May 24, 2009

What you Need to Know about Recycling: It’s More than Putting Stuff in Bins by Tom Kemper, CEO of Dolphin Blue.

We can all put stuff in a bin and think we are doing a world of good.   Anybody who has researched recycling to a meaningful degree will find otherwise.  For example, take a deeper look at your city’s recycling program—if it has one.   You might have 90-gallon roll-away containers used for facilitating recycling of recyclable materials.   You put all this recyclable “stuff” in a bin, and it goes to a material recovery facility (MRF).  All this stuff is co-mingled, meaning you have all this material —  mixed plastics, mixed glass, paper mingled together.  Nobody takes the time to separate this material.  The personnel at the MRF often recover what is most easily separated with machinery.   The material that isn’t easily recovered goes to the landfill.   Often, a significant portion of what you put in the recycling bin never gets recycled.

So, let’s say we are collecting any material—let’s use glass in this instance.  If it’s cheaper to make glass from silica because of industry subsidies for mining raw, virgin materials, glass gets made from silica.  Glass manufacturers are not going to buy glass that costs more, even if it’s recovered from the waste stream and now considered post-consumer recycled.  Market conditions such as fuel cost to transport the material, energy cost to manufacture, costs incurred to reduce emissions, and market demand for the material dictate what is transformed into a product again.  If those costs are uneconomical to the manufacturer, these collected materials are destined for the landfill.  If the material can be incinerated (plastics, particularly), the BTU value being high, is captured and converted to energy, a by-product of which is dioxins and other potential carcinogens being released into the air we breathe.

The placing of recyclable materials into recycling bins is only one component of the bigger picture.  A vast disparity exists between the tonnage collected for the purpose of recycling and the tonnage of materials actually making it back into material used to make new, environmentally responsible product.  What doesn’t make it back into new product composition, more than likely ends up in your local landfill or in a waste to energy (WTE) incinerator facility, neither contributing to creation of a sustainable planet for future generations.

How can we change?  Oddly enough, look at our government.  Change always happens slowly because of psychological inertia that slows the adoption of even obvious benefits.  Government is important for facilitating the speed necessary and desirable changes — using its own buying power, setting an example, setting regulations, and providing tax incentives or subsidies.  Government can, should, and will be a growing change agent for sustainable practices.

The recent spotlight that global warming has received and the numerous corporate scandals over the last ten years have caused consumers to place a much higher value on corporate reputation and responsibility.  Thus, the trend in corporate America is to capitalize on the “growth of green.”  Corporations want to promote, sell and advertise that they are doing their part to help the environment.  However, when I opened the doors at Dolphin Blue in April 1993, my pitch to some of these corporate enterprises now claiming to be green fell on deaf ears.  I subsequently took my business to government agencies, focusing on the U.S. Postal Service and the Social Security Administration.  These organizations use massive amounts of paper and see firsthand the problems associated with waste. 

The U.S. Postal Service, for example, faces the challenge of recycling thousands of tons of “undeliverable bulk business mail” or UBBM.  Disposing of that much waste paper has a high cost, especially if waste-hauling fees are calculated on those thousands of tons.  Recycling this relatively clean source of fiber for making paper makes sense economically and ecologically.  To gain maximum value for the recyclable UBBM, it makes economic sense as well to purchase paper made from recovered/recycled fibers so that the recoverable UBBM fibers have value.  Waste equals feedstock, just like in nature.

Appearances vs. reality: Dig deeper
“Recycled” doesn’t mean anything.  “Post consumer recycled (PCR)” does.  PCR means  the material has had a life  before and has been successfully recycled becoming something once again.  Let’s look at plastic as an example—made in an injection process.   A portion of the material used to produce a plastic product seeps from the mold.  Manufacturers will reheat it and re-use the recovered material.  That’s just normal business—it would not be wise nor prudent to discard it.  It’s not recovered from the waste stream and therefore contributes little ecological value. 

Choose your vendor wisely.  Some office suppliers who call themselves green also provide conventional products made from virgin material.  Conventional office supplies only add additional resource burden to the sustainability of our planet.  As a society, we must choose products that lessen the sustainability burden.  Making office supplies from post consumer recycled materials conserves energy, minimizes water consumption, reduces toxic discharge and lessens human health risk.  Also, though many of the large discount stores have made strides in terms of operating sustainably in the last few years, these businesses do not operate sustainably, as a general practice.  They still offer many products that have no environmental value and many are made in places with no environmental regulations or recognition of the dignity of workers making the product.

For another example, using soy inks in printed material is a popular way to express one’s commitment to the environment.  Though these inks are far better than what was used 20 years ago in terms of their ecological impact, they’re not always an eco-friendly alternative, since rain forests have been cut down in some instances to grow the actual soy beans.  While researching where the soy oil is sourced might not be practical for everybody, you can express an interest in products manufactured in the United States to your office supply provider.  When discussing sustainability, a key component is sourcing materials that are as close to your locale as possible.  Products sourced locally, rather than globally, may assure more sustainable practices—from production and harvest, to transport of the product.

