Over [my] 30 years as a traveling packaging-industry employee I [have constantly been] in traffic — in the air and on the ground — and [while waiting] I impatiently channel-surf radio stations.
One day on [a nationwide public radio call-in program] a guest-of-the-day author heralded Japanese automobiles as more environmentally friendly, as [according to the author] they are foresightedly designed for the recycling of their plastic [content].
I heard “interesting” and “good stuff for a less-informed public,” but generally [the author was] a bit inaccurate with regards to the specific substrates mentioned.
Many of the items mentioned were in everyday food packaging, i.e., polyethylene, polypropylene, polyester, etc.
The more [the author] talked, the less expertise he showed.
Eventually he contradicted things I knew intimately, so, pressing harder on the gas pedal, I veered into our office, intent on phoning [the program].
My last straw was the author's impromptu comment, “It would be better for the environment if we still returned glass bottles for refilling.”
As a packaging guy and a former participant on the Solid Waste Council, I know fact from fiction — he was absolutely wrong!
Briefly ... life-cycle analysis holds [that] all factors [must] be tallied in the math on recycling.
In this case, [that includes] energy [used] in manufacturing, shipping the glass back and forth to collection centers and refillers.
[Glass cleaning's environmental impact] includes water, detergents, drying and related energy, lost utility due to breakage, etc.
The author was ... perpetuating the perspective (born of both emotion and ignorance) for the average consumer that “Plastic is bad.” He was hitting below the (money) belt, and it was time to fight back.
Ready to rumble
I called the radio station, ready for battle.
“Hello, I'm Ezra Bowen, calling to speak to today's guest on recycling.”
Some assistant responded, “That hour is over and the producer is busy. What's up?”
I shared my issues while assessing feigned interest on the other end of the phone.
Our conversation ended with [the call-taker saying], “Give me your name [and] number, and the producer may call you.”
I said, “Oh, uh, thanks,” concluding the culprit author had escaped and the assistant, part of [the] liberal media and a probable co-conspirator, felt I was placated.
On went a typically busy day interrupted by an unexpected phone call from, “Rob Ferritt, producer for Public Radio International.”
For five minutes I conveyed my position as [Ferritt] qualified my background and comments, and then abruptly concluded with, “Thanks, maybe we'll call back once I've spoken to Tom Clark (host).”
[To] my surprise, Rob and Tom invited me as their “live on-air radio guest” for the next day!
Geez [I thought], what have I done? Maybe venting [about the show] should [have been] limited to [my] fellow employees!
Immediately, I called colleagues [in] the industry ... and soon vast amounts of literature strained my in-basket with the makings of my rebuttal [for an hour-long radio program].
Reading refreshed my memory and I learned quite a bit more. Essentially I studied for a final exam, or inquisition, depending on the mood of the [radio program] host.
Over the airwaves
Two weeks later, and not sleeping well the night before, I called [the program] at 6:45 a.m.
It was weird hearing my name introduced over the radio (wife and kids cheering in the next room) from the same voice critiquing President Bush's latest events along with the real news.
Using a [telephone] hard line to ensure contact, I paced my phone's cord to its limits, rather dry mouthed, and listened as the host [introduced] our conversation for the audience.
Initially awkward, I gained momentum and felt comfortable [that the host] was not a hostile “tree-hugger” but rather someone looking to balance his format.
From the copious notes and brochures littering my desk I comforted myself by remembering to weave in a battery of newly found facts, and supporting all my comments with various corroborating Web sites for the audience.
Most questions were along the lines of:
* Are municipal incinerators bad?
* What to do with old phone books?
Only two [questions were] related to flexible packaging:
* Why aren't potato chip bags full? Answer: Target fill is 85 percent, but as a natural product, the chips vary in size, shape, and water content, so a 100 percent target fill would not accommodate all chips. Similar to snowflakes, chips with higher moisture content are denser, meaning lower fill level, while lower moisture content chips are fluffier and have a higher fill level.
* The ink is flaking off the package, can I eat my Danish? Answer: Yes.
