Plastics News reporter Dan Hockensmith recently sent a series of questions about sustainability to several of the largest North American plastic packaging manufacturers. Here are responses from Malcolm Simmonds, senior vice president of food-service sales and marketing at Solo Cup Co. in Highland Park, Ill., and Gerri Walsh, director of packaging industry affairs at Broomfield, Colo.-based Ball Corp.
Q: What is your company's overall sustainability strategy? Is the emphasis on environmental, social or economic factors, or is it a case of all three coming together to find balance?
Simmonds: It's important to understand that environmental stewardship is more than a trend; it's a new lifestyle. Environmental stewardship is the future, and we believe the company in our industry that resets the landscape in terms of environmental stewardship and sustainability will win with customers, employees, communities and the public at large.
Solo believes that any successful sustainability strategy is going to focus on both social and economic factors, because people make decisions based on a range of influences beyond just their checkbook.
Solo's sustainability strategy rests on three pillars: options, investment and education. Options are crucial.
Since there is no one right answer, you need options to satisfy differing priorities among customers and consumers. Second, we need to make the right investments in our own business. Time, money, people and commitment are all necessary investments in this area.
Sustainability has got to be more than just a marketing slogan it has to be a real behavior and value. Finally, we work to provide customers with information on the environmental footprint of different materials and help them understand the life cycle of all Solo products.
Walsh: Ball has adopted the triple bottom-line approach to our sustainability efforts, meaning we seek opportunities where environmental, social and economic factors overlap with our business interests. We are focused on improving our environmental and social impacts, while having a favorable impact on our bottom line.
There are many opportunities for us to do this, for instance energy-saving initiatives and our increased focus on employee health through our recently introduced employee wellness program.
Sustainability is imperative to our success and will have the best chance of succeeding in the minds of our stakeholders shareholders, employees, customers and others if we demonstrate that helping the environment and making social improvements will simultaneously lead to economic success.
Q: How long has sustainability been a top-level concern for your company?
Simmonds: Solo has been researching newer, more sustainable materials to use in the products we make for more than a decade.
As the market has developed for products made with these materials, along with the supply of materials, we've been introducing these types of products. We now offer the first nationally available full line of food-service and consumer products, called Bare by Solo, that are made using recycled or renewable materials.
Walsh: Ball embraced sustainable practices long before sustainability became well-known as a business term we just didn't call it that. Recycling, lightweighting our packages, reducing energy use, employee safety, community engagement these are some of the initiatives that have helped us thrive for 128 years.
The difference today is that we have an umbrella term for sustainability activities and a systematic way of approaching them so that we can measure our progress and target new opportunities as we go forward.
Recent examples in our Plastic Packaging Americas division include lightweighting our 500-milliliter PET water bottle by 35 percent since we first began that business 13 years ago; integrating the use of [post-consumer] material into our operations; and using a barrier coating [KHS Plasmax] that is easily removed in the recycling process and does not have a negative effect on the color of the [recycled] PET.
Q: Who is your company's top sustainability official and when was that position created?
Simmonds: Chief Executive Officer Bob Korzenski will tell you he is our top sustainability official, and that's the way it should be. Solo currently has a search under way for a vice president of environment and sustainability.
We also have a high-level cross-functional team, which I'm deeply involved in, that continually looks for new ways to make our business more sustainable. For example, we currently have more than 300 separate energy-efficiency projects planned or under way.
We are making the necessary investments in people, facilities and products to ensure that we are the forefront of environmental stewardship in our industry.
Walsh: We don't have a single top sustainability official so much as we have a team of people in North America, Europe and China who coordinate our efforts and trade ideas and solutions.
Q: How much does the company figure it's spending on sustainability-related projects and how has that changed over time?
Simmonds: That's competitive information, but the amount definitely is growing. We're committed to doing the right thing, and we're doing more each day.
Walsh: We don't externally report on totals. But to give you a sense of what we are doing, let's look at energy. We initiated and funded 45 energy-savings capital projects between 2005 and 2007 in our North American packaging operations alone.
