By James Ewell,
GreenBlue Senior Director of Sustainable Materials
David Allaway, Senior Policy Analyst with Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, was the opening keynote speaker on the first day of the SPC Advance 2016 conference. He set the stage for the conference by reminding SPC audience members that sustainable packaging encompasses much more than what he referred to as “discard management”. Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality is shifting its focus from looking at materials as primarily a solid waste problem to an approach that seeks to optimize the use of materials at all stages of their lifecycle. We invited David to share results from Oregon DEQ’s research and its 2050 vision because it is consistent with the SPC’s definition of sustainable packaging as well as GreenBlue’s sustainable materials management framework.
The primary message of David’s presentation was to caution industry not to limit its evaluation of the opportunities or challenges to manage materials more sustainably by focusing on any single stage of their life cycle. Many companies are prone to emphasize a single attribute like biodegradability or recyclability as a means of simplifying the complexity that lifecycle design and LCA as a method of measuring impacts introduce into the evaluation process.
David illustrated this point by sharing LCA results comparing different methods of delivering drinking water. No one was surprised to see that tap water had the lowest overall impact. But some of the LCA data was a bit surprising. For example, the environmental benefits of recycling PET bottles at rate of 37% vs 62% were not as significant as the benefits of designing PET bottles that use less material assuming the same 62% recycling rate.
The take-away is that the benefits of dematerialization (resulting in waste prevention in most cases) will carry through the entire life cycle of that material.
Another primary message of David’s presentation was to encourage industry to measure and evaluate upstream impacts as opposed to focusing only on the downstream impacts. While it is understandable for a brand to want to focus on solutions that will be perceived by their customers as more environmentally beneficial, companies should seek to optimize how they use materials along the entire life cycle. However, one of the difficulties of using LCA to compare material choices, is that there are always trade-offs between the different impact categories. Ambiguous results of LCA analyses are often frustrating and confusing to manufacturers and consumers alike, increasing the chance that downstream impacts may be weighted more heavily. David illustrated this point by presenting data suggesting that the environmental benefits of a bio-based compostable resin may not be greater than a fossil fuel-based resin depending on what impact category you are evaluating. He also raised a question that many in the sustainability community have been asking – is the highest and best use of bio-based resins to compost them or to recycle them? Which path best preserves the inherent value of the material, i.e., all of the resources and embodied energy used to create the material for a specific function?
A part of the Oregon DEQ’s vision and strategy is to focus on achieving higher recovery and recycling rates for fewer materials versus spending resources to attempt to recycle as many different types of materials as possible. Rather than measure success by the total weight of all materials diverted from the landfill, DEQ is concentrating on a basket of materials where recycling will give the greatest return in GHG emissions. Their research indicates that the basket of materials with the highest potential GHG savings are food waste, plastics and carpet.
With the exception of carpet, much of the SPC’s work has also concentrated on food waste and plastics. One audience member asked David what he believed the value of compostable packaging to be for compost manufacturing. He doubted that the potential for capturing more food waste would be worth the operational costs of managing higher levels of contamination. However, later in the day during the composting track, SPC staff shared early results of the research they have been doing to measure the amount of food waste that compostable packaging may contribute to overall food capture rates. Anne Bedarf said “our research indicates that the use of compostable packaging helps bring additional, valuable food scraps when used in a post-consumer venue.” Preliminary results of SPC’s post-consumer waste characterization studies of post-consumer waste at music events indicate that recovering compostable packaging from front-of-house operations may yield an additional 44.7% more food waste than back-of-house collection alone.
David’s presentation touched on a topic that we are seeing raised in the sustainability media lately. There is a growing interest in the circular economy and sustainable materials management as models for changing the materials economy. Some are asking what the differences between these two frameworks is and, thus far, the response has been to contrast them in an effort to discern if one is more scientifically accurate or effective than the other. GreenBlue sees both models as highly complementary, both emphasizing different opportunities for creating more sustainable systems of commerce. Stay tuned for a future blog from GreenBlue elaborating more on the potential synergy between these models to create positive change.