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FLEXO Magazine : March 2008
PLANTS & PROCESSES Sustainability is a highly popularized and generally over-used buzz or biz-speak term, whose functional meaning has become muddled if not lost for some people. The concept became co- mingled with recycling for some years, but in the recent decade, has become hybrid- ized with other environmental goals and practices, and today has acquired a new, more focused meaning and application. In practice, recyclability and sustainabil- ity are viewed as complementary concepts, and in a general sense were once consid- ered to be more or less the same thing. To some people, sustainability was largely a matter of recycling, i.e., basing a manufac- turing system on what was considered at that time (more or less incorrectly) to be a "renewable" rather than a non-renewable raw material. RECYCLE OR RENEW The original concept of sustainability likely grew out of recyclability, based on the somewhat flawed logic that a manu- facturing system using a "renewable" resource such as recycled paper rather than the "virgin" source of that stream (wood from trees) could sustain itself for extended periods, if not indefinitely. Using this reasoning, a manufacturing system based on recycled materials is not so dan- gerously vulnerable to the limitations of a first-level natural resource. This logic, expressed in the slogans of some recycling-based paper companies and environmentalists over the years (e.g., "We make paper from paper rather than from trees," or "Buy recycled and save a tree"), is, of course, flawed to some degree by the fact that the recycled stream comes originally from trees and also that it does deplete over time, sometimes quite rap- idly, due to attrition and destruction (land- filling, burning, etc.) and also to the fact that fiber streams do "wear out." Recycled fiber can only be recycled so many times before it deteriorates into a mush of fines. But the main flaw of this "logic," of course, is the fact that trees are basically a renewable resource, insofar as sound for- estry and/or plantation management tech- niques are practiced, timberlands are not progressively lost to commercial/real-estate development, and our climate remains suitable to continued growth of trees and other natural fiber sources. These earlier concepts of sustainability based on recy- cling obviously worked much better with materials made from virgin sources that truly are non-renewable, such as plastics manufactured from petroleum. TEAM EFFORT Today the meaning and application of sustainability has evolved beyond just recyclability to include an expanding spec- trum of other environmental causes and movements. Fiber supply chain of custody (source tracking), energy issues, and cli- mate change (e.g., carbon footprinting) are now among many pieces of the new, "green" sustainability puzzle. Sustainability practices ("green washing") also have broadened to include the entire supply chain of most businesses. Sustainability as it is practiced today is more of a "team" effort, rather than just one company using recycled materials. It is a coordinated effort up and down entire business supply chains, with the goal of reducing the overall environmental impact of product manufacturing, marketing, and distribution channels. Its reach extends through all levels of the chain, focused on almost every aspect from production to printing, packaging, delivery, and cus- tomer service functions. From this perspective, sustainability today has the overall, lofty purpose or goal of reducing harm to, or even destruction of, the global environment. This, much more so than just raw material recycling, certainly works to sustain the health and 46 FLEXO MARCH 2008 www.flexography.org Recyclability versus Sustainability Relationship Evolves as the Playing Field Changes By Ken Patrick