eco ramblings

a dialogue with an Eco Patriot

Archive for the ‘packaging’ Category

Why We Need Curbside Composting Programs and Where to Start

Posted by Luke on July 22, 2010

Today on TriplePundit.com, a site dedicated to news on the Triple Bottom Line of business, Dinesh Thirupuvanam wrote a great article on why we need curbside composting programs.  He outlined two steps that need to occur which include (1) a uniform labeling standard for compostable products, and (2) improving acceptance of compostable packaging at composting facilities (ensuring each facility doesn’t have their own standards or certification program).  I am in complete agreement with Dinesh’s approach.  It makes perfect sense.  And I appreciate Dinesh referencing my post about the debate over how to label compostable products.

I also think it’s important for municipalities who are considering curbside composting to take the plunge and just do it.  The benefits of such programs are immense.  In Boulder we have a bi-weekly residential curbside composting pickup and I now send very little trash to the landfill.  It feels great taking out the trash because I have so little to take out.  Not to mention that composting has an enormous impact on reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions.  34% of all human generated methane emissions are from landfills, and food waste comprises approximately 13% of total landfill mass.

My belief is that we shouldn’t wait for the silver bullet of a labeling standard.  It will take years, if not decades, for a common standard to be developed.  I’m on the Board of Directors for the Biodegradable Products Institute and I’m involved in this industry debate on several different levels.  We’re not going to find a solution overnight.  There are just too many stakeholders to have this occur as quickly as we’d all like.

The best way to learn is to just give it a shot.  We’ll have more people educated on the subject and more people working on finding the best possible solution.

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Posted in Boulder, compostable products, composting, GHG, Landiflls, packaging, zero waste | Tagged: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

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.

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 »

You Can Copy Products, But You Can’t Copy What a Company Stands For

Posted by Luke on May 11, 2010

Eco-Products’ largest competitor, the largest company in our industry, just launched a line of products that look exactly like ours.  I don’t think I could have ripped off our design more closely if I tried.  It’s shocking, honestly.  It’s weird they didn’t get a little more creative.

On one hand, I can’t help but ask our lawyer a few questions.  On the other hand, I’m flattered that a $3.5 billion Fortune 500 company would copy a small, Boulder company so precisely… or at least try to.

You see, green is all we’ve ever done.  Eco-Products has been around for 20 years as the first business-to-business distributor solely of environmental products.  We have one of the largest solar systems in Colorado.  We have nearly eliminated all waste from our office building.  We offset the emissions from the transportation of our products.  We give our employees $1,200 every year if they ride their bike, bus, carpool, or drive a hybrid to work.  We constantly challenge ourselves to be more sustainable.

We don’t do these things because we have to.  We do them because we think it’s the right thing to do.  Regulators aren’t asking us to be more green.  Sustainability is in our DNA.  It’s who we are.  It’s what we believe.  It’s all we know.  That can’t be copied.

Eco-Products is so much more than just our products.  We are an industry change agent.  We are a belief system for our customers.  We are giving voice to more corporate responsibility.  We are greening an industry that’s sole purpose is to create waste, to create landfills.  We are trying to reduce waste.  Sounds counter-intuitive, right?

Eco-Products 12 oz World Art Hot Cup

Imitation cup (picture distorted the color; all cup sizes match exactly except for the lines on the globe)

99.9% of the competitor’s revenue I referred to above comes from products that have no place to be disposed of but in landfills.  Their business is built on waste.  Doing anything differently would jeopardize their core business.  Sustainability isn’t part of their DNA. In fact, they were ranked in the bottom 20th percentile of the Fortune 500 for “green performance” according to Newsweek.  They were ranked below all but 4 of the 31 oil and gas companies.

They have sat on the sidelines for years watching Eco-Products and others build a market for green products and now they want a piece of the action.  They could have entered the game long ago.  But they didn’t.  It wasn’t in their values.  Now they want a green story to tell Wall Street.

How will Eco-Products react?  We’ll continue doing what we’re doing.  We’ll continue being a change agent for the positive.  We’ll raise the bar for sustainability.  We’ll out innovate them.  We’ll develop even better performing, more environmental products faster.  And we’ll let our customers’ loyalty speak for itself.  Our competitor can throw money at our distributors to get them to switch to their products.  The restaurants, coffee shops, universities, and other customers who currently buy Eco-Products will continue demanding our brand.  They want something more than just our products.  They want something bigger to believe in.  They want to be part of something positive.  That’s why we do what we do.

Posted in brand loyalty, Eco-Products, greenwashing, hot cups, imitators, Landiflls, packaging, sustainability, World Art Cups | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Which is more environmentally sound: recycled content or compostable?

Posted by Luke on January 23, 2010

There was a great article in a recent Resource Recycling issue that evaluates the pros and cons of recycled content vs renewable/compostable.  This is a growing debate with foodservice operators and one that will surely continue for some time.  With the growth of both products made from recycled content and products made from renewable resources, restaurant owners now have a couple of great alternatives to petroleum-based products based on their waste management systems. 

Benefits of renewable-resource based compostable products:

When looking at the life cycle analyses of bioplastic resin such as NatureWorks Ingeo PLA, there’s no question that PLA releases fewer greenhouse gases during production than its petrochemical counterparts like PET.  There’s also the key benefits of being produced from plants instead of oil and its ability to be turned back into dirt if disposed of properly in a commercial composting facility.  Some argue that PLA takes away from our food source, but I have never been able to agree them.  The corn used to produce PLA is grain corn, not the type of corn we eat on the table.  And if the NatureWorks factory was at full capacity, which it isn’t, it would only consume .1% of the nation’s grain corn.  Another argument anti-PLA people use is that PLA is made from GMO corn, which it is.  Although I’m not a fan of GMO myself, I’d much rather use a GMO plant to produce a plastic cup than use oil imported from who knows where.

Benefits of recycled content:

Recycled content creates an interesting alternative and one that I believe is a 2nd best option to renewable resource-based products.  Making cups from recycled content supports the recycling market which, ideally, in turn will build demand for more recycled products and more recycling.  Building the demand for recycled products is important because if recyclers can’t find a channel to sell their recovered materials, they’ll be less likely to collect certain types of materials and will ultimately drive up the price for recycled content.

So between the two – recycled content and renewable/compostable – we now have two great options outside of virgin petrochemical-based products.  What’s great about these options is that people can choose what works best for them.  If they have access to a composting facility, renewable/compostable products are the most environmental choice.  If they don’t have access to such a facility, recycled content products are a good alternative.

Posted in biodegradable, compostable, compostable products, foodservice, packaging, recycled products, renewable resources, RPET | Leave a Comment »

 
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