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[GreenYes] Disposal impacts
As a principal researcher for the Tellus Institute Packaging Study, released
in 1992, I would like to take this opportunity to respond to the comments
offered by Peter Anderson in his email dated 15 October.  This study
assesses the life-cycle impacts of packaging materials, comparing the
production and disposal impacts of glass, aluminum, steel, five types of
paper, and six types of plastic. 
The goal of this study, funded by NJ Dept. of Environmental Protection, US
EPA, and Council of State Governments, was to provide public policy makers
with a framework and database that could inform policy options (such as
bans, disposal fees) for reducing packaging or altering the mix of packaging
materials. Prior to the release of the 900+ page study (comprised of 5
reports),  many LCAs relied heavily on proprietary data, often supplied by
the company that both manufactured the product and sponsored the research.
Thus, policy makers were being asked to base their decisions on these
studies, while lacking access to the data.  To fill this void, Tellus relied
solely on public sources of information, and fully reported these data.
Thus, although Stonyfield Farm did not sponsor the Tellus Packaging Study,
both public and private decision makers have cited the study in support of
packaging material decisions.  
As Mr. Anderson notes, Stonyfield Farm cites the Tellus Packaging Study as
the basis for the company's decision to use polypropylene (PP) plastic
rather than HDPE for their yogurt cups.  He writes in his email that:
	 "While Stoneyfield is correctly quoting Tellus's LCI findings,
those findings are WRONG, suffering from the typical problem with these
studies, garbage in, garbage out. If one ASSUMES that disposal is perfectly
safe when specifying the inputs for an LCI run, then, it is not at all that
surprising that the outputs will show no significant impacts from disposal.
But that does not add terribly much to the fount of human knowledge, and the
fact that it is encased in a LCI wrapper confers no legitimacy upon flawed
research. At the time that that study was being prepared for publication, we
attempted to correct their perfectly-safe disposal assumption, but were put
off because EPA had told them that there are no significant impacts because
the Subtitle D regulations promulgated in 1991 have ended open dumps and
mandated highly engineered sanitary landfills. No amount of technical
information would sway Tellus."  
First, I must confess that my memory from 10+ years ago may be hazy, but I
do not recall the above mentioned conversation with Peter Anderson.  More
importantly, contrary to Peter Anderson's assertion, Tellus did not assume
that disposal is "perfectly safe."  Chapter 2 in Report #4 of the Packaging
Study, "Impacts of Production and Disposal of Packaging Materials -- Methods
and Case Studies" describes our methodology for determining the
environmental impacts of packaging material disposal.  The disposal impacts
encompassed by the study include those arising from landfills (leachate and
landfill gas generation), incinerators (air emissions and leachate from
incinerator ash disposal), and air emissions from recycling facilities.  The
latter is qualitatively discussed because these data were largely lacking a
decade ago. However, the environmental impacts (or "externalities") of the
former two disposal options were quantified.  

One of the study's principal findings is that the environmental impacts of
disposal are typically overshadowed by the much greater environmental
impacts arising from packaging material production.  For example, while an
aluminum can may cause environmental impacts when it is disposed, the
impacts from manufacturing aluminum (bauxite ore mining and processing,
production of  alumina, etc.) are much greater than the disposal impacts.
Therefore, while source reduction and recycling may reduce disposal impacts,
the stronger environmental driver is the avoided environmental impacts of
producing virgin materials.  Thus, the Tellus Institute Packaging Study
supports the waste management hierarchy "reduce, reuse, recycle."  (Although
packaging reuse was not analyzed in the study, it is probably a valid
assumption that the environmental impacts from cleaning a package (water and
energy consumption) are much lower than the impacts of material production.)


It is important to note that, where possible,  the Packaging Study compared
the environmental impacts of virgin and recycled material production.  We
were unable to compare virgin and recycled plastic production as publicly
available data on plastic recycling were not available during the timeframe
of our study.  Stonyfield Farm's decision about which plastic resin to use
is supported by the 1992 Packaging Study IF one assumes that (a) the package
is made from virgin plastic and (b) it will not be recycled.  However, if
the packaging study was being conducted today (when presumably Tellus would
have access to publicly available data on the environmental impacts of
recycled plastic production), Stonyfield Farm's decision may no longer be
supported.  In fact, it is not inconceivable that an updated study would
show that it's best to use the plastic resin that is most recyclable --
i.e., use HDPE instead of PP, even if more HDPE plastic is required to make
a container, in order to avoid the impacts of virgin plastic production
(natural gas and crude oil extraction, processing and refining, organic
chemicals production, etc).  The recent email exchanges on this mailing list
however point to potential difficulties in finding a market for HDPE "tubs."


Lastly, tools such as life cycle assessment (LCA) are best used for
identifying opportunities for improving the environment.  Decisions about
what materials to use in a product need to be revisited as technologies
change and new materials become available.  Stonyfield Farm's website notes
that:
	"A polypropylene container is by no means our vision of the ideal
packaging. There are several very promising materials on the horizon. We are
working with one supplier of a plastic made from carbohydrates, such as corn
and beets. In the not too distant future, your yogurt cup could look and
feel like the plastic cup of today, but be made from agricultural waste such
as cornhusks or potato skins. "

This email is not intended to support Stonyfield Farm's current choice of
packaging materials, but I think they deserve credit for recognizing the
limitations of their current container and for pursuing environmentally
preferable packaging materials.

Karen Shapiro			
Senior Scientist	
Tellus Institute	
11 Arlington Street	
Boston, MA 02116-3411	

phone: 617-266-5400   fax: 617-266-8303
email: kshapiro@tellus.org
web: http://www.tellus.org



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