eco ramblings

a dialogue with an Eco Patriot

Archive for the ‘recycling’ Category

Should We Be Proud of a 28% Recycling Rate?

Posted by Luke on November 1, 2010

The National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) just released their report of 2009 PET bottle recycling.  The report proclaims that the U.S. recycling rate for PET bottles has reached an all-time high of 28%.  In the days following the release of the report, there seems to be excitement in the industry about this so-called accomplishment.  Is this really something we should be proud of?

By being happy about only recycling 28% of water bottles, we are saying we are okay with throwing away the other 72%.  As a society, that’s pathetic.  Let’s see how this stat looks if we use other examples…

  • I’m proud that I ate 28% of my food and threw the other 72% into the garbage
  • I’m proud that I opened the windows 28% of the time and used the air conditioner the other 72%
  • I’m proud that I threw away 28% of the garbage I took camping with me and dispersed the other 72% as litter

Suddenly, 28% doesn’t look so good.

This isn’t meant to be a slam on recyclers.  Other than a few of the big players in the trash industry, most recyclers are low-profit businesses, so I can’t totally blame them for not helping to drive this number higher.  They make money from selling reclaimed materials, so I know they’d like to capture more recyclables.  The root issue falls on the shoulders of other parties, and here are some of the reasons:

  1. Consumers aren’t educated about how and what to recycle. I understand how it can be hard to figure out if odd-shaped containers are recyclable, but doesn’t everyone know that PET bottles (water bottles, soda bottles, etc.) are recyclable?
  2. Consumers don’t have access to recycling. Curbside programs are pretty ubiquitous.  Public-area recycling is shockingly still problematic.  It should be against the law to have a trash can without a recycle bin next to it (maybe when I run for President).
  3. Manufacturers aren’t demanding enough reclaimed materials from recyclers. The economics simply aren’t good enough to cause manufacturers to tip from using virgin resources to recycled.  It’s unfortunate.
  4. Legislation isn’t supportive enough. Tipping fees at landfills are cheaper in most states than recycling fees.  Until the government mandates higher tipping fees on landfills, waste haulers will never be incentivized to recycle vs landfill.  The UK has done it right by making this change through a tax.

Sure, 28% is better than last year and the year before, but let’s not be complacent.  There’s a long way to go.

Posted in bottles, Landiflls, litter, manufacturing, plastics, recycled products, recycling, RPET, trash | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Eco Entrepreneur of the Week

Posted by Luke on October 27, 2010

Here’s a hell of an invention… imagine having a small machine in your garage next to your garbage can that converts plastic to gasoline.  That’s right, instead of throwing all those plastic candy wrappers, bags, and odd-shaped containers into your trash can, put them into this contraption and watch it make fuel for your car.

The Blest Machine, made in Japan, costs approximately $9,500 and is only sold in Japan right now.  If this thing really works and they can prove the concept effectively, you’ve got to imagine that we’ll start seeing some of these machines being used by recyclers and even home owners in the coming decade.  Put me on the waiting list.


R

R

PRUEBA

Posted in entrepreneur, innovation, plastics, recycling, trash | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Sustainability In Flight, Literally

Posted by Luke on September 22, 2010

The concept of sustainability has evolved drastically over the past several years.  At first, only the eco pioneers embraced sustainability initiatives.  They felt it was the right thing to do.  Then, consumers started asking companies to be more environmental.  In response, corporations began implementing surface-level sustainability initiatives without any real roots.  This evolved into companies realizing that robust sustainability programs can actually save energy which means lower costs.  All the while, consumers have continued demanding companies to go green, but now they really mean it.  Companies need to do more than implement just surface-level green tactics.

This evolution has led many companies to launch green product lines.  It has also spurred the launch of entire companies that make nothing but green products.  Now in nearly every industry, consumers can find at least one company that is completely and totally dedicated to sustainability, a company that doesn’t offer conventional products.  Method offers nothing but non-toxic cleaners.  Credo Mobile has built a mobile phone service based on the triple bottom line.  The Green Garage only offers environmental car repair services.  New Leaf Paper only makes high recycled content paper.  Eco-Products only makes environmental packaging.  And the list goes on… except for one industry.

The one major industry that has still not yet demonstrated that they embrace sustainability in the least bit is the airline industry.  One of my biggest pet peeves is when a flight attendant walks down the aisle to gather the trash at the end of the flight and everything goes into one bag.  The cans, the plastic bottles, the newspapers and the garbage all gets sent to a landfill.  I start twitching when I see it happen.

Airplanes are like national forest land.  You have to pack out what you pack in if you want to recycle.

In 2005, 86% of the U.S. population had access to curbside recycling programs.  That means that all of those flight attendants who throw recyclables in the trash probably recycle at home, or at least have access to recycling. However, collectively, they have failed to find a way to recycle in-flight waste even though most airports now recycle in the terminals.  It doesn’t make sense to me.  Isn’t it illegal to throw plastic bottles into the trash in some states like North Carolina and others?  How do airlines get away with it?

