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Sustainability—Déjà Vu All Over Again?

For those of us who have enjoyed this industry for more than ten years, the current “sustainability” buzzword defines a trend that has assumed many names in the past. These trends — known by any of their alternative names — each have had an ebb and flow effect. This time I hope we get it right, but sometimes I feel, as Yogi Berra would say, “This is like déjà vu all over again.”

Back in '97, there was an effort to educate our president, Congress, and the public about the significant impact of pending legislation on our industry, how the science used for the basis of certain decisions was inconclusive, and how the laws would have a minimal impact on clean air at an enormous cost.

Those were the days when air quality legislation threatened the existence of many converters' businesses. I remember participating in the Flexible Packaging Assn.'s fly-in to Washington, DC, when we challenged our elected officials to educate themselves on the meaning, intent, and impact of laws that were to be enacted.

I also recall attending an educational workshop in Chicago for teachers, hosted by FPA but also offered at schools throughout the country, that featured “garbologist” Dr. Bill Rathje from the Univ. of Arizona and Dr. Bob Testin. Rathje recounted for the participating educators what they would find at their local landfills.

He explained how newspapers from the 1960s were still legible; how chicken bones, hot dogs, and other “biodegradable” products were fully recognizable, as they hardly had degraded into their compositional elements; how dry landfills essentially prevent degradation; and how in many cases, we wouldn't want certain products to biodegrade even if they could. Rathje led a discussion on how packaging design must take into account a package's ultimate disposal in a manner that's earth friendly. One of the assignments was to challenge the teachers to create their own products and packaging in order to bring home the difficulty converters face with every package they manufacture.

Fast forward to 2008, and now stories continue to filter to me about new “eco-friendly efforts” that threaten to ban the single-use plastic bag. The adage that everything has a place and there's a place for everything has significance here. Have these metropolitan governing bodies forgotten to analyze the life cycle of plastic compared to paper bags? Haven't we done this already?

On my first visit to Whole Foods, I was amazed by more than its upscale look and prices when the bagger asked me, “Paper or plastic?” Better phrased, shouldn't the question have been, “Plastic or your own woven bag?” (Even two recycled plastic bags win out in the life cycle analysis over paper.) Or why not put a recycling bin in the storefront and allow customers to recycle their bags — plastic or paper — without a law mandating it?

The potential for outright banning of plastic bags makes current sustainability efforts once again confusing to a general public that, for the most part, lumps all plastic bags into one pile as bad for the environment, thanks to incomplete stories provided by the general media. As an industry, we may need to relaunch our educational efforts before we find ourselves in yet another misunderstood predicament with dire consequences.

Sustainability is a subject our industry has taken seriously for a multitude of reasons. While legislative and customer demands certainly have been driving forces for doing so, achieving additional economic benefits will make it even more desirable.

PFFC will continue to offer our readers methods to achieve a sustainable impact as part of our monthly editorial coverage. We are honored that our September 2007 issue (left) was given special recognition by the Printers' National Environmental Assistance Ctr. (PNEAC), which selected PFFC to receive the 2008 Publication of the Year Award in the Book/Collection: National Publication category for the coverage we gave to the subject of sustainability. See next month's issue for more details!

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