Meditating on Sustainable Materials Management

Last week about a thousand people attended the Together for a Better Planet – Sustainability Forum in Mexico City. Jeff Wooster, GreenBlue board member, and I were among them. The event presented opportunities for companies to showcase products and services with the potential to reduce environmental burdens of various industrial necessities. There were displays of solar panels, wind turbines, electric delivery vehicles, commercial lighting, packaging, agricultural production, etc. The hope with all of this innovation and effort is to allow for the continuation of business while lowering the associated environmental impact over time.

There were discussions on various topics, and one that Jeff and I participated in involved the sustainability of packaging. The panel discussion remained fairly high level and offered a systems perspective for packaged goods. There was much discussion about the recovery of materials from the waste stream and how the bulk of packaging materials end up in landfill or open dumps in Mexico. The small amount of material sorting that occurs in Mexico follows two paths:

Trash collection service is offered in a relatively small part of this enormous and populous city. A crew of half a dozen or more men pick through materials of interest as the truck moves down the street. Keep in mind that all the stuff is commingled trash – wet organic and food waste, paper and board, plastics, metals, glass and all sorts of other refuse. The men work fast and efficiently, and surprisingly in a jovial manner, yet many of them are working with their bare hands to pick the valuable materials.

The second pathway of material recovery occurs at the landfills or dumps, and is an informal mechanism powered by poverty and necessity. Here pickers, the poorest among the poor, risk injury, sickness, and indignity to earn pennies. They pick valuable materials for recycling in an informal material economy. The work is menial, dirty, unsanitary, unsafe, and often occurs under harsh weather conditions. The recovered materials, the fruits of the pickers long hours of labor, probably yields a substandard market price. This is because the materials were collected from a dump of mixed contaminated source; hence the quality of those materials is generally poor. Many high value materials such a s paper and board are rendered useless for many recycled applications due to being wet and adherence of foreign matter. After all of this effort, these materials are destined for lower performance usage and much of the embedded energy – both base materials and human energy – is lost.

I presented the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s How2Recycle label that provides a clear and consistent means to communicate actions needed for proper disposal of packaging to optimize recovery. In Mexico, where recycling infrastructure is lacking and the ethic of material stewardship is underdeveloped, such communication combined with packaging waste bring sites can engage the citizens to do their part in closing the material loop. Engaging the citizens in material stewardship has long-term benefits for a more sustainable world, and can move society away from a use and throw model to a sustainable materials management (SMM) model where technical materials flow back into the cycle to be reborn as new packaging or product components.

Outlining the story of a company’s stewardship in combination with the How2Recycle recycling label is an opportunity to show the company’s determination to make sustainable material management a priority. It can help reinforce the critical role citizens play in closing the loop on packaging material recovery, and develop the recycling ethic in citizens, particularly children, that can bear long-term fruits in developing a sustainable material economy.

A brief anecdote from the streets of Mexico City:
One man’s trash is another man’s _________.

After the conference I moved from the posh Polanco area where the event was held to a hotel in the historic district. As I made my way from the Isabel la Catolica metro station, I saw a homeless man with natty dreads and messy clothing moving towards me. Such apparitions intrigue me and this one did not disappoint. The man had a faraway look in his eyes and he did not see me, or anyone else, and I might guess the throng scarcely noticed him.

This man’s manner was of great interest to me. He was simultaneously of the immediate environs yet somehow outside it. The man meandered through the flow of humanity while slowly and meditatively popping the tiny bubbles on a sheet of bubble wrap. He wasn’t popping the bubbles for apparent amusement or passing of time. His treatment of the packaging material was akin to one engaged in reciting prayer with the rosary beads or other meditative equivalent. He slipped through the random moving bodies about him seemingly aware only of his mumblings and the systematic row-by-row popping of the bubbles.

I observed the man as he moved peacefully through the pandemonium about him. I might say a bit of his peace transferred to me and helped me navigate the rush hour shoulder-to- shoulder metro traffic.

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