A rank ’em and spank ’em study on packaging

A Dunkin Donuts--with throwaway cups--opens in Beijing
A Dunkin Donuts–with throwaway cups–opens in Beijing

Twenty-five years after McDonald’s, working with the Environmental Defense Fund, agreed to get rid of foam clamshells for its burger–in what is now called the first corporate environmental partnership–the problem of wasteful, polluting, throwaway packaging is, if not worse than ever, no better.

With industry leaders like McDonald’s, Starbucks, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola have invested in more sustainable packaging, others have failed to follow. This is the conclusion of a thorough packaging study released last week by As You Sow and the Natural Resources Defense Council that I covered for the Guardian.

Here’s how my story begins:

Big brands, including Burger King, Dunkin Donuts, KFC, Kraft Foods and MillerCoors, are wasting billions of dollars worth of valuable materials because they sell food and drinks in subpar packaging, according to a comprehensive new report on packaging and recycling by the fast food, beverage, consumer goods and grocery industries.

The 62-page rank-‘em-and-spank-‘em study, Waste and Opportunity 2015, was published Thursday by advocacy nonprofits As You Sow and the Natural Resources Defense Council. They found that few companies have robust sustainable packaging policies or system-wide programs to recycle packages. Indeed, no company was awarded their highest rating of “best practices.”

The environmental groups did identify a number of leaders, albeit flawed ones. In the beverage industry, New Belgium Brewing, Coca-Cola, Nestlé Waters and PepsiCo won praise. Starbucks and McDonald’s are said to be a cut above their competitors in fast food and quick-serve restaurants. As for consumer goods companies and grocery stores, the report offers qualified praise for Walmart, Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever.

Broadly, though, this study paints a discouraging picture. What progress has been made is incremental and spotty, not comprehensive. As often than not, single-use packages of food and drinks are made from virgin materials and then tossed in the trash.

As the report notes, with an overall recycling rate of 34.5% and an estimated packaging recycling rate of 51%, the United States lags behind many other developed countries. Less than 14% of plastic packaging — the fastest-growing form of packaging — is recycled. Recyclable post-consumer packaging with an estimated market value of $11.4bn is wasted annually.

The interesting question is, what have we learned from NGO and government efforts to curb packaging waste and pollution? I’m not quite ready to give up on voluntary corporate efforts–not yet, anyway. Walmart reduced packaging across its global supply chain by 5 percent between 2006 and 2013; that’s a big deal. It’s now pushing suppliers to use more recycled content.

An alternative approach is increased government regulations–deposit bills on bottles and, more recently, plastic bag bans and taxes. (New York City has just banned polystyrene packaging, joining 100 other jurisdictions, reports Mark Bittman.) But these are also halfway measures.

Bolder would be an economy-wide effort to impose Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) rules, which are in place in much of the EU. I don’t know enough about how these work and what they cost to have an informed opinion.

I did buy a set of headphones for my iPhone the other day and had the hardest time getting them out of the ridiculous plastic package. Surely a company that’s as good at design as Apple can do better. But what’s the incentive for them to do so? Saving a few pennies from a $29.95 (!) set of headphones clearly isn’t enough.

For green business, blue skies ahead. For climate policy, who knows?

The renewable energy and clean tech industries let loose a collective sigh of relief today. President Obama’s re-election means they still  have a friend in the White House.

Clean energy was a big winner yesterday,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “American voters not only re-elected a president who made green jobs a cornerstone of his first term and his campaign, they also rejected some of the shrillest champions of Big Oil and Big Coal.”

As Nick Robins, HSBC’s climate research analyst, said today:

Obama’s victory essentially protects key climate policies from repeal, particularly the regulation of carbon dioxide by the EPA, most notably in the power and auto sectors. It also offers the chance of extending the Production Tax Credit for wind energy when it expires at the end of this year.

True enough, but the today’s inefficient, hodge-podge collection of EPA rules, clean-energy subsidies and state mandates — while better than nothing — is no substitute for a rational economy-wide policy to deal with climate change.

Could this election usher in a carbon tax or cap-and-trade regulations to limit global warming pollution? That’s impossible to know,  but there’s no evidence that climate action has climbed to the top of the president’s to-do list.

Obama made a passing reference to climate change in his acceptance speech, saying: “We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

But his all-but-absolute silence about global warming during the campaign means that he has no mandate from voters to act on the issue. Worse, he has made close to zero effort to persuade Americans that the issue matters, a failure that will surely cast a shadow over his legacy if it isn’t rectified during a second term.

