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Sustainability

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Monday, April 19th, 2010
By Jeff

Over the last couple of days I attended a conference put on by Nature Works, who is a domestic supplier of PLA. PLA (polylactic acid) is an alternative resin source made entirely from corn and is meant to be used in replacement of PET, OPS and other clear petrochemical based resins. This conference came off the heals of another meeting I attended called the Biopolymers Symposium, which had a very similar theme to the aforementioned NW conference.

Both events were fairly well attended, and not just by chemists and engineers (thankfully). One message I took away from both events was the goal of many companies to practice and become more sustainable. Sustainability by definition is not rocket science, but to me more of a common sense practice. However the extent to which some companies have embraced sustainable practices does teeter on the verge of mind blowing. Not just the big companies either. I saw most impressive presentations from all sized companies including smaller regional companies, national niche market companies right on up to multi-billion dollar multinational brand name companies.  

Clearly the largest companies have the most aggressive and far reaching game plans due to greater resources.  Once such plan that was talked about was a goal to make a manufacturing facility of one such large company, 100% self reliant.  To be taken totally off the grid for power, water and other utilities.  This wasn’t just some lofty goal on paper to say “look what we are thinking about”, but according to the presentation, well under way to becoming reality.  I can’t go into all the details of everything they were doing, but it was very impressive.  Especially the water reclamation part.  This is because the facility was located in an arid location and the company used a great deal of water in their particular process.  They not only figured out how to clean and purify the water, but to repipe it back into their process to be used again and again.

There was one common detail that each and every company who talked about sustainability initiatives stressed though.  That was a return on their investment.  Let’s face it, companies are in business to turn a profit.  No profit and the doors close.  These forward thinking companies each had a clear objective to turn their sustainability programs into a healthier bottom line.  They not only wanted to be better stewards of the environment but wanted a stronger company as a result of it.  Again, there were lots of examples provided showing where and how a payback and return was realized, but I think the most important aspect that each organization practiced was a top down approach to sustainability.  In each and every case that was presented, the company’s top management was completely committed to their program and, they got all their employees on board.  You can have an excellent plan on paper, but if the mother hen is not fully committed, the chicks will surely scatter.  These companies were not afraid to step back and take a critical look at themselves to ask “how can we do this better and what can we do differently that will not only  enrich the environment, but enrich our profits as well”.

I urge you to do the same.  Whether you have or work for a company as well as in your personal life.  Ask yourself the questions.  Do you really need to drive to the market for that gallon of milk, or could you walk or ride a bike?  Turn off the lights when you leave a room and power your computer down when you’ll be away from it.  These may seem like little things but just remember, one or two tiny snowflakes falling won’t add up to much, but millions falling can enact a blizzard of change.

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2 Responses to “Sustainability”

  1. Avatar for Jeff Steven Levine says:

    My experience with the corporate commitment to achieving a compostable waste stream is that the bottom line is the major driver now. A couple of years ago the move was much stronger to achieve sustainability in foodservice applications. Many large businesses have used the economic downturn to turn away from biobased alternatives and blame it on a need to cut back costs. Many of those same companies have recently announced healthy profits due to becoming more productive through layoffs and other bottom line increasers.
    Natureworks has done a good job and is the dominant bio-polymer in the world. As you well know the heat issue remains a large limiting factor. Your bagasse answer is a me too product line that has limited differentiating factors.

  2. Avatar for Jeff Genpak says:

    Thanks for your response. Yes Nature Works has made great strides and continues to do R&D for both feedstock and functionality. Don’t agree with your assessment of our Harvest Fiber, but you are entitled to an opinion. Our line has a much improved closure and stacking system compared to what is available now.

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