Written by Lee Spivak, Sustainability Services, Waste Management
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend the Sustainable Brands 2012 Conference in San Diego. This conference brings together companies working toward a variety of sustainable goals. Representatives from large corporations as well as small non-profit organizations shared potential solutions for making the product lifecycle more sustainable from cradle to grave, or “cradle to cradle,” when the product can be recycled and repurposed at the end of its lifecycle.
In an effort to reduce their global imprint, companies strive for innovation to evolve their products and operations to consider long term sustainability during every step of the lifecycle. Conference speakers highlighted the current waves of change in product design, technology, packaging, and employee engagement.
You may have noticed items at the grocery store that boast recycled materials, eco-friendly features or plant-based plastics. A number of consumer product groups are looking toward or are already creating lighter and/or bio-based materials. These lighter or bio-based materials save energy in raw materials and shipping. It seems like every year, food and beverage companies produce thinner, lighter containers or maintain their packaging’s integrity with a higher percentage of biodegradable plastics.
Waste Management has invested in MicroGREEN, a company that uses Ad-air technology to carefully inject tiny air bubbles into plastic to reduce the material’s weight and extend its usage. The amount of source material required to produce one 20 oz. bottle can produce seven 12-oz. cups using this Ad-air process.
Companies have good reason to focus on sustainability. Consumers increasingly demand sustainable products, and governments are holding companies to higher sustainability standards. According to a Datamonitor study, the majority of individuals surveyed support socially responsible products. Fifty-seven percent of surveyed consumers said buying these types of products was important to them; 42 percent reported even changing their habits to make that possible.
Lawmakers are also encouraging sustainable packaging and product lifecycles. Alongside expanded electronic waste recycling regulations, lawmakers have begun to hold companies responsible for the disposal of their products. Through product stewardship and extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation, companies are expected to minimize potential negative health, safety, environmental and social impacts of the product lifecycle and account for the sustainable disposal of their products.
Despite these laws, the path to sustainable product solutions is not always a clear one. Even some companies that clearly have a positive impact on the health of our planet find unintended consequences in their products or services.
One example related to sustainable packaging is that some new materials that are considered sustainable used cannot be recycled using traditional technology. Biodegradable plastics, including PLA plastics are often indistinguishable from regular PET plastics, and are mixed together inadvertently in the waste stream. Unfortunately, this contaminates the entire batch of recycled plastic and it is rendered useless.
Similarly, some people will dispose of plant-based plastics (rather than recycle them) because they are under the false impression that plant-based plastics are biodegradable. Plant-based plastics not decompose naturally, but can usually be recycled the same way as plastics from fossil fuels.
We are in an exciting time. Companies continue to innovate with sustainability in mind, but it is essential to consider a product’s full life cycle before making changes that could unintentionally generate a negative impact on the environment.