The cost of those projects is well into the millions and, when completed, will save an estimated 57 million kilowatt-hours per year. Virtually all of these projects have an internal rate of return over 20 percent or higher. That is only energy; there are examples in other areas.
Q: What in-house programs (recycling, energy conservation, etc.) has the company enacted as part of its drive toward sustainability?
Simmonds: We currently have more than 300 separate energy-efficiency projects planned or under way at our facilities. In 2008, we increased use of intermodal rail, reducing carbon by 35,000 tons each year, and more efficient logistics allowed Solo to increase cube fill in Solo trucks by nearly 9 percent.
From a product development standpoint, we already offer the industry's broadest line of products made with recycled and renewable materials.
In 2005, we developed and marketed the first [Food and Drug Administration]-compliant paper hot cup using post-consumer fiber. In 2006, Solo worked with suppliers to develop extrusion-coated paperboard using Cereplast [polylactic acid] resins and received the first compostable logo granted by the Biodegradable Products Institute for a paper hot cup.
In 2008, Solo brought to market the first nationally available plastic cup made with post-consumer recycled PET.
We currently recycle at all our facilities, and are working with local municipalities and vendors to expand the scope of those recycling efforts.
Solo also is participating in a closed-loop recycling project in the United Kingdom. A recycling facility there takes recycled food packaging and reprocesses it into food-grade material that can then be used to make more packaging. This shows the potential for what can be accomplished through expanded recycling efforts.
We believe recycling is very important, and expanding the scope of recycling in this country is something we're working on aggressively with our industry association. We want to continue to work to divert even more material to recycling facilities, rather than landfills.
Walsh: Energy reduction is one of our most important focus areas. Three years ago we announced a goal via [the Environmental Protection Agency's] Climate Leaders program to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 16 percent by 2012 compared to 2002, primarily through energy-efficiency improvements. We also recently joined EPA's Energy Star voluntary program that offers businesses and consumers energy-efficient solutions.
Some of the projects in our plastics plants [include]:
c Compressed-air management systems that reduce electrical usage by tracking usage on the plant floor and idling systems when demand is down. Installations of systems to capture high- pressure air and ``recycle'' it at a reduced pressure, saving an estimated 4 million kwh per year per facility. (High-pressure air is used to form bottles and uses a significant amount of energy.)
Several compressed-air compressor upgrades that replace older, less energy-efficient systems with newer, more efficient systems. Reduction of consumption on the plant floor through automatic valves, air-nozzle restrictions and shutting down open air lines.
* Energy-efficient lighting.
* We are working on substantially reducing and eventually eliminating sending recyclable waste to landfills. We already have good programs in place at most of our facilities and now we are targeting the harder-to-recycle materials. We use as much regrind as possible in our bottles.
For instance, our polyolefin converting plants use up to 40 percent of a multilayer structure in a dedicated layer of regrind, with the potential to increase this usage through regrind introduction to other layers.
Q: How has your relationship with others in the supply chain (suppliers, clients, etc.) changed as a result of the focus on sustainability?
Simmonds: Partners play a key role in our efforts to become more sustainable. For example, our partners are instrumental in our product development efforts.
We've worked with partners like Cereplast, to develop new, more sustainable materials like PLA resins, post-consumer PET and bamboo that will meet the demands and regulatory requirements for products used to serve foods and beverages. We'll continue to work with our partners to help drive better environmental stewardship at Solo and across our industry.
Walsh: It has certainly broadened our scope in our discussions with companies in our supply chain. We are focused on similar sustainability initiatives greenhouse gas emissions, energy, water, recycling, safety and air emissions to name a few. We have had the opportunity to share best practices in some cases and have certainly learned from others. We think we are seen as a more value-added supplier because of our commitment to sustainability.
Q: Are bioplastics the best alternative to oil-based products or would recovery of more scrap or post-consumer recycled materials have more value for your operations?