To see what’s next for climate and green business after the election, I reached out to some smart people in the business world and in Washington to see what opportunities, if any, they see.

The first, and maybe the best, opening will arise when the president and the lame-duck Congress face the so-called fiscal cliff in the next 60 days. The government will need revenue to avoid painful spending cuts and tax increases, and a tax on carbon emissions could become an option. [click to continue…]

Climate change: It’s time to get ready

This blogpost about climate preparedness is part of the 2012 State of Green Business Report, published by GreenBiz, where I’m a senior writer. You can download a copy of the full report here.

Last December, government officials, corporate executives and activists met in Durban, South Africa, for high-level climate talks. They went home with an agreement … to keep talking. Meanwhile, we’re emitting more carbon dioxide every year, and atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are steadily rising. If CO2 levels were somehow to stabilize now–they won’t–the world will keep warming. The bottom line: Climate change is inevitable. The world needs to learn how to prepare for it.

Increasingly, smart businesses are starting to do just that. Utilities, the oil and gas industry, agricultural companies and insurers are building assumptions about rising temperatures and extreme weather events into their scenario planning. This is what’s being called climate adaptation or climate preparedness.

The payoff from investing in adaptation could be substantial.  In 2011, insured losses in the U.S. from natural catastrophes, including tornadoes, floods and hurricanes, topped $105 billion, breaking the record of $101 billion set in 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina, according to Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurance firm. Some of those losses had nothing to do with climate change, but others did. [click to continue…]

Why I’m (still) an optimist

Happy New Year! And good riddance to 2011, a year during which we made little or no progress on some of the issues that I care most about: climate change, the long-term federal debt, social mobility (aka the American dream), and our dysfunctional Congress. Yet I remain an optimist.

Texas drought 2011

I could write many words about our woes. Instead, I’ll try to be succinct. On the climate issue, global emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel burning jumped by the largest amount on record in 2010, we learned recently, and 2011 surely brought further increases.  Concentrations of CO2 are 39% above where they were at the start of the industrial era and approaching the point when some scientists say it will be nearly impossible to contain global warming, the Guardian reports. Neither the US nor the UN moved closer to regulating CO2. In a discouraging development, Republicans Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich backed away from their once-sensible support of greenhouse gas regulation, in what can only be seen as shameless pandering to the know-nothing wing of the Republican Party. Discouraging, too, was the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which will slow down the growth of carbon-free nuclear power. So will the failure of Solyndra. Meanwhile, the U.S. suffered massive flooding of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, a terrible drought in Texas, record wildfires and at least 2,941 monthly weather records that were broken by extreme events, according to the NRDC.. Coincidence? Uh, no.

Like the atmospheric concentrations of CO2, the federal budget deficit has been growing.That’s no coincidence either. We’re living beyond our means, whether by burning fossil fuels or taxpayer dollars, and sticking future generations with the cleanup bill. Just last week, the White House asked for a $1.2 trillion increase in the federal debt limit, raising it to about $16.4 trillion. According to Marketplace Radio, that amounts to about $52,000 for every American. For a typical  family of four, that’s bigger than the mortgage. [click to continue…]

Maybe the best retail ad ever

Patagonia's home page this weekend

In the midst of the madness of black Friday, and this weekend of American consumerism run amok, come a few wise words from the outdoor retailer Patagonia.

In a full-page ad in the New York Times, the privately held company asks shoppers to think more carefully about what they purchase, and the real cost of all the things we buy.

The headline: Don’t Buy This Jacket

“We ask you to buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else,” the company says.

The rest of the ad is worth reading, and thinking about, so I’ll copy the text here:

It’s Black Friday, the day in the year retail turns from red to black and starts to make real money. But Black Friday, and the culture of consumption it reflects, puts the economy of natural systems that support all life firmly in the red. We’re now using the resources of one-and-a-half planets on our one and only planet.

Because Patagonia wants to be in business for a good long time – and leave a world inhabitable for our kids – we want to do the opposite of every other business today. We ask you to buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else. [click to continue…]

Flying green? Yes, say Alaska and United

Technological progress is impossible to predict, but it’s safe bet that we won’t be flying solar- or wind-powered airplanes anytime soon. So the best hope of flying without emitting large volumes of greenhouse gases lies with biofuels.

This week, there’s good news on bringing biofuels in the air. Beginning Wednesday, Alaska Airlines will fly 75 commercial passenger flights in the U.S. powered in part by biofuels. “This is a historic week for aviation,” declared Alaska Air’s CEO, Bill Ayer, in a press release. Today (Nov. 7), United Airlines make the first U.S. commercial flight using an advanced biofuel made from algae, according to Reuters.

Keith Loveless, vice president of corporate and legal affairs, who oversees sustainability, told me: “These fuels will make a meaningful contribution towards reducing the aviation industry’s environmental impact, and towards reducing fuel volatility, which is an incredible problem for the airline industry.”

But–and you knew there would be a but–biofuels remain way too expensive to replace jet fuels today. That’s why Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, got on the phone with me last week so that the Obama administration will do all it can to advance progress on aviation biofuels. “We are engaged right now in aggressively promoting research to determine the most efficient non-food feed crop that can be used,” he said. [click to continue…]

Do green groups need to get religion?

Peter Lehner

“Americans actually do care about their health. They don’t want their kids have to be poisoned in order for them to get a job. They value their natural heritage.”

“One should not read what’s going on the House of Representatives as an indication of where America wants to be.”

That’s Peter Lehner talking. Peter, a 52-year-old environmental lawyer, is executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of America’s most important environmental groups. The NRDC has a $95 million budget, about 400 employees and about 1.3 million members. They’re big and they represent a lot of people.

And yet the NRDC and its allies are getting nowhere in Washington.

They’re struggling to protect the EPA against unrelenting Republican attacks.

And, as Elizabeth Rosenthal wrote the other day in the Times, climate change–arguably the biggest problem facing mankind–has devolved into a non-issue. The “fading of global warming from the political agenda is a mostly American phenomenon,” she wrote.


That was the question on my mind when I met recently with Peter, who is thoughtful and smart, to talk about the politics of climate. That’s not my  specialty, but I came with an idea: The green groups that try to persuade Americans that environmental protection is good for their jobs and pocketbooks–that is, that green is in our self-interest–have missed opportunities to frame the environment and especially climate as moral issues, in ways that would appeal to our higher and better selves. Put another way, the big NGOs that focus on policy are not as comfortable talking about culture and religion.

So I wondered what the NRDC had learned from the failure of cap-and-trade—the scheme to regulate greenhouse gas emissions that was rejected by Congress—and whether its leaders are rethinking their message.

[click to continue…]

What can we learn from Solyndra’s failure?

Our national conversation has become so politicized that it’s hard to talk about anything without setting off an argument.

Not the weather. And certainly not the failure of Solyndra, the solar company that went bankrupt after getting a $535 million loan from the Obama administration.

Today’s hearing of the  Republican-led House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, focusing in part on Solyndra, was more like an inquisition than a fact-finding exercise.

It was titled “How Obama’s Green Energy Agenda is Killing Jobs.” That was before the testimony began.

No matter that chief inquisitor Darrell Issa, who now denounces clean energy subsidies, once sought a loan guarantee for Aptera, an electric car maker that wanted to set up shop in his district. Dan Burton, the No. 2 Republican on the panel, supported a federal guarantee for Abound Solar, a company in his district.

What hypocrisy.

Democrats are little better, particularly as they blather on about green jobs. Sure,  when Washington subsidizes clean energy, jobs may be created. The thing is, when the government subsidize anything (oil exploration, ethanol, high fructose corn syrup, home ownership), you get more of it, and more jobs. Does this mean that market-distorting subsidies are an efficient way to create jobs? The question answers itself.

[By the way, there was some amusing back-and-forth at the hearing about what constitutes a green job. It turns out that bus drivers, whether driving they are driving hybrid buses  or not, are doing “green jobs” because mass transport is greener than driving,  my friend Matthew Wald reports in The Times.]

So what, if anything, can we learn from Solyndra’s failure? Should the government stop financing clean energy, as some Republicans say? Or preserve today’s subsidies, as the industry would like? [click to continue…]

Your dollar-draining, energy-sucking, carbon-polluting cable TV habit…

So we already knew that watching too much TV dulls the mind and costs a bundle (my cable bill’s $170 a month, including Internet and phone).

Now we know, thanks to a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, that your super-snazzy set-top box and DVR combo that means you will never have to miss another episode of Two Men and a Baby is costing you more money, wasting energy and generating carbon emissions.

