s example in her post is pretty classic of my behavior, so I thought I’d share it.  Maybe other people can relate?  Or maybe I’m on my own on this one.

As I do when I come across blog posts or articles that contain false information, I have my response to her post at the bottom.

Container Man

Being married to the COO of Eco Products has its benefits.  For instance, when throwing a party, we have all the biodegradable supplies we’d ever need.  (So if we ever get around to having one, we’ll be good).

Also, when recycling things, I often come across one that I’m not sure I can recycle.  Not to worry.  Just ask Container Man, he’ll definitely have the answer.  Along with a detailed description as to why, of course.

However, there are moments when his passion for biodegradable containers is a bit over the top…

We will have just enjoyed a nice dinner out, and as the waitress walks over to to ask about dessert, Luke drops it:

“No thanks on dessert, but what I would like is one of your to-go containers.”  The sweet girl stands there, baffled at his query, looking at our empty plates.  Moments later and still confused, she walks the container over and hands it to him.  She watches as he examines it in front of her.

“Hmmm.  Styrofoam.  Too bad you guys are a bit behind the times.”  He giggles to himself, leaving her slightly mortified.

Having been a waitress myself, this is when I feel compelled to interject what he does for a living and why he cares so much about a damn container.  Poor thing.

At this point, our house is overflowing with every kind of cutlery, to-go box and container possible.  They are literally busting out of every closet and drawer in our house.  All so he can “check out the design.”

While I admire his commitment, I kind of want to throw them all out on the lawn to clean this place up a bit.  I mean hell, they’d eventually biodegrade anyway, right?

My Response:

Actually, the containers wouldn’t biodegrade if left out on the lawn. That’s a misconception and clearly I haven’t done enough education with you. I’ll put together a powerpoint presentation to walk you through the science and details behind it later tonight.

The containers would require a commercial composting environment which includes high heat (140 degrees) and high moisture content. Don’t worry though, even though they wouldn’t biodegrade naturally, they are made from corn or sugarcane or other renewable resources so you can feel good that your left-overs were placed in something natural as opposed to a plastic container made from oil.

Where is your Eco Patriotism? After all, it is Earth Day. You just happen to live in a house that celebrates Earth Day everyday. Lucky you!

Love,
Your Container Man

Posted in containers, take-out | Leave a Comment »

 
%d bloggers like this: