Hello and happy Monday!

Today we are going to pick up on the whole plastic ocean debris theme that came to a head as of recent following the publication of my perspective piece in Plastics News. Titled “Plastics’ Foes Wage Campaign on Social Media Battleground,” this piece was in dialogue with an earlier Plastics News article that described the findings of a new seabird study conducted by the University of British Columbia. In a nutshell, the authors postulate that the increase in plastic debris observed in seabirds’ stomachs is indicative of the increased amount of plastic ocean debris. This finding contradicted what I had learned at a former SPC conference, where members of the Ocean Conservancy and others explained that while the production and disposal of plastics had dramatically increased in the last twenty years, the amount of plastic ocean debris has remained constant. Consequently, I wrote an article to these regards, referencing the Ocean Conservancy study that formed my initial understanding of the issue.

My article generated several engaged commentators, perhaps motivating the Plastics Blog to write this post, tipping the hat, if you will, to the sophisticated dialogue surrounding this hot-button topic.

THEN, another Plastics News reader published this article in response to my article (a response to a response, if you will), which further emphasized, in my opinion, the importance of this issue for the plastics industry.   

AND THEN this article was published, describing how the EPA is being called upon to police the issue of plastic ocean debris…

In each case—be it the initial seabird study article, my response to said article, the comments generated therefrom, the article in response to the comments generated therefrom, the blog post(s), etc.—a DIFFERENT scientific study was referenced as THE study that demonstrates the reality about plastic ocean debris. Heck, if I had known there were five truths to the truth about plastic ocean debris, I would have done more research. So my question to you all is this: if different scientific studies present different findings insofar as if the amount of plastics pollution in the ocean has increased with the increased production, then how are we, proactive members of the plastics industry, supposed to understand the problem of plastic ocean debris, and our roles therein?

We need to perform a critical analysis of the various environmental studies about plastics ocean debris to see if consistencies exist. If we can’t even agree on if the problem is getting worse, how are we supposed to develop proactive solutions? After all, you can’t manage what you can’t measure (BAMB, that’s going to be my new mantra for everything); so, who has the best measuring stick?

Hi!

Soooo I am ALMOST finished with The Truth about PVC & BPA, the first of our four-part series on The Truth of Plastic Packaging. I plan to give you, my packaging and sustainability friends, a sneak peek Monday before it is distributed to all Packaging World New Issue Alert subscribers mid-August.

In the meantime, check out the brief history of plastics as described below. I think it important to establish the historical context of anything one researches as how do you know where you are going if you don’t know where you have been?

Enjoy!

Please note: All references made to Susan Freinkel’s Plastic: A Toxic Love Story.

Historian Jeffery Miekle has noted the transition of the perception of plastics in the social imagination of the western world from that indicative of man’s power over nature to that of cheap disposability. First developed to replace scarce natural resources in the mid-nineteenth century, plastics now constitute the nation’s third-largest manufacturing industry, behind only cars and steel (Freinkel, p. 53). How did plastics come to proliferate the modern world?

In 1869 John Wesley Hyatt invented celluloid, a substitute for Ivory, in response to the contemporary fear of elephant extinction:

As petroleum came to the relief of the whale, so has celluloid given the elephant, the tortoise, and the coral insect a respite in their native haunts; it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances that are constantly growing scarce (Freinkel, p. 17).

While celluloid was initially invented as substitute for Ivory billiard balls, it found further application in combs—a previously luxurious product now made available for the masses (p. 18). By replacing materials that were expensive, celluloid “democratized a host of goods for an expanding consumption-oriented middle class” (p. 20). In 1907 Belgian Leo Baekland created Bakelite, the first fully synthetic polymer made entirely of molecules that couldn’t be found in nature. The Bakelite Corporation boasted, “humans had transcended the classic taxonomies of the natural world: the animal, mineral and vegetable kingdom. Now we had a forth kingdom, whose boundaries are unlimited” (p. 6). In 1941 after Pearl Harbor, the director of the board responsible for provisioning the American military advocated the substitution, whenever possible, of plastics for aluminum, brass, and other strategic metals (p. 6). Thereafter, in product after product, market after market, plastics challenged the traditional materials and won, taking the place of steel in cars, paper and glass in packaging, and wood in furniture (p. 6).

Indisputably, plastic does offer advantages over natural materials. However, the proliferation of plastics in the mid-late-nineteenth century was also the result of the rise of the petrochemical industry; that is, “the behemoth that came into being in the 1920s and ‘30s when chemical companies innovating new polymers began to align with the petroleum companies that controlled the essential ingredients for building those polymers” (p. 7). Legend has it that one day John D. Rockefeller was looking over one of his oil refineries and suddenly noticed flames flaring from some smokestacks. “What’s burning?” he asked, and someone explained that the company was burning off ethylene gas, a byproduct of the refining process. “I don’t believe in wasting anything!” Rockefeller supposedly snapped. “Figure out something to do with it!” That something became polypropylene (p. 59). Legend aside, it is fact that Rockefeller’s company Standard Oil was the first to figure out how to isolate the hydrocarbons in crude petroleum. That innovation helped give rise to the modern petrochemical companies that produce the raw, unprocessed polymers know as resins (p. 60). Most of today’s major resin producers—Dow Chemical, DuPont, ExxonMobil, BASF, Total Petrochemical—have their roots in the early decades of the twentieth century, when petroleum and chemical industries began to develop alliances or form vertically integrated companies. Producers had begun to realize that there might be a use for the waste created in the processing of crude oil and natural gas and in the making of chemicals: rather than being burned off as a worthless byproduct ethylene could be retrieved and profitably deployed as a raw material for polymers. The growing reliance on fossil fuels helped drive the growth of the modern plastics industry, even though the production of plastics consumes only 4% of the country’s oil and natural gas reserves (p. 60). Environmentalist Barry Commoner explains, “By its own internal logic, each new petrochemical process generates a powerful tendency to proliferate further products and replace existing ones” (p. 7).

