Feedback from Walmart SVN/Expo, 1:3

April 20, 2011


It has been raining in Chicago for almost a week and it is forecast to rain throughout the weekend, too. UGGGG. I hope you are all reading this from much more attractive climates.

I am about a third of the way through “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way we Make Things,” and boy is it a downer, though an extremely thought-provoking one at that! I know the book is a bit dated (published in 2002), but I find it extremely relevant to today’s “sustainability” discussions. That which I enjoy so much about authors McDonough’s and Braungart’s treatment of how humans interact with their natural environment is the way they contextualize everything—from the way we design cities to packaging—in regards to the Industrial Revolution, capitalism, and the prevailing social systems of the times in which these concepts took root in the social imagination of the masses. They not only intertwine history (the replacement of guilds and craftsmen with the mass migration into cities due to the demand for increased production resulting from a variety of technology innovations), but philosophy, politics, art, religion, etc. into their discussion of how humans have come to understand our natural environmental and our place therein. They basically argue that we need to dramatically redefine the way we design things to replicate those designs found in nature: instead of using the earth’s resources to fuel economies, designs should engage in mutually beneficial relationships with the resources inherent in the specific system in which they exist to create systems of sustainment. Think of the way the sun is a “free” feedstock that is responsible for the sustainment of all life on this planet. Plants consume this resource, which is infinite and results in no negative environmental emissions to the environment, and the circle of life begins…whenever I say the circle of life I instantly think of the Lion King.

Wow, that was quite the tangent! Anyway, I encourage everyone to read this book as it illuminates how a lot of the dialogue today around “packaging and sustainability” sort of misses the boats insofar as everything we have created—the systems of our sustainment—are themselves inherently unsustainable do to the way capitalism informs our understanding of our natural environment. What I am implying is that while baby steps towards sustainability are always encouraged (like switching from one packaging material to another due to lower GHG emissions per selling unit), they are but a drop in the gigantic bucket that is the inefficiencies of our current approach to production, distribution, and consumption. Bummer, right? But again, this is an argument, and as with all arguments, please take with a grain of salt.

I feel like I am in Environment and Society 101.

Today we will discuss the happenings of the Walmart SVN, which I attended in Rogers, Arkansas, on April 11th.

The Packaging SVN is comprised of one representative from each company that is involved directly, or indirectly, with the packaging sold at Walmart/Sam’s Club stores or the systems used to move packaging through the supply chain to distribution. Other attendees include members of trade organizations/academics/and packaging service providers. The SVN convenes twice a year so the Walmart/Sam’s Club packaging professionals can discuss with their Network progress/changes to packaging goals and other areas of interest to the Walmart packaging community. Issued covered previously, as narrated in my post describing the events of the December SVN, include, but are not limited to: Walmart Scorecard, Global Packaging Project, US EPA environmental packaging working group, developments in sustainable packaging, packaging success case studies, etc.

The SVN leadership team began by discussing metrics. For those of you immersed in the sustainable packaging scene, you are probably all too familiar with the “metrics dilemma,” which I understand as follows: Metrics can be understood as a description of a component of a package’s sustainability i.e. GHG emissions per selling unit. For each metric considered, LCI data is needed to quantify the specific environmental packaging attribute in question with hard data, from a life cycle based approach per system of investigation. While the SPC, GPP, Walmart and others have done a fantastic job creating “metrics” describing how to gauge and understand the sustainability of a package, the reality is that regardless of the tool used to quantify said metrics (COMPASS, Scorecard, etc.), not enough LCI/LCA information is available to allow for accurate results. As a revered LCA practitioner said at the SPC meeting in San Diego, “LCA is a COMPASS, not a GPS.” What this means is that because there is not enough data history, existing data, and relevant LCI data per packaging material and/or specific system of production, distribution and end of life, all metrics/LCA tools can do is help point you in the direction of where you should be heading; they are not representative of where you actually are. The Walmart Scorecard, SPC COMPASS, and other LCA-based packaging modeling softwares all use the same publically available data provided via the ACC, US EPA, Eco-Invent, etc.; consequently, these tools don’t have access to all the information needed to holistically represent the “sustainability” of a package/system from an LCA-based approach.

We began the SVN meeting discussing the state of “metrics” as they are available for use in LCA-based packaging modeling tools. LCI data for nine virgin resins and two recycled resins (I believe RHDPE and RPET) have been submitted and approved; LCI data for recycled paper and paperboard has been submitted and I believe may have been approved and/or is pending approval; LCI data for virgin paper and paperboard was submitted but not approved by the US EPA’s WARM model— updated LCI data is expected end of 2012; LCI data for corrugate was submitted but not approved by the US EPA’s WARM model—updated LCI data is expected end of 2012; LCI data for glass has not been submitted; I am blanking on aluminum…

What all this means, that is, the state of the available LCI data as it applies to metrics used to quantify the sustainability of a package/system from an LCA-based approach, is that we are attempting to put science to something that doesn’t really have ALL the science available…yet. By using COMPASS to quantify the environmental profile of different packaging concepts in the design phase, engineers attempt to understand how to design packages that have less of a burden on the environment throughout their life cycle than the existing package; however, if the LCI data for, lets say, virgin paperboard is from 1980 (I may be wrong but I believe that is the most recent LCI data set used), then changes to manufacturing processes implemented thereafter or holes in data resulting from uniformed LCA practice from when the study was performed may provide a hazy picture of the actual “sustainability” of a package. We are on the right track, but until we have accurate, up-to-date and verifiable LCI data for all dimensions of the packaging chain, it is difficult to use the existing packaging modeling softwares to perform accurate LCA case studies of different packages/concepts.

So yeah, the Walmart Packaging leadership team discussed how they are working to incorporate more accurate LCI data into the Scorecard, once that data is available.

Wow, today’s post has been a bit involved. I am going to stop here and let you all digest. And please note that I in no way shape or form pretend to be an expert on LCI/LCA; this discussion is the result of what I have taken away from recent conferences and the Walmart SVN.

2 Responses to “Feedback from Walmart SVN/Expo, 1:3”

  1. Ron said

    Hey. really like your post. Really on to something. I’m a New Yorker involved in “Getting rid of Garbage” in the city(Which if I can be frank the blue pins pretty much go exactly where the rest of it goes) and let me tell ya the metrics dillema would be solved if cities hopped on board and companies had less sway. I just think the emission number would be so high that companies would be embarrased.

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