The hour passed quickly and soon the producer walked me off-line and, at least in my mind, complimented me on both content and the courage to represent private industry.
Success! I did not faint while on the air, mimic Porky Pig, or miss the opportunity to present a factually laden alternative view.
Teacher for a day
Later, the mail brought copies of the session and the family gathered for a listen. Then my wife dropped a bomb. In bragging to [my daughter's] kindergarten teacher, she [had] booked my next appearance — teaching recycling to the kids in kindergarten.
“Oh Daddy, are you going to go to school with me?” beamed my 5-year-old.
“Uh, yes, Pumpkin, seems so,” [I replied] and offered my wife an appreciative glare.
Teach 5-year-olds recycling?
An organic chemistry treatise on the oxidative decarboxylation of polymeric chains seemed a little arid for kindergartners.
Not only should my attendance be a good learning experience but, most importantly, Dad did not want to leave his kid embarrassed.
Colleagues offered technicality weighted factoids along with condolences. Parents know how fidgety bored 5-year-olds can be.
The inevitability of my attendance cast its shadow as my beaming 5-year-old relentlessly counted down: “Daddy, in six more days you're going to school with me!”
[My daughter's] enthusiasm grew and grew. Finally, I tucked her adoring face into bed the night before [my clasroom appearance] with her final smiling words, “I can't wait 'til tomorrow Daddy, I love you,” echoing in my mind through another restless sleep.
In the classroom
That sunny morning, eclipsed by her excitement, I boxed up my self-constructed “recycling kit.”
Shortly, I stood before a room of 30 bright smiling faces, many gapped by missing teeth, all giggling and wiggling and pointing at me.
“What is recycling?” I asked. The question barely [was] off my lips as hands swarmed the air above the floor-squatted youngsters.
[The pupils'] consensus was that recycling is that blue bin in the back of the [classroom] that they throw stuff in. [They had] no cognition of what then happened to those contents.
I broadly explained that after the stuff in the bin got taken away, it could return as something else to use.
Several kids volunteered [opinions that] that was good, so we don't run out of stuff. Rather insightfully, many [pupils] nailed peripheral concepts, and things seemed to be going smoothly.
I asked, “What do you do with broken crayons?” Proceeding with my demonstration, I heated ... crayon bits in a double boiler within a “recycled” (empty) juice can.
Once the crayons began melting, I started a stampede by asking, “Who wants to see them melting and turning into the color black?”
The molten contents were then poured into an aluminum cigar-tube that seemed about the right size for a jumbo crayon.
Then [I put the mold] into the fridge to cool as I poured remnant amounts on aluminum foil, instantly cooling [the wax] and allowing the kids to immediately begin playing with the “new” crayon droplets.
“What should we do with the empty fruit cups [from snack time in the class]?”I asked. A chorus of “Throw them in the recycle bin” ensued.
I replied, “We could, but what if we filled them with dirt and put bean seeds (pulled from my pocket) in them — is this a way to recycle?”
Beans eventually nested in cups overflowing with water, and they went to the [room's] windowsill. “Wash your hands,” [the teacher] instructed and I obediently joined the herd.
“What could you do with the used paper towels?” I asked [the pupils].
“We throw them out,” was the reply.
I said, “You could, but how can we reuse them?” Many [pupils] volunteered to take them home for washing, even ironing.
I pulled a blender from my box and tossed in several paper towels, along with a cup of water. One girl pushed the button, and the contents blended to an oat-mealy pulp.
We formed little paper-pulp flowerpots, using the discarded fruit cups as molds. When [the pulp] dried, several kids would have their own handmade flowerpots!
A week later, my daughter arrived home with a “thank-you” note on which several kids had drawn pictures and signed their names. [My daughter] had drawn an arrow pointing to a caricature of myself with a note reading “My Dad.”
She [now] updates me on the progress of the [sprouted beans]. Her enthusiasm, big smile, and hugs acknowledged that my visit had been a good one.
Recycling is a good thing!
Ezra Bowen is national sales manager for Clayton, Mo.-based Spartech Corp.'s packaging technologies business. He and his family live in Alpharetta, Ga.