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Disposing of the disposables: learning from the experts; some ideas on how the nonwovens and disposables industries are going to address the increased scrutiny their businesses are getting.

Disposing Of The Disposables: Learning From The Experts

"Baby diapers have become a lightning rod for the environmentalists' wrath." Whether deserving of this wrath or not, the nonwovens and disposables industries have cause for concern.

That succinct statement by Laurie Freeman, of Advertising Age, at the "Disposing of Disposables" conference in Washington DC in September perhaps best sums up the uphill battle these businesses face in taking their products into the 1990's. As long as the public perceives baby diapers and other disposables as an environmental problem, it must be treated as such by the suppliers to those industries.

If attendance at the reaction to the INDA-sponsored seminar is any indication, the nonwovens industry is certainly following this path. Close to 200 people from all facets of nonwovens - from machinery manufacturers to roll goods producers, raw material suppliers and converters - spent two days voicing their concerns and hearing what others were saying about the problem of disposing of the disposables.

In addition to the nonwovens participants, experts from environmental groups, government agencies and solid waste associations offered technical information on topics such as landfilling, incineration, groundwater contamination, infectious waste control, recycling and that all-important issue, cost. Various pending legislation - and the implications it could have on the industry, and on disposing of waste in general - was also discussed at the landmark conference.

Legal Rhetoric

An issue of chief concern to the nonwovens industry is what the government is doing regarding biodegradability, recycling and the impact on disposable diapers. Ralph Simmons, a partner at the Washington DC law firm Keller & Heckman, pointed out that "more than 60 bills on the federal level and 300 on the state level were introduced in 1989 on this issue." He predicted more legislative activity in the future.

One of the main reasons disposables are attracting so much attention - besides the push from environmental lobbies - is the low political risk of the industry. Politicians are not going to push for decisions that jeopardize votes, said Mr. Simmons, and this is not much of a danger in the nonwovens industry. "Also, environmental consciousness - guilt - has been raised recently and this public opinion, along with public officials, are what drive the legislation," he added.

Nonwovens have become targets of legislation in several states, although most bills are still pending. Many are familiar with the Nebraska legislation that could potentially ban nonbiodegradable disposable baby diapers by 1993; Mr. Simmons said there are similar bills pending in New York and Oregon. In Massachusetts there is a bill pending to prohibit feminine hygiene products with nonbiodegradable applicators and in Hawaii a bill for controlling infectious medical waste is being promoted.

State degradability laws in Florida and Minnesota are also pending, although, at least for now, packaging is the target. Florida also has a prospective bill taxing products that are not biodegradable or recyclable. Taxes on disposables are also proposed in California, where the tax would directly affect the manufacturer, not the consumer, although it would probably end up raising prices.

Despite this proposed legislation, there is still no set definition of biodegradability. Many suppliers have jumped on the biodegradability bandwagon even though no one has a clear idea on what constitutes such a product. No one seems to know where this answer should come from.

On a local level there are also product bans, although these are much harder to monitor or implement. Suffolk County, NY, the Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN area, Berkeley, CA and Portland, OR are just some of the areas in the country with prohibitive measures regarding recycling, degradability and chloroflourocarbons.

Another point that Mr. Simmons raised involved the corn starch controversy. Agricultural lobbyists are pushing for corn starch additives in plastics to aid biodegradability, while industry and environmentalists are raising cautions, claiming that this is not a proven solution and it may interfere with the recycling process.

Solid waste labeling is also being addressed on Capitol Hill. The Municipal Solid Waste Reduction Act of 1989, introduced April 12 by Missouri representative Richard Gephardt, suggests listing the 50 most toxic municipal solid waste materials, taking into account their presence in the waste stream and the pathway of exposure to the human and environmental constituent, as well as listing the 50 most voluminous municipal solid waste materials. The plan also suggests the establishment of a Presidential Commission on waste reduction labeling and the possibility of establishing a grant program for product redesign.

Changing Myth Into Reality

The difference between what people think and what the truth is remains substantial at times and much of determining a solution to this problem entails changing false ideas. Public perception remained a key concern of the INDA conference.

Dr. Harvey Alter, manager of the resources policy department of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in speaking on the history of solid waste management, addressed some of the myths regarding garbage and disposability. Included in the falsehoods are: There is more and more garbage; packaging is at fault; we need waste reduction; plastics are bad; bans, taxes and deposits are solutions; everything can be recycled; waste-to-energy is bad; and we have no room for landfills.

Once we begin work on dispelling these myths, we will be one step closer to a solution, said Dr. Alter. But, he added, it takes patience. "Right now we are acting with crisis management techniques rather than problem solving tactics. What we have here is a problem, not a crisis," Dr. Alter said.

It does appear that more people, both within the nonwovens industry and in the general public, are becoming aware of this as an on-going problem. "The discussion level has risen substantially," said Dr. Alter.

