Day 2: Oct. 10, 2009

January 22, 2010

After nearly missing the train from Chicago to Woodstock and spilling coffee on my new pencil skirt, I made it to the office, hoping that something would be waiting there to lift my spirits: 1 new email from Robert Carlson! Yippee!

Chandler,

It was nice meeting you as well.

I don’t have a lot of time just now to address your question, but I’ll try to point you to the most likely location of that info and then do some research a bit later when I have more time.  I’d suggest looking at the AF&PA’s website (American Forestry and Paper Association). They have a lot of information although a fair amount of it must be paid for. 

My experience has been that this info can be difficult to get for a few reasons…1) some people don’t like to talk about this stuff, they call it proprietary or they think it will taint their image…2) It varies considerably from mill to mill depending on if they’re using scrap from the timber industry for energy or if they’re using natural gas or grid electricity… Anyway, have a look at AF&PA and if that doesn’t pan out for you, I’ll try to look through some of my resources a bit later on.

 Hope you’re doing well, Robert

Hmmm I thought to myself as I scrolled through the email; I had never thought of data about the environment as being proprietary…shouldn’t the public have access to the information about how certain consumer goods and packages impact our world? I guess if people don’t even check where their clothes or shoes or Gucci bags are made and in what kind of conditions (ahem, dormitories in factories anyone?) they obviously don’t care to investigate the repercussions that their buying decisions have on the environment—especially when it comes to packaging! But that’s changing, I thought to myself, as I clung on to the shred of idealism still remaining from college. And, I continued to reason, it is my job as the Sustainability Coordinator at a plastic packaging company to know the effects that packaging has on the global community. How hard can it be, I questioned?

Having spent the last four years in the cushy atmosphere of college where one little user name and password grants you access into some of the most powerful databases in the world (LexusNexus, for one), I reasoned with myself that I could find the information I was looking for; little did I know, however, the extent to which the “proprietary” bubble expanded into the blurring world between business and the environment.

Tune in Monday to see how, by law, chemical manufacturing companies can hide behind a veil of secrecy; otherwise know as the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act.

Day 1: Oct. 8th, 2009

January 21, 2010

While at my first “business conference” in Atlanta for the members-only Sustainable Packaging Coalition (hereafter, SPC), I had the opportunity to chit-chat with Robert Carlson of the California Integrated Waste Management Board; he was there to participate in a break-off seminar about Extended Producer Responsibility legislation, which would make those responsible for putting products on the shelf also responsible for reclaiming a certain percentage of their products’ packaging post-consumer. Europe already has a very sophisticated EPR system in place resulting from the 1994 EU Directive on Packaging Waste, which dictated that all participating EU countries had to reclaim a certain percentage of packaging post-consumer. Belgium, for instance, is at a 96% packaging recovery rate, which is outstanding.

Anyway, before I get off track, I approached Robert during a networking break because he was the only person there wearing clogs and looking like he may have an interest in jam band music, which was my college obsession. I quickly learned that he was not dressed-to-impress because he works for the State of California; as such, he was not there to buy or sell anything, which certainly made his time there more enjoyable. Once we established shared interests over the environment and beer (he brews his own beer in his past time), we agreed to go to the hotel bar and relax. While there, I quickly learned that Rob would be a very valuable contact for me in the Sustainable Packaging industry. After a Vodka and Cranberry, I retreated to my room to catch some shut-eye before the next jam-packed day at the conference.

I didn’t see Rob again while in Atlanta; he flew back to sunny Cali and I returned to Chicago.

Back in the office, I shot Rob an email:

Hello Rob,

This is Chandler—we met at the SPC members-only meeting in Atlanta two weeks ago. How’s it going? Happy to be home?

Although I wanted to drop you a line and say “it was really great to meet you,” (which it was), I actually have a research inquiry that you may be able to help me with.

As you know, I have been researching issues pertaining to packaging and sustainability for several months. Having joined the SPC, I gained access to all their research, which documents the LCA of common polymer and fiber-based packaging materials. With this research, I have charted: (1) the energy requirements of common polymer packaging materials (how many million Btus are needed per 1,000 lbs of resin produced), (2) greenhouse gas emissions in polymer production (how many thousand lbs of CO2 equivalents are generated per 1,000 lbs of resin produced), (3) energy requirements of corrugated containerboard and boxboard production (how many million Btus are needed per 1,000 lbs of material produced), and (4) the overall emissions of common polymer packaging materials (air, water and solid waste emissions). This is all good and fine, but I am running into a problem: I can’t find the same information that I charted for plastic for paper. In other words, I would like to chart the greenhouse gas emissions generated in paper production in order to compare with the emissions generated in plastic production. The fiber-based packaging material brief supplied by the SPC simply states that “the combined total direct and indirect emissions for 2005 virgin and recycled production were 1736.3 tons.” Moreover, in regard to water waste generated by paper production, the only statistic I can find is that 91% of the total TRI chemicals discharged in the water that year were done so by paper U.S. pulp and paper mills.

Okay, I know that that is a lot of information and that you may not be the person that I need to talk to; at the same time, however, I was curious if you could point me in the direction to be able to find more information pertaining to these issues or perhaps provide me with some references within the EPA who could provide the information I am looking for.

Regardless of your feedback, I hope all is well. Are you going to any conferences this month?

Best,

Chandler Slavin

Sustainability Coordinator

Dordan Mfg. Co. Inc.

I am a long-winded emailer, so I apologize in advance. Anyway, this email marks the first of a long and fruitful exchange of information relating to packaging and sustainability; of which, recycling begins to take center stage, as you will soon see. Tune in tomorrow to see Rob’s response, which is just the tip of the iceberg in regard to the complexities surrounding the relationship between business and the environment.

I am a third-generation thermoformer, which means I have a passion for plastic packaging; it’s in my blood. Having just graduated from DePaul University with a degree in Religious Ethics, I entered the family business at an interesting time: the economy was in the pits and “sustainability,” as it pertains to packaging, was the “it” word. Because of my background in academia, I was given the task of understanding the sustainability debate from the perspective of a packaging professional. Four months later, I am proud to call myself the Sustainability Coordinator at Dordan Manufacturing, which is a successful, National supplier of custom design thermoformed packaging, such as clamshells, blisters, trays and components.

At my first “business conference” in Atlanta this past fall for the members-only meeting of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, I learned that most plastic thermoformed packaging is NOT recycled in American communities[1], nor is A LOT of other packaging materials. Outraged that my family’s pride-and-joy often ends up in landfills, I made it my personal project to discover: (1) why thermoforms are not accepted for recycling at most Material Recovery Facilities (hereafter, MRF); and (2) how we could integrate thermoformed packaging into the existing recycling infrastructure. With no previous background in environmental science, I took to the books, armed with nothing more than a recent graduate’s motivation and altruism, to uncover the complexities of recycling in America.

What follows is a day-by-day account of my attempts to find an end-of-life market for plastic thermoform packaging; I am still working towards that goal.

This is the recycling project.


[1] Less than 60% of American communities.