The message is clear: Sustainability is a mainstream issue.
Companies that make petroleum-based plastic products should examine how they use energy and design products, Seetha Coleman-Kammula advised those at the Plastics News Executive Forum, held March 10-12 in Tampa.
``Sustainability is bigger than just simply an environmental movement,'' she said, adding that a lot of powerful shareholders are demanding that businesses invest in sustainability. ``It is going to start impacting the bottom line.''
Coleman-Kammula, a former executive with Shell Chemical Co. and Basell North America, in 2005 co-founded Simply Sustain LLC, an environmentally focused consulting firm in Newark, Del.
She told forum attendees that, right now, sustainability is a playing field where others are setting the ground rules.
Some large retailers are triggering product and material de-selection. For example, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. uses its packaging scorecard, and U.K. supermarket Tesco prints a message on plastics packaging that it considers nonrecyclable because it is not collected at curbside.
In addition, because makers of bio-based plastics are focused on driving down the amount of nonrenewable energy that goes into creating their feedstocks, they are ``setting the score- board on sustainability, and petro-plastics companies now have to come along,'' she said.
``Slowly, but steadily, they are setting different kinds of metrics and measures for what constitutes a sustainable plastic,'' said Coleman-Kammula. ``We have to play in their playing field.''
However, the movement will allow companies to rethink their approach to design and operations and to develop data on the sustainability of the products they make.
``It is about what we can learn on the petro-plastics side from this whole evolution of bioplastics, and what they are doing on their side. How do you improve the design, how do you innovate for the sustainability of plastics?'' she said.
``At one level, sustainability is no different than really good business sense. It is really about protecting the business and the environment in which business operates,'' she added.
To achieve the greatest benefits from sustainability efforts, she said companies need to partner with others in the supply chain and learn how to use life-cycle analysis to improve their operations.
``The change that needs to happen before businesses can see the bottom-line benefit is no longer one that can occur by companies acting alone,'' she said. ``It is a systemswide change.''
She cited a case study from a polypropylene sustainability report that Simply Sustain will be publishing at the end of March. A manufacturer of packaging trays for chicken has partnered with the chicken processor and the retail chain to achieve sustainability and cost savings for all three.
A reduction in the tray depth from 35 millimeters down to 30mm cut the manufacturer's use of PP by 273 million tons in 2007 and reduced its transportation cost. Because the chicken processor was able to include one extra tray in each outer casing, the move reduced its weekly use of outer cases by 2,000 and its weekly use of pallets by 57. That cut the cost of delivered chicken for the processor by 20 percent. The retailer increased its in-store shelf capacity and reduced transportation costs, use of pallets, frequency of reloading and storage costs.
``That is an indication of how much more sustainable petro-plastics can be with small changes in design,'' said Coleman-Kammula. ``There was money savings for the whole value chain and also savings in carbon footprint.''
But at the same time, she cautioned companies not to use life-cycle assessment simply to evaluate competing materials.
``It is a very complex, evolving methodology and is easy to misuse for materials comparisons,'' said Coleman-Kammula. ``If anyone tells you PP is better than [polylactic acid], or that PLA is better than PP, I would advise you to question how they got those numbers.
``You have to design for the total delivery function and not just get caught up with `this material is better than that,' because the material is only a part of the equation,'' she said, suggesting that companies use life-cycle assessments in evaluating the entire equation and tradeoffs from design to end-of-life.
Coleman-Kammula said companies should view life-cycle assessment as a ``powerful tool to look inside their operations, to benchmark and to improve their carbon footprint, their energy usage and ultimately, their bottom line.
``Today, we look at bringing performance up and cost down and then worry about what it is going to do in the next life.'' In addition, she said ``we are designing things that only need to last a week to last months or years,'' and conversely, ``things that need to last months or years are breaking down faster and faster.
``There is a different way to look at plastics design,'' said Coleman-Kammula. ``If you start in the design process with the next life's performance requirements and then work backwards, it really opens up a new design space for you,'' she said.
``We have it in our hands to go back and redesign all of the plastics stuff we are creating'' with a different mind-set, she said.