Simmonds: Bioplastics are one alternative and we are pursuing other viable options. However, we believe that recycling is the most viable, most responsible long-term solution for our industry, and we believe that PET is the material of choice.
There are several reasons why we've developed this perspective. PET is proven, is recyclable and is accepted widely for recycling. There is already a downstream market for recycled PET we're using it today in our 20 percent post-consumer [recycled] PET cups. Finally, the stream can feed itself since recycled PET can be recycled and reused repeatedly. We feel strongly about recycling as a long-term solution, because it effectively takes a conventional material and makes it a renewable resource. We believe that PET is the material that fits best with that approach.
Walsh: We have spent considerable resources investigating bioplastics and the effect on the performance of our bottle throughout the supply chain, as well as end-of-life, and continue to do so.
Our performance tests on PLA for instance, showed water vapor permeation, shrinkage and issues with color and pressurization.
The end-of-life issues still exist these bottles look like PET and many end up in the recycling stream but are not compatible with PET recycling. We have an ongoing program to test and evaluate the performance of these biomaterials as they continue to evolve.
Recovering more post-consumer recycled materials is absolutely of importance to us. For the past five years now, we have actively supported the Curbside Value Partnership, an education and partnership program for comprehensive curbside recycling started by the Aluminum Can Council. Although it is primarily funded by can manufacturers and can sheet providers, the CVP encourages recycling of all valuable materials in the curbside bin including plastics.
Q: Would your firm be willing to pay for recycling and disposal of its products, i.e., an Extended Producer Responsibility scheme as many European countries have?
Simmonds: Solo is a company that wants to do the right thing, and we are doing more every day. That commitment isn't going to change, and we have a lot to offer already. What you'll see from Solo is continued innovation, because we believe that sustainability makes good business sense.
We are looking for new ways to improve the use, reuse and overall life cycle of our products. And we believe the company in our industry that resets the landscape in terms of sustainability will win in the long run. We intend to be that company.
It's tough to evaluate EPR, because it would require a complete overhaul about how Americans think about waste disposal and how it's collected. While that discussion goes on, we're moving today towards a more systematic approach that integrates environmental stewardship into the way we operate our business and the way we do business. We want to do the right thing, and that commitment isn't going to change.
Walsh: That is a question for the entire supply chain. As a packaging producer we provide the package to a brand owner or filler. We don't know where that package is going to be sold and returned for recycling hopefully not disposal. Comprehensive systems that deal with a broad array of materials are needed.
Q: What are your concerns about the U.S. regulatory environment and how is the company reacting? Is the best strategy for the plastics industry to get involved with government efforts to promote sustainable practices or should federal and state officials stay out of the way and let industry take the lead?
Simmonds: I think it's safe to say that as a society, in general, we need to find ways to do better in terms of environmental stewardship. Both the government and industry play a role in this. I think it's imperative that there is a joint public-private effort to pursue better sustainability practices, because we'll accomplish more working together than we would on separate paths.
It's worth noting that studies show fast-food packaging and expanded polystyrene foam combined take up less than one-third of 1 percent of total volume in landfills. The public believes it's about 45-70 percent. That's a major challenge.
Solo's goal is to be part of the solution. We believe our industry needs to demonstrate that we're part of the solution, not the cause of the problem. Solo is working hard to do the right thing. We have made a commitment not only to being more sustainable as a company but also to bringing more sustainable food-service options to our customers and consumers. That commitment isn't going to change.
Walsh: We think industry is already taking a lead on sustainability and will continue to do so. In the area of recycling, for example, some government involvement such as mandating comprehensive recycling and structuring it so that there is financial incentive for people to recycle as much as possible would be beneficial. The benefits of recycling are clear reduced use of resources, greenhouse gas emissions, energy and landfill space, as well as increased jobs.
According to the EPA, at the current U.S. recycling rate of 32 percent for municipal solid waste, we avoid the emissions of nearly 200 million tons of greenhouse gases, or about 3 percent of our nation's total carbon footprint. That clearly states the case that recycling needs to grow.