June 25, 2011

LOHAS: What’s New in Sustainable Materials?

Elephant Journal is proud to be the official new media partner of the Lohas Forum

Does it trouble you that styrofoam cups are still being used in the majority of PTA meetings around the country or church group gatherings?  How about these insidious cups ubiquitously showing up in the ritual coffee breaks of all the meetings you attend? Think of the thousands of construction site coffee breaks, when the whistle blows.  If you discover the only option you have at the office water cooler is a styrofoam cup, maybe you’ll decide to “blow the whistle” and green your company.

Challenge to Change

The stealth poisons lurking in those styrofoam cups cause havoc once inside the body. According to a 1992 U.S.D.H.H.S. study conducted by Jakoby, Claassen, & Sullivan, there is no internal biological mechanisms for metabolizing or eliminating the carcinogenic styrene from the human body.

Steve Davies of Natureworks, a company devoted to bringing a new family of performance “plastics” into the marketplace, gave a comprehensive overview of the challenges and opportunities we have to replace petroleum based packaging. Healthy alternatives to the use of conventional plastic are created from plant sugars, not byproducts from fossil fuels or oil. The value and importance of these new materials is simple to understand, they are compostable and need not end up in landfills where toxins fester for decades.

It’s not easy to transform conventional practices and change our standard way of doing things. If you think it’s easy, try changing your own habits.

Davies, Director of Marketing and Public Affairs for Nature Works LLC walked the audience through the trials and tribulations of Frito Lays efforts to change their packaging. At the launch of Frito Lay’s 100% compostable Sun Chips bag, their initial promotion garnered 115,000,000 million impressions in the main stream media in the first 2 days. That’s practically a Guinness Book of World Records in advertising parlance. The worlds first compostable chip bag was met with tremendous expectations and plenty of media hoopla. Then they came up against a fickle marketplace reaction. Consumers and critics decided the bags were too noisy. Frito Lay had to go through several attempts to “get it right” and deliver an eco friendly bag that consumers would embrace.

Many companies would have given up and been intimidated by so much push back. To Frito Lay’s credit, they persevered and working with Davies’ company they redesigned their bag without compromising it’s eco-friendly qualities. The solution was a sound deadening layer of rubber glue that mitigated the noise factor from 95 decibels to 70. ( I know, some of you want to know about the glue ) I just didn’t have the opportunity to ask that question.  My speculation is that it’s not toxic, based upon the rigorous scrutiny this product launch has received.

From Diapers to iTunes cards or high fashion fabrics to dietary supplement bottles, sustainable materials are showing up everywhere.  Stoneyfield, Walmart, Target, Coca-Cola, Frito Lay, Electolux and Danone are among several other major brand name companies beginning to use these substitute materials in their packaging . Even credit cards are moving away from conventional plastic.  Ingeo (Natureworks’ name for it’s biopolymer – plant based materials) is the substitute of choice. Here’s another example of an environmentally conscious conversion: all REI gift and loyalty cards, previously made with PVC, are now Ingeo based. Compared to PVC, Ingeo manufacturing emits 32 percent less CO2 and consumes 29 percent less energy.

In October of 2010 Stonyfield Farm, the global organic yogurt leader, replaced all of its petroleum-based multipack yogurt cups with plant based Ingeo cups. The new cups are a first in the dairy industry and reduced Stonyfield’s greenhouse gas emissions by 48 percent.

FACTOID: even cold cups made of paper are plastic lined with polyethylene – not something you want to ingest. At the urging of college students and other consumers, who happen to consume a fair amount of Coca Cola, the company is moving to an Ingeo lining as a replacement for all their food service cups supplied to facilities with the capability for composting. The truth is, with enough consumer demand and courageous corporate leadership, we have enormous opportunities to reduce our use of non-renewable resources by using plant based renewable materials.

The proliferation of Paper Cups

In addition to concerns about the trash factor… disposal of conventional plastics… there are growing concerns about Phthalates leaching into our water, food and ultimately being absorbed by our bodies, disrupting our endocrine system. Phthalates are the chemicals used to make plastic soft and flexible. Here is what the American Chemical Council says about Phthalates on their official web site:

With more than 50 years of research, phthalates are among the most thoroughly studied family of compounds in the world and have been reviewed by multiple regulatory bodies in the United States. The American Chemistry Council is proud that the products of chemistry are among the most thoroughly evaluated and regulated in commerce and continues to support ongoing research into the health and safety of phthalates.

Sherry Rogers, M.D. begs to differ. In her provocative book Detoxify or Die, published in 2002 she states: “Phthalates off gassing from plastic…damage hormone receptors, leading to loss of sex drive and energy. They damage brain chemistry leading to learning disability and hyperactivity, or they accumulate in organs and trigger cancers of the prostate, breast, lung and thyroid.” (page 2). In EPA studies Phthalates have been found in the human body in concentrations 1000 times higher than any other harmful substances including heavy metals and pesticides.

The Chemical Council goes on to say that “Science Protects Our Health”. Does this remind you of the Du Pont ads from a decade ago “Better Living Through Chemistry?”

They go on to say:

“A responsible and rational regulatory framework in government is based on science and evidence, not on public or political opinion.”

Right, do you suppose that is why the European Union banned the use of Phthalates six years ago? Makes one wonder who’s science reveals the truth about toxins in our environment.

At a recent public meeting at the Aspen Institute, Maggie Fox (the wife of Senator Mark Udall and former senior attorney for the Sierra Club) stated that virtually all of the regulatory agencies in the U.S. have been thoroughly manipulated by corporate interests to maximize profits for the past 3 decades at a minimum. She suggested that citizens need to be the watch dogs.

Keep an eye out for this logo and maybe you’ll be able to be a catalyst for change. The next time you encounter plastic products that you’d rather eliminate from our world, be proactive and write a letter or call the culprit company and recommend they convert their use of harmful chemicals. Invite them to join the movement for a healthier world.

The plant based "plastic" alternative to oil

The Ingeo “Plastic Pellets” created  by Natureworks LLC are plant based polymers. Without having to go back to school or chemistry class, these long chain molecules all come from plant sugars. They happen to perform like plastic without the negative impact on the environment that petroleum based plastic products embody.

Annually, one Billion lbs. of corn starch is used by the paper industry.  By comparison, less than .1% of the entire U.S. industrial corn crop is used by Ingeo to create 140,000 tons, or 300,000,000 lbs., of Ingeo on an annual basis.

So here is a hint, the path to a healthy future in a consumer based economy is this: All products have to work well and carry impeccable environmental credentials. Private corporations are learning to live by public permission.  No green washing, no kidding.

Onward with courage

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