Day 31: Dec. 8th, 2009

March 25, 2010

Good day!

It’s official—I am going to Ontario next week to participant in a Committee that looks to find a way to recycle thermoforms! I am totally tickled pink by this news; I will keep you all posted!

And guess what: this is sort of funny, well not funny, but something to note…Some of my research on paper versus plastic in the context of sustainability was distributed to the members of the Committee as pre-reading material and a member voiced concern that this research favored plastic over paper; therefore, my research was removed from the list of pre-reading material because this Committee looks to be unbiased, and my research was very pro-plastic. You can read this research at http://www.dordan.com/sustainability_the_facts.shtml.

Is it super duper pro plastic? I think not…

While I do admit that it does make an argument for plastic over paper, all of the information is referenced and from publicly available records via the EPA and other environmental agencies. Moreover, I believe that the best way to understand a concept/situation/problem/topic is to understand ALL the different arguments; therefore, I would love to see a pro-paper argument, a pro-plastic argument, and any other argument that would inform discussion on packaging and sustainability. Perhaps I am still clinging on to the classroom etiquette where every argument is valid if supported with facts, regardless of if it is biased. I was always taught that it was my role as an academic to identify people’s objectives/biases in order to fully understand the argument (we live in a post modern world where one’s social location informs their perceptive). As a plastics girl, I obviously have a goal to make people understand that plastic IS NOT BAD; it just gets a bad rap in the eyes of the public because of lack of education and poor marketing. Therefore, my research on plastic and paper was more of an “in the defense of plastic” piece as everyone, even my college buddies, think plastic is bad and paper is good because plastic comes from oil and paper from trees.

On that note, check out this blog post from the Nashville Wraps Blog; it is all about recycled paper and it’s often times ethically-compromised point of origin: http://www.nashvillewrapscommunity.com/blog/?p=1275.

This is a great blog, by the by. Check it out!

Okay, shall we resume our recycling narrative?

Where were we…?

On  December 8th I arrived to the office feeling a little unmotivated; I still had not received the results from our RPET samples’ “test” via the MRF’s optical sorting technology and my Superior told me to shelf the recycling initiative for a bit because it wasn’t an economic priority for Dordan. So, while I waited for the results and my enthusiasm to return, I focused on other sustainability concerns. One of which is the life cycle impacts of recycled PET. After all, my clamshell recycling initiative is all about RPET and increasing its feedstock via the incorporation of RPET clams into the PET-bottle recycling infrastructure…love me my RPET. At the same time, however, I couldn’t find any industry data about the energy required/GHG emitted during RPET production to validate that RPET was the route we wanted to go as a sustainable plastics company.

I shot my contact at an industry-working group the following email, hoping he could provide some insight:

Hello!

Hope your having a lovely in-between holiday time.

In regard to COMPASS, the environmental packaging assessment tool created by the SPC: I am trying to utilize the software to compare a corrugated package of similar dimensions with a plastic package. The plastic package is RPET with a certified minimum of 70% PCR but I am unable to input this into the software. I know you had explained that this is because there is no industry data about RPET available at this time; my question, however, is how can that be when RPET is the new “hot” material in the professional packaging world. How can you have data on PLA and not RPET? When will this material be available for selection within the softwar

Thanks for your time!

And his response came later that afternoon:

Hi Chandler,

PCR is a funny thing. The marketplace has run head first to incorporate recycled content, yet the industry associations have not released any of the LCI data for folks to use for comparative purposes. These LCI data do not come from entities like GreenBlue, but from companies that make the materials. NatureWorks released the data for PLA because it was in their interest to show their product to have a better environmental profile than other traditional polymers. But, the rPET folks have not released the requisite data. Makes you wonder if the profile for rPET is really as good as we assume. Neither USLCI nor ecoinvent have such data, so we are unable to model r-anything yet.

I was at the LCA conference in Boston and the noise was about new data points. ACC – the folks who have the plastics data, intend to release them, but no eta. Unfortunately, data are the limiting factor to environmental assessment and will probably be that way unless there is some kind of legislative push or some other incentive that could induce industry to release data.  Everyone (us and all other LCA practitioners) are waiting on LCI data. There aren’t even good proxy data that we can use in the meantime.

Hope that helps.

Later I found this article in Packaging Digest, which provides further insight into the RPET “situation:”

The need for data grows as PCR content becomes more common

Given the popular consumer perception that packaging is wasteful, there is an intensive effort to improve packaging performance and recoverability, with manufacturers evaluating material and design alternatives to differentiate their packages on-shelf. Recycled content appeals to consumers and directly responds to concerns of packaging waste. Brand owners are testing ways to incorporate post-consumer-recycled (PCR) content into packaging where virgin material had been the norm.

Packaging developed with recycled polymers has been particularly in demand. Increasing recycled content across the packaging spectrum is perceived to have enhanced environmental profiles over virgin-content counterparts. In many instances, this is true, particularly with plastics, but it’s often hard to quantify these environmental benefits due to a lack of data for recycled materials.

Life-cycle assessment (LCA) methods can help quantify the benefits and illuminate tradeoffs of virgin and recycled materials. Yet a methodology is only as accurate as the data collected. There are hundreds of industrial processes that contribute to the creation of a single package. The LCA methodology requires detailed data about all the processes that go into bringing a packaged product to market, not just the obvious ones.

Enterprising companies have made great strides in introducing packaging with a high percentage of PCR content, even for food contact applications that have stricter regulations. Many of these innovations can be attributed to leader companies that have set up unique relationships for material collection and conversion to produce a small set of products.

These companies have made significant investments and are paying higher prices to produce packaging with green attributes. However, to accurately communicate what the environmental benefits are, manufacturers need to be able to quantify the specifics of the environmental advantages of using PCR content in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, material usage, water consumption and other environmental metrics.

Using LCA methodology to compare a recycled plastic package with a virgin one will allow companies to credibly quantify a package’s environmental savings, as well as justify the investment in PCR materials. Yet one needs life-cycle inventory (LCI) data, or the inputs and outputs for the entire life cycle for both materials, to make these calculations. LCI data are essential not only for assessing packaging applications, but also for all sorts of product development that uses the same commodity materials. The requisite LCI data for some virgin materials are publicly available, though some are outdated or incomplete, and we have a reasonable understanding of the various human and environmental impacts associated with their production and use. Unfortunately, the same kind of detailed and current data for most recycled forms of the commodity materials used in packaging are not yet publicly available. Efforts are underway to ensure the data for recycled materials become publicly available. Until then, the lack of LCI data for many commodity materials is a serious impediment to measurable progress along sustainability goals.

This article is accessible at: http://www.packagingdigest.com/article/447099-The_need_for_data_grows_as_PCR_content_becomes_more_common.php?rssid=20535&q=minal+mistry.

Hmmm…time to speak with our material suppliers of RPET to see why they haven’t released any LCI data…looks like we are about to travel into “proprietary” waters again; great.

Tune in tomorrow to get the much anticipated results of our RPET samples’ “test!”

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