The ULS Report TM

Helping people Use Less Stuff by conserving
resources and reducing waste.


March-April 1997
Volume 4, Number 2


Index


Using Less Stuff
is Big Business

Since we started The ULS Report in 1994, we have been promoting the concept of "less waste in the first place." Our objective has been to help individuals and organizations understand the profound value of reducing waste as early in the production process as possible, and to show how each of us doing a little adds up to a lot of resources conserved and pollution prevented.

But to have a truly sustainable society, we need more than just people to be involved. We need business to jump on the bandwagon, too. And not just any businesses, but BIG businesses -- the ones that produce the vast majority of products and services that mainstream Americans buy every day.

As it's almost Earth Day (April 22), we will once again be seeing companies like Aveda, Ben & Jerry's, Tom's of Maine and Patagonia highlighted as forward thinking firms-- ones which recognize that environmental responsibility and business success are not only compatible, but actually go hand-in-hand. But what about more traditional corporations, including the huge global monoliths that generally "put profits first?"

By their sheer size and huge market shares, these are the companies where a little effort can have a huge impact. With this in mind, a committee consisting of myself, technical editor Dr. William Rathje of The Garbage Project and Jan Canterbury, Senior Scientist in the EPA's Office of Solid Waste, set out to look at some of the "big guys" and some as-yet-unheralded smaller firms. The result of our investigation is the 1997 ULS Honor Roll -- an effort to highlight those companies that are, for whatever reason, producing products or programs in keeping with source reduction, or using less stuff.

There's an interesting point to be made about why many of these companies developed these items and ideas -- They did it for the money! Reducing packaging and product weight reduces the costs of producing and shipping products, just as certainly as it saves resources. The companies hope to gain a competitive advantage by offering consumers lower priced products, increasing their profit margins, or both. It just goes to show that economic efficiency and environmental efficiency can go hand-in-hand. And that's what the concept of sustainability is really all about.


The 1997 ULS Honor Roll
(In No Particular Order)

In the spirit of using less stuff, those mentioned above will receive nothing more than our gratitude and a hearty "well done and keep up the good work!"



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EPA's WasteWi$e Program
Highlights Others' Efforts

WasteWi$e is an EPA effort that encourages businesses to develop comprehensive waste reduction programs. WasteWi$e recently announced its 1996 Program Champions. We would like to highlight some of the companies that have made dramatic improvements in waste reduction, thus saving natural resources, as well as financial ones.

For more information, call 1-800-EPA-WISE, or drop by the WasteWi$e Web Site.



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A Bum Wrap?

By Dr. William L. Rathje

As Earth Day rolls around, the topic often turns to our garbage woes, and I regularly hear people tell each other that THE PROBLEM is packaging -- especially plastic packaging. In my world, which usually seems complex and often contradicts my most cherished beliefs, idealism is refreshing. Nevertheless, for the benefit of those who want a touch of reality and some good news about source reduction, I will summarize the results of a recent analysis of the refuse collected by the Garbage Project from studies of 15 U.S. and Canadian landfills and one city's curbside pickup program.

Surprise # 1 -- Construction/demolition debris, or C/D for short, occupies more space in landfills than all of the different types of packaging put together. All packaging, included corrugated and other commercial types, is less than 20 percent of landfill contents, while C/D is more than 20 percent.

Surprise #2 -- Excluding C/D and cover soil, plastic packaging is about 4.5 percent of the stuff found in MSW, or municipal solid waste, landfills. From the 1970s until today, that figure has not increased.

Surprise #3 -- Plastic packaging has become about 50% more efficient in the last 20 years. In the 1970s, an ounce of plastic could hold ("deliver") 23 ounces of product -- milk, aspirin, soda, etc. Today, an ounce delivers 34 ounces of product, thanks to dramatic improvements in strength. Further, while plastic accounts for 22 percent of all packaging, it delivers 65 percent of all products, meaning that it is VERY efficient.

