Packaging Sustainability Gaining Momentum in Colombia

Last month, I spoke at the 4th annual Seminario y Exhibición Envase Sostenible, i.e., the Seminar and Exhibition on Sustainable Packaging, held in Bogotá, Colombia. I had the privilege of speaking about two recently released resources developed by the SPC: Guidelines for the Use of Recycled Content in Fiber Based Packaging and Design for Recovery Guidelines for Aluminum, Glass, and Steel. The latter is actually three separate resources GreenBlue and the SPC developed with grant funding provided by the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery to study the end-of-life management options for various packaging materials, formats, and applications.

Although some of my colleagues at GreenBlue spoke at the same event in past years, I really didn’t know what to expect. I’m pleased to share, however, that I was very impressed with the entire event. More than 20 local/regional companies exhibited sustainable packaging, materials, and services. In addition, the speakers presented in the TED conference format with a strong command of their topics and the stage to an audience of at least 150 very engaged attendees who enjoyed simultaneous translation of the presenters, who like myself, had to speak in English. Likewise, we English-speaking presenters enjoyed simultaneous translation of the Spanish presentations.  To say the least, the audio/visual technology rivaled any of the most sophisticated conference/events I’ve attended, including TED.

What’s more, the organizers, B2B Portales, a business-to-business web portal and media company serving the Latin American business community, organized an impressive technical agenda with speakers from across the packaging value chain and life cycle, even as the event seemed to have a very strong focus on end-of-life management. I was joined by fellow Americans Ron Gonen, Founder of RecycleBank and currently Deputy Commissioner of the New York City Department of Sanitation, and Dr. Ramani Narayan, Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University in the Department of Chemical Engineering & Materials. Ron gave two presentations, one highlighting various models for recycling packaging including consumer incentive based programs like RecycleBank and the other on how to build successful partnerships with brand owners to promote the recycling of containers. Likewise, Dr. Narayan spoke twice, first on the use of carbon content as a biological basis for more sustainable packaging and then on understanding international standards for the biodegradation and compostability of bioplastics.

There were two sessions that I found particularly interesting. One featured José Oscar Jiménez, Manager of the Plan of Inclusion for garbage collection in the capital district of Bogotá, who discussed among other things some of the unique challenges the city faces in improving packaging recycling. He discussed the differences between North American/European waste management systems that may contract with large and sophisticated waste management firms and Latin American waste management systems that typically rely on individual or family “waste pickers.” He noted, for example, that implementing an incentive based system like RecycleBank’s would be more complicated in a place like Bogotá because there would need to be a way to provide incentives to the waste pickers and not just consumers. Waste pickers rely almost entirely on collecting recyclable materials to generate revenue and support their families. Ensuring these folks who typically survive at the bottom of the economic pyramid continue to have a livelihood, while creatively improving waste management systems, is a paramount consideration in Latin America.

A session on the collection of life cycle inventory (LCI) data based on LCA guidelines recently released by the United Nations Environment Program was a testament to the sophistication of the attendees and how far packaging sustainability has already progressed in Colombia. Dr. Nydia Suppen Reymaga, Director General of the Center for Life Cycle Assessment and Sustainable Design in Mexico, noted that Colombian companies often struggle to understand environmental impacts when the only available unit process datasets are US or European. She stressed the need for the development of local (country-based) datasets to make product and process assessments more accurate, credible, and meaningful. Interestingly, she pointed to various organizations that are working to develop robust LCI datasets in various part of the world and noted two that she saw as leaders in the US, Walmart and the SPC—a nice and unexpected shout out from the stage.

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