The problem of toner cartridges:

The continued, persistent drive to make things cheaper dramatically increases the degradation and livability of this wonderful planet, this big garden we call our home.  As an example, we have a huge problem with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs)  of printer toner cartridges who discourage users from utilizing environmentally responsible remanufactured toner cartridges.  Tactics such as dishonoring warranty repair and forfeit of service contract coverage prevent users from doing their part to sustain our planet.

Additionally, the cost to collect and ship single toner cartridge units is prohibitive to successful remanufacturing of a cartridge.  A network of brokers buys empty toner cartridges from large entities using significant quantities of toner cartridges.  However, in terms of the remanufactured market, remanufacturers do not remanufacture a cartridge more than once, due to the necessity of replacing costly components in the cartridge, and the need to remain competitive to the OEM’s pricing strategy.  OEM “take-back,” or producer responsibility laws, as found in Germany, would assist in many areas, not just in facilitating the successful recovery of toner cartridges.

So what happens when a cartridge has been remanufactured and utilized through two cycles (“NEW” cycle and “remanufactured” cycle)?  It becomes landfill-destined waste, mostly.  A cartridge in the landfill will never decompose.  ABS plastic, the main component material used to create toner cartridges, is going to remain in its current state for thousands of years.  Compounding matters, toner–  a mix of polymers, metals and carbon black is certainly not good for the water table.  Most toner cartridges are being collected and shipped to economically-deprived countries like Ghana, Singapore and the Philippines, along with other e-Waste, where the poor and unemployed burn the toner cartridges to expose recoverable metals.  This burning emits great volumes of dioxins and other carcinogens, compromising the health of the unfortunate “miners” of the metals from these irresponsibly and improperly disposed materials.

What do we do with them?  As a start, it is easy, and cost-effective, often saving significant budget dollars, to purchase and use remanufactured toner cartridges, rather than new OEM cartridges.  Do not believe any of the myths associated with remanufactured toner cartridges.  IF you purchase from a quality provider, you will have no worries.  A responsible and professional provider of remanufactured toner cartridges will provide remanufactured toner cartridges that are manufactured under ISO 9001 quality standards, made in the USA, and provide a certified toner cartridge recycling/recovery program that responsibly handles the end-of-life of this product.  Innovative entrepreneurs have found ways to grind the “no longer usable” empties and convert them to road-base material.  Socially and environmentally responsible citizens are waging a substantial effort to keep those cartridges out of the waste stream.  For more on responsible solutions to this mounting challenge, see www.ban.org

What next?
In regards to sustainability in America, we have seen tremendous improvements in the last 20 years; however, demand is low for products made from environmentally responsible materials because consumers and corporations are always looking for the lowest price.  Your local elementary school implementing a recycling program provides journalists with that wonderful “feel good” story.

True– cities, schools and corporations are recycling more.  In spite of wide-spread adoption of recycling programs in corporations, cities and schools, filling bins with paper and plastic disposables does little good because the demand for, and purchase of post-consumer recycled content office supplies is still relatively low. 

As many individuals and businesses begin to realize the importance of sustainable practices, it becomes increasingly more important that we create economic pull-through for the recovered materials collected via recycling programs.  Buying products made of post consumer recycled materials creates this economic pull-through, closing the loop.

Consider this — buying office supplies made from virgin material has unseen costs.  For example, taxpayers subsidize the forest industry to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars each year to build access roads and harvest trees in our national forests.  If chlorine (used to bleach paper) contaminates our water supply, taxpayers pick up the tab to remediate the mess, or we pay the price for chlorine’s effects on humans through our diminished health, associated healthcare costs and ever-increasing medical insurance premiums.   

If we want to create a sustainable planet for generations to come, we must make an effort to buy environmentally-friendly products made from post-consumer materials.  Our population is expected to reach 9 billion in less than 50 years, while our natural resources continue to diminish.  That does not bode well for creating a sustainable planet.  Doing the minimum in regards to sustainability is far from a sufficient action in the 21st century.  We will eventually reach the point where certain consumables are too expensive to produce or we’ll run out of the natural resources required to produce them.  We must constantly raise the bar in terms of their sustainable practices, individual and business—before it’s too late.

Tom Kemper is CEO and founder of Dolphin Blue, an online retailer of environmentally responsible office supplies.  The Green Office Guide is available for free download at www.dolphinblue.com.   Since 1993, Dolphin Blue has promoted the responsible stewardship of Earth’s resources by encouraging the conscientious purchase of everyday business supplies.  All products sold through Dolphin Blue contain, at minimum, 20 percent post-consumer recycled material, most being made of 100 percent post-consumer recycled materials.  Packages and labels are made using only post-consumer recycled materials and are printed using only soy and vegetable-based inks.  Supporting initiatives such as Sustainable Dallas and other sustainability-focused projects and organizations, Dolphin Blue’s efforts educate consumers and businesses with environmentally responsible practices, assisting in creating a sustainable planet for future generations.  Tom is available for speaking opportunities.  To contact Dolphin Blue visit www.dolphinblue.com or call 800.932.7715.

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