With more than 80% of Americans now subscribing to cable, the numbers, taken as a whole, grow pretty big, the NRDC says:

In 2010, the electricity required to operate all U.S. set-top boxes was equal to the annual household electricity consumption of the entire state of Maryland, resulted in 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, and cost households more than $3 billion.

They aren’t as startling on a house-by-house basis–each box, on average, costs about $18.75 a year to operate, depending on local electricity prices.  But much of that money, it turns out, is wasted. About two-thirds of the energy consumed by the set-top is used when no one is watching TV or recording programs.

In a press release, NRDC’s efficiency guru, Noah Horowitz, says:

Set-top boxes are the ultimate home energy vampires, silently sucking significant amounts of energy and money when nobody’s using them. The consumer, who pays the electric bill, deserves technologies without hidden costs.

On his blog, Noah goes on to say:

The biggest finding from our field work was that the only way to really turn these boxes off is to unplug them — not an attractive option. For almost all the boxes we tested, hitting the power button simply dims the clock or display. For a typical DVR, instead of consuming 30 Watts when on, the box used 29 Watts, only the difference of one Watt.

The problem here, as it is with many wasteful practices in the economy, is a split incentive between the owner and the user. (Economists call this a principle-agent problem.) It’s the reason why a landlord doesn’t care how inefficient an air conditioner is if the tenant pays the bill, and why few people dining out on an open-ended expense account pay much attention to the bill. In this case, the  cable operator (Comcast, Time Warner) or phone company (Verizon, AT&T) that buys the set-top box doesn’t pay the electric bill, and so they have no reason to design, build, buy or demand a more efficient box. Markets aren’t working the way they should.

[click to continue…]

Amanda Little: Take me out to the (green) ballgame

Today’s guest column comes from Amanda Little (née Griscom), one of my favorite writers on energy and the environment, and it’s on a very timely topic–the greening of sports. Amanda is the  author of Power Trip: The Story of America’s Love Affair With Energy, and she was a long-time columnist for Grist.org and Salon.com. Amanda has also written for Outside, the New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Wired, New York, InStyle, O Magazine and the Washington Post. She is the recipient of the Jane Bagley Lehman Award for excellence in environmental journalism. Amanda’s now blogging for Forbes.com, where this column originally appeared.

Why is it timely? Because just the other day, the Philadelphia Eagles unveiled plans to install solar panels, wind turbines and a co-generation plant at Lincoln Financial Field, making the stadium quite possibly the “greenest” in the sports. The gridiron goes off the grid, you could say. And if you think sports is a sandbox, with little impact on the “real world,” think again, about, say, Jackie Robinson’s influence on the civil rights movement. If you want to change the minds of people at the grass roots, about climate or energy or recycling, there’s no better place to start than with sports.

As the San Francisco Giants celebrate their 2010 World Series triumph, they’re quietly coveting another, humbler feat—one that’s perhaps no less historic in the long run. The Giants are one of the greenest teams in professional sports, and they’re proving that sustainable practices fatten the bottom line even as they ease the burdens on the planet.

Their stadium, AT&T Park, which accommodates about 45,000 fans, runs its scoreboard on solar power, recycles and composts nearly 50 percent of its waste, sources eco-friendly napkins, containers, utensils, toilet paper and the like, and has enough efficiency features to cut the stadium’s annual energy and water bills in half. That amounts to huge savings, given that stadiums can consume as much energy as small cities.

AT&T Park: Green in more ways than one

The Giants are on the front end of a trend that’s quickly gaining traction in major league baseball and throughout the NFL and NBA. Teams are stepping up recycling and efficiency in their facilities, attracting lucrative corporate sponsorships with green messaging, and raising consciousness among fans. If the trend continues to build in the next two years, we may find that games do more to push environmental progress in the U.S. than politics.

Especially now, given the acrimony in Washington, professional sports may have a broader and more profound influence than any other single entity on American mindsets, slicing through socioeconomic and political divides. “More than 150 million Americans – half our population – regularly follow professional sports,” Allen Hershkowitz, Senior Scientist at Natural Resources Defense Council, told me. Hershkowitz founded the NRDC project greensports.org, a pro-bono consultancy that advises teams and leagues on environmental strategies.

For nearly a century, professional sports have galvanized social movements and ginned up American patriotism. Baseball, for instance, desegregated a decade before the nation did, helping catalyze the civil rights movement. Women’s basketball and softball leagues were organized before women had the right to vote. [click to continue…]