There was an interesting editorial on PLA in Canada's leading trade
magazine, Solid Waste & Recycling, which concluded:
... Important questions remain.
Is conversion of degradable plastic film or bags to compost really more
"friendly" than conversion of exceptionally thin-gauged, exhausted,
contaminated, conventional bags or film to clean energy using advanced
thermal treatment (or recycled into plastic lumber)? And is the composting
of a degradable rigid plastic item, after one use, more environmentally
sound or sustainable than mechanically recycling the material to the limits
of its intrinsic engineering properties, then doing same?
And what technical challenges will this material present to MRFs if it
becomes ubiquitous? Again, it's very decent of NatureWorks to offer to pay
for skids of the material, but can it be separated, and at what cost? What
machines will be required?
I don't know the answers to these questions, but I think we need a lot more
information before we follow Wal-Mart's lead and start "growing" our
packaging materials, as appealing as that might sound.
The editorial cites a presentation by a Canadian plastics specialist, Jim
Cairns, suggesting that the dust is a long way from settling in a scuffle
between different contenders within the industry (click the link in
Crittenden's editorial). I think it's too soon to get on the
At 01:04 PM 2/14/2006, Eric Lombardi wrote:
I just wanted to give you a heads up that you?ll soon be seeing some press
where Eco-Cycle is supporting the efforts of NatureWorks LLC (NW), the
makers of the compostable PLA pellet (polylactic acid) from corn and
operators of the largest ?bioplastic? production facility in America. I
know some folks are concerned about use of GMO feed-corn in the production
of the PLA (as am I). As a recycler and MRF operator, I am also concerned
about the challenges of recovering the PLA bottles from the existing
petro-plastic bottle recycling system. But here?s the bottom-line: in my
experience working with the folks at NatureWorks over the last year or so,
they are also concerned about these issues if their customers are
concerned. Eco-Cycle has been buying their products since the late 90?s
to stage our public Zero Waste events, and my guess is that many of you
also buy their PLA-based products.
The real reason I?m writing this is to ask you all, and your networks, to
give the bioplastics industry some time to develop before we criticize
them too heavily. The conversion away from petro-plastics is a long
journey, and we?ll need big companies to invest large dollars to keep
moving the ball forward. NatureWorks did that, and now they need our
help? and when I say ?our? I mean anyone in the environmental community
that supports this journey. The trick in all this is that to really
change the world, all forms of protest and collaboration are needed. GRRN
has done awesome work protesting Coke and Dell practices, and that sort of
confrontational brand hijacking is a very powerful organizing
approach. But sometimes collaboration is needed, especially when the
other side appears legitimate in their actions and their need for assistance.
The piece below is interesting (not great), and says that we need to be
more supportive of Big Corporate Small Steps. Well, maybe? but in the
case of NW, they took a big step in building that Nebraska PLA production
facility ($300 million, or something like that). Their product isn?t
perfect, but I?m convinced it?s a good step toward a carbohydrate economy.
The Sustainable MBA
by Matthew Smith
Environmental Activism's Missed Opportunity
Wal-Mart has begun to take its first tentative steps toward
sustainability: In a recent shareholder meeting, CEO Lee Scott discussed
plans for increasing organic food sales, experimenting with renewable
energy and recycled building materials, enforcing ethical sourcing
policies, and further refining their already hyper-efficient operations.
What stuns me is not this remarkable move by the world's largest
corporation, but the reaction from the activist community. Rather than
celebrate important victories on the long road to a sustainable society,
environmental and social activists typically denigrate these first
hesitant steps as greenwashing.
Paul Blank, campaign director for the Wake-Up Wal-Mart Campaign reacted
that same day by saying, "The fact is that Wal-Mart is as concerned about
doing the right thing as tobacco companies are concerned about the health
It's not my intent to defend Wal-Mart. I'm concerned about its impact on
society, and feel strongly the company must reinvent many of its
practices. What worries me is the broader trend in the sustainability
movement to criticize rather than praise a company's first efforts towards
corporate and social responsibility. We've seen this happen with companies
like Ford, General Motors, BP, and ChevronTexaco, who The Green Life
listed among the <http://www.thegreenlife.org/dontbefooled.html>worst
greenwashers in the U.S.
A pattern seems to be emerging: Top management attempts to move their
company toward a more sustainable future. They began a few projects
oriented toward sustainability, and developed advertising campaigns to
create public awareness around their shifts in strategy. Activists
responded negatively, pointing out how little had changed other than the
company's marketing campaign.
While the activists may have a point as far as appearances go, there is
likely more going on behind the scenes. It takes years for multinational
companies to turn in a new direction, and it?s unrealistic to expect
wholesale changes at such an early stage. These advertising campaigns are
signs of an attitudinal shift and, I hope, a commitment toward a
While CEOs can develop advertising campaigns with minimal support,
becoming sustainable requires engaging the whole company. Another purpose
the ads serve, whether intentionally or not, is to shift internal opinion,
and help employees imagine a new future for the company. Without employee
support any effort at change will meet resistance at every turn.
Even when the intent is not pure, seeds are being sown at every level, and
there is always a chance that those seeds may take root. (As Hunter
Lovins, co-author of <http://www.natcap.org/sitepages/pid5.php>Natural
Capitalism has said to me, "Hypocrisy is the first step to real change.")
When criticism is received at this early point in transition, it has the
potential to stall a company?s efforts by creating doubt both internally
and externally. At this most critical juncture, it?s important that all
stakeholders believe the company has the ability to change.
This is not to say that these small early efforts are enough, or that we
shouldn?t hold the company to a higher standard. But I think the first
tentative steps on the path to sustainability are some of the most
critical. Successful first steps will teach companies to walk -- hopefully
later to run. And run they must if we are to have any impact on the
climate changes we?ve already set in motion.
Activists could have a greater impact by recognizing these early steps for
what they are, and respond with support to create an atmosphere of trust
and shared background. Then, with a relationship in place, they can engage
in a dialog with the company that focuses on solutions rather than
problems. What I?m suggesting is that civil society can achieve more by
partnering with business than it can by criticizing it.
Unfortunately, there seems to be something about human nature that
inclines us to see the problems over the possibilities. Companies
beginning a transition to sustainability should prepare for this, and
forge ahead with their plans regardless.
One tactic that will reduce this interference is to radically increase
transparency. Organizations beginning a transition to sustainability,
especially after years of traditional business practices, cannot expect to
clean all the skeletons from their closets immediately. Companies that
understand their own failings, and are transparent about the changes they
wish to make, will leave no fodder from which a naysayer might build a
case against them.
When a company starts down the road to sustainability they are opening the
door to a new paradigm. Should we invite them in to have a meaningful
conversation, or should we slam the door in their face, telling them to
come back another day with a better plan?
Independent business consultant and author
<mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org>Matthew Smith is an MBA Candidate (2007) in
the Sustainable Management program at Presidio School of Management. He is
the former vice president of product marketing at Liquid Audio, and has
more than ten year?s experience introducing new products at Sony
Electronics Inc., including the VAIO Personal Computer product line.