– by Ed Weisberg
It’s fascinating to look back at the driving forces behind product evolution. In almost all cases availability of resources and changing needs of our society has driven advances in technology that increases productivity, improves our lives, helps our economy, and minimizes our impact on the environment.
Sometimes it’s economics, sometimes it’s environmental concerns that drive progress, and sometimes it’s both. Today, we focus on evolving technology of bags and packaging. But there are many other instances that we can examine.
The evolution of air cooling and insulation evolution is a classic case. Early air-conditioners used water as a coolant for waste heat transfer. In 1953, my father, who studied the then state of the art air-conditioning engineering in the 1940s, designed his house so that the air conditioner pumped its waste heat transfer water onto a flat roof. The resulting two inches of insulating water was maintained on the roof all summer, providing insulation to keep the house cool. In the winter, snow and up to two inches of ice on the roof kept us warm. At the time, this was a very “sustainable” design. Over the subsequent years, both the recognition of water as a resource, and economics drove the evolution of cooling technology and better insulation. Asbestos became commonly used for insulation, and then, when that was recognized as being environmentally dangerous, fiberglass insulation without asbestos was developed. To minimize water use, recirculation cooling towers were developed. Next, air-conditioners were retrofitted with compressors, using sealed Freon systems rather than water for heat transfer. Freon solved the water resource problem. Then, in the 1980s, it was discovered that Freon, when released, was causing serious damage to our environment and the Ozone layer. Thus, in the “Clean Air Act of 1990”, it was declared that Freon needed to be replaced, mainly driven by environmental concerns. We didn’t revert backwards to water, however. Through technology we developed new and improved refrigerants that made air-conditioners even more efficient. And those flat roof houses? Now they can be covered with solar cells to generate energy from the sun.
Bags and packaging have a similar history. Paper bags were a great invention to assist retailers and consumers transport their groceries and purchases. When first developed, the fact that bag factories used many gallons of water and lots of energy was of little concern, as these resources were plentiful. In the 1960s as we became aware of the environmental and economic cost of paper manufacturing, plastic bags were invented. They had both an environmental and economic advantage, using less energy and less water to manufacture. Over the next 50 years, they became the standard. Today, we recognize that plastic bags have their own inherent problems, as they use oil and gas (scarce resources) and they can be a blight on the environment if littered. Some people have advocated solving this by moving backwards, going back to paper bags. But paper bags use 130% more energy, and produce 1119% more CO2e emissions to manufacture! Technology has again evolved a solution that both addresses the economic and environmental issues. ECOgrade photodegradable bags solve the problems of resource use and the environmental effect of littering and waste. They contain 46% less oil-based resin, use 19% less energy to manufacture than plastic bags (63% less than paper), and produce 17% less CO2e (93% less than paper). If littered, they degrade to a non-toxic residue within 240 days of sunlight exposure. Their cost? About the same as plastic.
Freight packaging is about to undergo a similar evolution. Styrofoam polystyrene packing was a great invention for its day. It is light, can be custom molded, and is less expensive than wood and previous solutions. But since it is custom molded, it generally can’t be reused, and its disposal has become an environmental nightmare. The latest evolution to solve that problem is ECO-R3SP suspension packaging. Not only is it lighter, non-toxic, and reusable, but it also requires less time to pack, less energy to transport, and less space to store. This too is a new solution that advances both economics and ecology.
As the world changes, so do priorities and the scarcity of resources. Fortunately, we know how to use technology to keep advancing. Moving forward beyond plastics and polystyrene, not backwards towards using wood and water, is our future. Certainly, in the 1960s, people saw the benefits, but no one understood the environmental challenges that plastic and Styrofoam would bring us. Today, our future is in new materials such as ECOgrade and ECO-R3SP, that will propel us forward without further risk to our planet.
If you’d like to learn more about these and other new economically viable technologies could help make your business more environmentally responsive, please contact us to learn more.
If you are a retailer and you’d like to sample ECOgrade photodegradable bags in your store, you can request one here.
-Edward Weisberg is Senior Vice President of Marketing and Business Development, GXT Green