Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

Lighting Candles: My Visit to the Walmart Sustainable Packaging Expo

I don’t have a bumper sticker about it on my car, but I care deeply about the environment and so does everyone that I know. My problem, however, with so many who publicly profess to love our environment, is that most “would rather curse the darkness, than light a candle.”

A few months ago, I started a new job working for SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association. And yes, I received a few “snickers” from friends as though somehow I’d sold my soul. Having spent almost 25 years in manufacturing, I’d developed a real sense of pride in representing the hardworking people who make things in America, but the environmental criticisms coming my way, were something new altogether.

This past week, I traveled to Arkansas to attend the Walmart Sustainable Packaging Expo and returned with a real education on the environmental progress that is being made. Perhaps more importantly, I returned with my head held high about the plastics industry and the new career choice that I had made.

On Monday morning, about 200 of us descended upon the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport and Rogers, Arkansas for a conference and expo on sustainable packaging. I learned a lot about the Walmart scorecard, attempts to create a common sustainability language and tools to measure progress. I heard about the Coca-Cola Company’s new PlantBottle and Frito Lay’s new chip bags that not only are 100 percent biodegradable, but no longer require the user to wear ear-plugs. I also spent time with SPI members like Berry Plastics and Placon Corp. and learned about all they are doing and hope to do to make their products even greener. These companies, and thousands of others, have made a serious commitment and are spending millions of dollars on research to reduce the amount of plastic in packaging, reclaim and reuse the materials that are out there and develop new formulas for producing polymers.

Sadly, one of the biggest lessons I learned last week had to do with the challenges that come with this commitment to sustainability. Put simply, “it’s not easy being green.” Investing in sustainability is expensive, time consuming and sets companies up for criticism from the naysayers. Too many “recyclable” products end up in landfills anyway. “Biodegradable” only works when a product is processed under the right circumstances. There are issues related to cleaning the materials, removing the glue from labels and educating consumers. In short, there is much more work to be done.

But, personally I’d rather hang around with the people who are doing that work – and making real progress — than the ones who would rather complain about how much further we have to go. What did I see in Bentonville? I saw a whole lot of companies who are lighting candles.

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