Surprise #4 -- Plastic packages are generally used to contain larger amounts of product, not smaller ones.
This conflicted with my perception of lots of little packages cluttering up landfills. In reality, almost half of all large packages that hold solids are plastic, as are more than two-thirds of large packages that contain fluids (one quart or more). What surprised me most was learning that the average household brought home more large plastic packages than small ones!

Add all of this together and I come to one major conclusion: Plastic packaging is the workhorse of source reduction. If all plastic packaging were to be replaced by containers made of glass, paper, steel, aluminum or some combination thereof, the solid waste implications would be difficult to predict with precision, but it can be said with virtual certainty that the packaging discarded by U.S. households would more than double. This is true even when you factor in today's relatively high level of recycling (25%)!

Here's a broader context: Plastics, especially thin films, are excellent source reducers. But this doesn't mean that plastics producers can take their eye off the recycling ball any more than manufacturers of heavily recycled materials, such as aluminum, can take theirs off the reduction ball. We need to use the specific benefits of different materials to their fullest, creating the balance of reduction and recycling that is most likely to minimize the rate at which resources are used and landfills are used up.


Dr. William L. Rathje is Professor of Archaeology at The University of Arizona and Director of The Garbage Project. The Project studies contemporary cultures by digging up their landfills and examining the resulting debris.

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Why Do We Recycle?

That provocative question is the title of a new book written by Frank Ackerman, research professor at the Global Development and Environment Institute of Tufts University (Island Press). The book discusses recycling, with an honest style and a set of facts that will make both proponents and opponents stop and think.

Dr. Ackerman acknowledges the value of source reduction when he writes, "In almost every case, the lightest package, per unit of contents, is the one with the lowest impact on the environment...Rather than legislating the choice of material or the required level of recyclability,
it makes sense to adopt policies that encourage use of the lightest possible packaging for each product."

An answer to the title's question is suggested by asking readers to look beyond the economic marketplace: to a theoretical place where prices cannot be put on the values that recycling encourages, especially moderation. The problem we see is that all of our societal emphasis to date on recycling has not slowed consumption much, if at all. Thus, a more practical approach must include emphasis on the first two Rs -- reducing and reusing. After all, that's why the EPA put them in that order!


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Reduction RoundupTM

Got a Light? The Department of Energy reports that only about 9% of U.S. households use energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs. If only half of the 523 million incandescent light bulbs used in American homes were converted to fluorescent, 15.9 billion kilowatt/hours of electricity would be conserved each year. According to Con Edison, that's enough power to light the homes of their 2.5 million residential customers for a year and a half!

CyberSmog. Maintaining your car is one of the best ways to reduce air pollution and thus the potential for smog. Californians looking for tips on what to do and how to do it can turn to the state's new Smog Check Internet site for answers. It's at www.smogcheck.org.

Economists Join Ecologists. Over 2,000 economists issued a statement stating that the U.S. can, and should, reduce its industrial emissions to slow global climate change. Further, they indicated that with proper policies, doing so would not harm the economy. The paper was drafted by Nobel Prize winners Kenneth Arrow and Robert Solow.

Well, well, well. Old mineral water bottles are being turned into sweaters, thanks to a new fiber called Rhovyl Eco. Plastic from the bottles is washed, ground, melted and drawn into thread. It's then spun into a yarn blend containing 70% vinyl and 30% wool fiber. For more info, contact Nora Jacobs, 216-781-2400.


ULS Day is Nov. 20th

If you want to find out more, call Bob Lilienfeld at 313-668-1690 or send e-mail to bob@cygnus-group.com. We are working out the details and should have this year's program firmed up by the time you read this. Attention businesses: We need you, too!


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The ULS Report is a bi-monthly publication of Partners for Environmental Progress. Send e-mail to uls@cygnus-group.com.

Snail mail address: P.O. Box 130116, Ann Arbor, MI 48113
Phone: 313-668-1690
Fax: 313-930-0506

Editor: Robert Lilienfeld
Technical Advisor: Dr. William Rathje


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Copyright 1997 Partners for Environmental Progress


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