Sadly, recycling is the easiest way to be green, but it still doesn’t occur.  Time Magazine had a great article on in-flight recycling with some pretty astounding stats:

  • The average amount of waste generated per passenger per flight is 1.3 lbs
  • 58 Boeing 747’s could be built each year from the aluminum cans discarded by U.S. airlines

And recycling is just the tip of the iceberg.  With as much fuel as the industry burns, wouldn’t you think that they’d work harder to find more environmental and cost-effective alternatives like biofuels?  Yet, it hasn’t happened.  The only group working on biofuels to my knowledge is Alaska Airlines and they already have the most fuel efficient fleet.  Way to go Alaska!

In most industries you have companies trying to green wash consumers to win them over.  Not in the airline industry.  You don’t even find airlines trying to green wash consumers.  Does that mean that they just don’t care at all?  It doesn’t appear they are taking any steps to become more sustainable.  Southwest is the only airline I’ve seen with a clearly stated sustainability program.  Good job LUV.

The entrepreneur in me is wondering if this presents an opportunity.  Consumers have demonstrated that they’ll pay more for products that are sustainable.  Would they pay more for an airline that demonstrates sustainability?  Would you fly a certain airline more if their sustainability values were in line with yours?  Better yet, if there was an airline dedicated to nothing but green – call it the Seventh Generation of the airline industry – would you pay more to fly with them?

I guess until that hypothetical green airline is launched, all we have to work with is this solar plane.  I bet they recycle.

Posted in brand loyalty, greenwashing, management, recycling, sustainability | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »

Keep It Simple with Signs

Posted by Luke on September 11, 2010

How do people tell the difference between compostable and non-compostable products when they are trying to figure out which bin to throw something in?  They look and feel virtually the same.  If the products aren’t embossed or printed with the word “compostable”  on them, people can’t tell.  And even if “compostable” is embossed, there’s no guarantee that the products meet compostability certification.

For some time now, I’ve been involved in this seemingly never-ending debate about establishing labeling guidelines for compostable products.  Some people have suggested that products should have a green stripe or band.  I haven’t come around on that idea.  Until someone can convince me otherwise, it’s not cost-effective, can’t be done on all product shapes and materials, and will ultimately drive up product costs while simultaneously lowering composting rates (composting programs are more successful when packaging/products are included).  Also, it doesn’t solve the problem of companies falsely claiming that their products are compostable.  That’s where laws help…

The State of California is trying to pass a bill to make it illegal for companies to claim compostability if their products don’t meet ASTM standards.  HALLELUIAH!  We’re finally starting to make some  progress.  Companies will be held accountable for their claims.  No one wants to answer to Arnold.  Actually, I take that back,

Getting back to figuring out what is compostable and what isn’t, I came across a great idea about using 3-D signs to help out consumers.  In his post, Dinesh Thirupuvanam talks about the effectiveness of using simple, visual displays to help improve waste diversion.  One route is to have a poster with pictures of the products that should be composted, but a much more effective route is to create a 3-dimensional sign in which customers see the products in real life and know what bin to put them it.  I’m a visual person, so this is a great solution for me, much better than a normal, flat poster.  What a simple, yet effective solution.

If only these could be produced on a larger scale… Shoot me an email (lvernon at ecoproducts.com) if you think you can produce these signs on a large scale for Eco-Products.  I’d love to be able to give them to our customers.

Posted in compostable, compostable products, composting, greenwashing, logistics, recycling | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

PLA Recycling in Taiwan

Posted by Luke on August 21, 2010

I spent last week in Taiwan which explains my lack of posting any eco ramblings recently.  It was a very quick trip for a long flight, but it was an important one to talk with some suppliers and learn more about the Taiwan PLA market.  Taiwan produces a huge amount of PLA products and was one of the first countries to begin working with NatureWork’s resin.  Taiwan has very flexible manufacturing processes which are prime for testing small runs of products to build market demand.  Manufacturing processes in the U.S. typically require 10x the investment and typically don’t allow for small production runs.  I’m not saying that one is better than the other, it’s just the state of the situation.

One thing I couldn’t get a good answer on during my trip was regarding their progressive movement to recycle PLA.  That’s right, I said recycle, not compost.  The Taiwan government is going as far as mandating the recycling of PLA containers.  The main reason for this is that they don’t have a very well built out composting structure so they need to find other alternatives to divert their waste from landfills.  They mandated the use of PLA containers, to a large degree in take-out restaurants, and now they have to figure out how to help consumers properly dispose of them.  Recycling is their answer.  Apparently they are going to invest in the recycling infrastructure so PLA can be optically sorted from PET.  But I still am wondering under what timeline they are operating, and if they are going to invest enough to outfit every single material recover facility (MRF).

