Women of Plastic and Paper: A Debate Over Environmental Benefits Vs. Waste

The best conference panels are the ones that bring in professionals from different industries and sectors generally do not see eye to eye on various issues.  In the age of Flip cameras and YouTube, that may provide for uncomfortable moments that live forever in video, but let’s just get to the point.  If I want a love fest, I can have my friends and relatives over for an evening.  I don’t want to take a few days off of work, or even fly across the country, to sit in a conference room full of folks who nod their heads and say, “yes, we agree, and life is wonderful.”  It is the easy and comfortable route, but it also leads to collective yawns, and inspires many conference attendees to hang out at the corporate-sponsored coffee bar—or just skip the venue and play hookie.

So the Women in Green Forum got it right, especially during yesterday’s panel on consumer products and packaging.  The emphasis, I say, was on packaging.  The panel offered a balance of industry associations, manufacturers, and advocates.  Valid points were brought up on all sides, and due to time constraints, the discussion was not as vibrant as we would have liked, but thought provoking nonetheless.

One panelist was especially brave.  Ashley Carlson, the Director of Packaging of the American Chemistry Council’s Plastic Division bravely faced the crowd.  She admitted she was nervous, unnecessary because she shined.  While the WIGF was full of many professionals from all backgrounds, the reality for the ACC was that sending an employee to this event was about as kind as throwing a shih-tzu into a piranha pond–but Carlson stood her ground.  Carlson did bring up some valid points:  using plastics for packaging reducing shipping weight, which saves energy used in transportation.  Plastic has a role in keeping food fresher longer, reducing spoilage and therefore waste.  Most energy consumed by consumer packaged goods manufacturing is in the total product life cycle—only about 10% of the total energy is devoted to the actual packaging.  And just because your bag is bioplastic does not mean it is biodegradable:  that bioplastic cup or bag will not decompose if it ends up in a landfill.  Well, at least not in our lifetime and a few lifetimes after that.  So Carlson’s, and the ACC’s mantra, was that more recycling of plastic is the way to go—a fair argument.

Elisabeth Comere from Tetra Pak spoke next.  She represents a company that contains food products in about 170 nations, and in 2009 manufactured 145 billion packs.  Visit a supermarket in Europe, and you will see a showroom of Tetra Pak’s products—and they have a growing foothold in the North American market as well.  So how are Tetra Pak’s cartons eco-friendly?  Through a partnership with the Forest Stewardship Council, the Swedish-founded and Swiss-based firm are using products sourced from natural resources that are easily replenished, thanks to forestry programs that ensure careful maintenance of the lands on which the trees are raised.

Finally Heidi Sanborn, the executive director of the  California Product Stewardship Council, concluded the session.  She brought up a point many of us have not thought about because well, most of us have not been around that long.  In 1900, most of New York City’s landfill was from ash that was produced from cooking.  By 1960, 70% of landfill waste was from food.  And 40 years later, 75% of all waste was from manufactured products.  Plastic and paper have roles in that massive shift.

Clearly we are not going back to the days when food vendors trolled the streets selling fresh food products, which women spent most of their days preparing and cooking.  But Sanborn made the point that companies need to take a more active role in managing their products’ waste—government will not do it, and clearly consumers are not.

Personally, when a company or trade show association sponsors a study, it comes across to me as giving numbers that such organizations want their stakeholders to see.  So if anyone out there can show some good independent, third party data stating the case for or against plastic and paper consumption, bring it—the panel concluded yesterday, but the discussion will not stop anytime soon.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Contact him at leon@greengopost.com. You can also reach out via Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). He is currently living and working in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.