When it comes to sustainability, consumers care about packaging. They can't not. It’s the most in-your-face waste in the manufacturing process; it has inspired the plastic-free revolution of Beth Terry and others, and municipal bans on plastic bags. Consumer-products eco-darling Method made thousands of consumers aware of detergent-to-water ratios, and now a former Methodite is taking on one of the most toxic chemical made by humans: PVC.Paul Tasner left Method in 2009. A former supply chain manager for Clorox, he returned to consulting on supply chain management until 2010, when he got fascinated by the idea of closing the loop with recycled newsprint. "I loved the idea of creating packaging out of garbage," he said, and with cofounder Elena Olivari, PulpWorks, Inc. was born.
PulpWorks, headquartered in California, creates custom-designed packaging from recycled newspapers from Toronto and China, sculpted by design director Tricia Wright, formerly of Wild Planet Toys and founder of design salon Process 376. The material is compostable and lends itself to new thinking about packaging. In a package designed for EO Products, the PW-Pack is made of two paper components and no adhesives or plastic. It has the potential to “replace literally billions of PVC blister packs,” according to the company. Their designs took third place at the Silicon Valley Innovation & Entrepreneurship Forum in October, 2012, and were runners up at the CleanTech Open in 2011.
The blister pack. A little thermaformed bit of petrochems that holds items in display against a cardboard back –scissors, toys, mascara, everything. It’s an essential part of product display, producing some of that 33 percent of plastic that is single-use. (In researching the materials, PulpWorks found that it also sends 60,000 people to the hospital every year from cutting their hands trying to open it!)
Wherever it ends up, in landfills, in your house, in the materials that hold your house together, PVC is basically a ticking time bomb for human and animal life; burning it releases dioxin, a very toxic poison which attacks the endocrine system, the immune system, the nervous system of children, and causes cancer. If the PVC survives whole and makes it into the ocean, it joins the Five Gyres and is ingested by marine mammals, fish, birds, and other wildlife, showing up months later in your diet. It's a wonder that it's chosen for such common uses, but it's the industry standard now, and industry standards just have a way of persisting.
Tasner says that, price-wise, pulp isn't subject to the price fluctuations that challenge PVC, with its petrochemical origin. There is an endless supply of the stuff - to produce the Sunday newspapers sold just in the U.S., 500,000 trees must be cut down every week. There isn't any one else doing what PulpWorks is doing (most molded pulp is currently used for egg containers and is not custom-made), although there are other decidedly less green options, like polystyrene and PET, which Procter & Gamble moved to for toothbrushes this year. Johnson & Johnson and Hasbro have both taken steps to eliminate it over the last two years in their products and packaging, and other materials will have to be there.
“The blister pack itself has had decades to become entrenched in the packaging culture of our planet. It's cheap (although we can match them on price), and companies are slow to change," said Tasner from his office in San Rafael, Calif. "We will prevail, eventually. I'm confident. PVC is toxic. It's doomed!"
Hannah Miller is a writer, ecologist, and adventurer living in Colorado. She is interested in everything, but particularly in creative sustainability practices, the Internet, arts and culture, the human-machine interaction, and democracy. She's lived in Shanghai, New York, L.A., Philadelphia, and D.C., and taught English, run political campaigns, waited tables, and written puppet shows. She definitely wants to hear what you're up to. You can reach her at @hannahmiller215, email at golden.notebook at gmail.com or at her site: www.hannahmiller.net.