However, for the problem to be solved the discussion must be accurate, not simply misinformation changing hands.

"We as a culture have to move communication and education to the top of the list," said another speaker, Dr. Jonathan Richmond, chief of safety operations section of the National Institute of Health, who focused on infectious medical waste control.

Ms. Freeman, of Advertisting Age, agreed. "The environmental movement is not a fad," she said. Consumer perceptions are changing, but she stressed that it was going to take time. "Once images are set, it's very hard to change perceptions."

In a related story, the week after the INDA conference Advertising Age printed a survey conducted for them by the Gallup organization. The random survey concluded that consumers are more than willing to give up convenience - and to some extent disposables as well - to buy environmentally responsible products. A full 97% of the 1000 adults surveyed said they would "be willing to give up some convenience, such as the disposability of items, in return for environmentally safer products or packaging." Most of the consumers (88%) in this survey also said they would be willing to pay more for those products.

The survey was published on the heels of national advertisements by mass market retailers K mart and Wal-Mart that outlined plans to work with and encourage manufacturers and suppliers to provide "environmentally compatible products."

The Crash In Kansas

Who should take responsibility for our garbage and the problems associated with it? It appears that everyone is guilty of shifting the responsibility. Bumper stickers with Keep Ohio Clean, Dump Your Trash In Michigan and similar sentiments echo public feelings on the matter. "We want clean air, but we don't want the responsibility," said Dr. Alter, of the Chamber of Commerce. "And then we talk about sending our garbage to the sun." The time for passing the buck is over, he said; the public, the government and the manufacturers must take responsibility for the problems in their own back yards.

"There's always going to be waste," said Dr. Alter. "Our job is to educate lawmakers that it's not going to automatically go away. There are no cheap garbage policies"

Dr. Alter painted a vivid picture of the future of garbage and where it's going to end up. "We keep moving the trash from county to county and state to state," he said. "New Jersey is moving its trash to Pennsylvania, soon Pennsylvania will be moving its trash to Ohio. At the other end of the country, California may be looking to move its trash east. Suddenly, somewhere down the road, there's going to be a big crash in Kansas."

The Market For A Solution

Short of covering Kansas with the nation's garbage, other solutions were also suggested at the two-day seminar. "The challenge is to use recycled material in your products," said Debra Levin, director of Environmental Trade & Transportation for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. "Make products that are easily and economically recyclable." She stressed that the industry also has to concentrate on developing end use markets. "It would be an empty exercise if there's no market for the recycled materials," said Ms. Levin.

S. Hunter Brooks, president of Brooks Associates, a consulting firm, offered another solution - producing usable fibers from municipal solid waste. The recycled fibers are combined with wood fibers, which are then air laid and needlepunched and used primarily in automotive applications.

Where To From Here?

That seems to be the question on everyone's lips. While no revolutionary ideas surfaced or brilliant new technologies or marketing strategies were unleashed, the meeting was a success in that it got people talking....and thinking. More questions were raised and, hopefully, those that attended the seminar will take these questions back to the office or the plant and attempt to search for answers.

Those within the nonwovens industry heard from those outside of it, learning a bit about where "the other side" is coming from. The overall feeling seemed to be one of good will, a sense that everyone really is on the same side in this issue and must work together on a solution, or a series of solutions.

"The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary," said Michael Donnelly, "Sontara" business manager at DuPont, Wilmington, DE, and chairman of the INDA Disposability Committee. During his closing comments, he said that the seminar has proven that the industry is willing to work towards that success.

Using the analogy of a baseball diamond, Mr. Donnelly said that first base is recognizing the problems of disposal techniques and incorrect public perceptions. "It is a multi-faceted but manageable problem," he said.

"Second base," he continued, "involves risks. We must remember, though, that nonwovens have real value; we must position the industry effectively and positively."

Keeping with the theme, he described INDA as the third base coach, helping to lead the industry in combating the problem. "The coach is there to communicate; third base emphasizes the role of communications. We must educate the people about the potential and the possibilities."

There is a definite commitment to the problem, said Mr. Donnelly, but "we need input and effort from the members of the industry. The disposability committee started the initiative, to try to flush out a position on solid waste, but before we can put the winning run on the scoreboard, we need you in the starting lineup."

INDA is continuing its efforts to develop a position statement on the biodegradability issue. Preliminary meetings took place the day after the conference, with subcommittees of the Disposability Committee convening to discuss new ideas that may have surfaced at the meeting and set the groundwork for developing a position paper on the disposability problem.

PHOTO : DuPont's Michael Donnelly, chairman of INDA's disposability committee.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Rodman Publications, Inc.
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Noonan, Ellen
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Date:Nov 1, 1989
Previous Article:Hospital/medical applications: for polyolefin nonwoven products.
Next Article:OSHA ruling to impact nonwovens.

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