Taken together, that is, the association between plastics and mans’ ingenuity plus the understanding of plastic as democratizing agent via consumption, coupled with the rise of the petrochemical industry and the economic opportunities generated therefrom, allowed for the proliferation of plastics into modern life:

The amount of plastic the world consumes annually has steadily risen over the past seventy years, from almost nil in 1940 to closing on six hundred billion pounds today. In 1960, the average American consumed about thirty pounds of plastic products. Today, we’re each consuming more than three hundred pounds of plastics a year, generating more than three hundred billion dollars in sales (8).

Good afternoon world! What a gorgeous day it is in Chicago! I am writing from my favorite Starbucks in downtown Chicago; it has a 360 degree view of all the hustle and bustle of a normal work day in the busy financial district!

So yea, my plan didn’t necessary go according to plan: I contacted one of the organizations that is responsible, in part, for the progress being made in recycling thermoforms and asked if they could produce some kind of press release detailing the progress being made, and referencing the responsible parties. My intention was that in having the responsible parties generate a press release, they could control the content and distribution, thereby allowing them to educate the industry on the progress in recycling thermoforms, while being recognized as those who have been driving said progress. After all, I have had nothing to do with the progress being made in the last 18 months, and in no way wish to take credit there for it; I simply wanted to inform the industry that progress was in fact being made, in hopes of elevating the reputation of our industry.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe that the progress being made is at the point where the various organizations involved feel comfortable informing the industry for fear that the progress may somehow be halted. Whether or not that is the case, I have to respect their opinions as I respect the work they have done and in no way wish to be a deterrent to their continued work on this issue.

So, sorry guys…I guess all good things come to those who wait?

On a higher note, I have been invited to meet the gentleman speaking at an industry shin dig during Pack Expo, as he is a DePaul Fellow of the Business Ethics Institute. Because I am a DePaul alumni and received my bachelors degree in ethics, the event organizer thought I would like the opportunity to pick his brain, which I totally do!

Perhaps this will be a good time to look into furthering my education…muhahaha.

Have a jolly afternoon!

Day 18: Nov. 3, 2009

February 23, 2010

I felt as though I had hit a road block; while Robert’s kind words were encouraging, I felt like there was nothing I could do as an individual to create an end market for clamshells post-consumer, either as non-beverage PET flake or mixed rigid plastic flake. Perhaps on the vehicle of collaboration, we would be able to come up with the quantity necessary to create an end market for this homeless material…

I then started the following discussion on greenerpackage.com:

Where does the plastics industry go from here?

As Sean Sabre pointed out in a recent post, there is no recycling market for non-beverage PET flake i.e. the PET used in thermoformed packages (to veiw this discussion, visit http://www.greenerpackage.com/discuss/recycling/recovery_series_-_topic_2_universal_pet_recyclability_myth).

According to various contacts at Waste Management, this is because those who buy the balled PET beverage containers to recycle into other products do not want PET clams, blisters or components as it compromises the feedstock of the PET bottle flake. In other words, because PET beverage bottles have the same IV, additives and chemical properties, the quantity of that type of material is there, which allows for there to be an end market for it. Contrarily, the PET used in thermoformed packages has different properties depending on the additives used for the specific packaging application i.e. food, medical, consumer goods. Therefore, the quantity of the same type of PET is not available for the creation of an end market for this material. At the same time, however, there is a market for this type of material on the East and West coasts (“non-traditional rigid containers”) because China and other international markets undergoing industrialization buy this material for its stored energy value. In a nut shell: we can’t recycle it if the quantity is not there, which inherently means there is no market for the end life of these types of PET.

Where do we go from here? Do we, as an industry, decide on using one type of material per application i.e. one PET type for food, medical, and consumer goods in order to ensure the quantity of material necessary for the development of an end market for said material? Do we “down-cycle,” via Pyrolysis? Do we switch to PLA or other bio-resins, which require more energy to produce than traditional, fossil-based plastics and require the existence of commercial composting facilities, which are far and few a dozen? As an industry, we must collaborate if we want to reach our shared goals of sustainability.

If interested in the comments to this post, visit http://www.greenerpackage.com/discuss/thermoformed_packaging/where_does_plastic_industry_go_here

Once I reached out to the larger packaging community about my concerns as a packaging professional, I sent the following email to a project manager at the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. As the tone of my above conversation implies, I was hoping that collaboration would begin with member companies of the SPC:

Hey,

Just out of curiosity, do you have any relationship with SPI (Society of the Plastic Industry) or other packaging trade organizations? I have begun a dialogue with said organization in regard to the SPI resin identification numbers and the feasibility of recycling non-beverage PET flake i.e. clamshells, blisters and thermoform components. We are trying to figure out a way to recapture our thermoformed packages, which currently are not recycled. We can’t decide if a closed loop system would be best, as is in the case with electronics and batteries, or if working with the existing recycling infrastructure would be more beneficial.

What is the SPC’s stance on the feasibility of recycling non beverage PET flake? Do you think a project like this would be something of interest for the SPC?

Best,

Chandler

Let’s hope the SPC wants to help! Tune in tomorrow for more exciting happenings in the world of sustainable packaging initiatives!