I definitely wish the U.S. government had the funds to upgrade the hundreds, maybe thousands, of MRFs across America to optical sorting technology.  I just don’t see that happening in my lifetime which means we’ll be fighting the recycling and composting battle for decades to come.  The best things we can do are to educate consumers about how to properly recycle, continue investing in the composting infrastructure, and demand manufacturers to use products with recycled content (this will build the market demand for recycled materials and make them more cost competitive).

On a different note, if you’ve never visited Taiwan, it’s a beautiful country with great people.  Here are a couple pictures…

A view of Taipei 101, the largest building in the world, from my hotel room

This is a restaurant / art gallery we ate lunch at that was built by a famous artist. It sort of looked like a Taiwan version of a Rainforest Cafe, but with expensive art for sale.

Posted in recycling | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Half-Ass Hotel Greening Efforts

Posted by Luke on July 27, 2010

It’s surprising that the hotel industry doesn’t put forth more effort to be sustainable.  There are very few hotels that have sustainability as part of their core philosophy.  The Boulder Outlook Hotel is an exception.  They compost or recycle over 80% of their waste.  I only wish Boulder Outlook’s existed across the country.

Today I’m in Indiana staying in a major national hotel chain.  I walked into the lobby to check in and had an empty water bottle in my hand from the flight.  It’s 90+ degrees and humid in Indy.  I asked the front desk employee if he could recycle the bottle for me.  He looked at me as if I had two heads and said, “No, but I can throw it away for you.”  Here I am, in the heartland of middle-America, and they don’t recycle.

I get to my room and walk into the bathroom.  There I find a typical water conservation sign.

Is this sign really necessary?  Hotels like this aren’t trying to be green by conserving water.  They’re trying to save money and reduce labor expenses.  Let’s call it what it is and stop green washing guests.

I look around and see they have plastic-wrapped polystyrene cups.  On one side of the sink they are asking me to save the planet by conserving water.  On the other side they are offering non-recyclable polystyrene cups and refusing to recycle something as simple as a water bottle.

How hard would it be to put a blue bin in the room next to the trash can?  It should be illegal to not offer recycling as I mentioned in a previous post.  I’ve only found two hotels in my entire life that offer in-room recycling – the Boulder Outlook Hotel and the Sheraton Resort in Steamboat Springs, CO.

Sheraton Resort in Steamboat Springs

If anyone knows of a resource to locate green hotels and review them on their green efforts, please let me know.

Posted in Boulder, greenwashing, recycling, sustainability, zero waste | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 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 »

Colorado Recycling Summit

Posted by Luke on June 13, 2010

I spent part of last week in Steamboat, Colorado at the Colorado Recycling Summit organized by the Colorado Association for Recycling.  Did you know that Colorado has a goal to divert 75 % of waste from landfills by 2020?

At the Summit, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel on Zero Waste Events & Venues with some very knowledgeable people.

  • Liz Wahl, Food & Beverage Director for Steamboat Resorts, and Dave Epstein, VP of Twin Enviro (Steamboat landfill and compost facility) – They discussed how Steamboat Ski Resort is working towards zero waste in a close partnership between the resort and the compost facility.  Liz receives hugs and compliments from employees everyday about how they love the fact that they are composting – a great example of how sustainability initiatives can improve employee morale and engagement.
  • Jennifer Bohn, Boulder County Conservation Specialist – She shared insight on how she has taken the Boulder County Fair down a path towards zero waste with a 112,000 attendees last year.  One of her tips was to redeploy staff from being “trash goalies” to actually sorting waste after it was collected to ensure it goes to the proper waste stream.
  • Jack Debell, Director of Development for CU Recycling, and Molly Brown, Volunteer Coordinator for CU Recycling – Jack is an icon in the state recycling scene as well as in the national scene for university sustainability.  He helped CU attain recognition as America’s Top Green University by the Sierra Club.  He and Molly discussed how they achieved a nearly 80% waste diversion rate at 56,000 person stadium Folsom Field.  I’m pretty sure that’s the largest stadium in the country to achieve a waste diversion rate anywhere near that level.

In one of my next posts, I’ll discuss a couple key trends identified at the Summit.

Posted in composting, event, recycling, zero waste | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Starting an Office Recycling Program

Posted by Luke on June 1, 2010

80-90% of solid waste can be recycled in the average workplace according to the EPA.  Inc. magazine recently published a how-to-guide for setting up an office recycling program.  It shows that recycling doesn’t have to be overly daunting to setup if broken into a series of small steps.  These steps include the following:

  1. Determine what can be recycled
  2. Identify where and how those items are recycled (see Earth911.com)
  3. Encourage staff participation and ensure senior leadership buy-in
  4. Train staff
  5. Arrange for disposal
  6. Retrain staff and measure progress

Here are some additional resources:

Posted in green guidelines, logistics, recycling, 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 »

 
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