BY DENNIS SALAZAR
A good friend of mine, who is very much in tune with the national sustainability scene, recently, shared his belief that many companies and organizations who helped lead us into sustainability were now sitting back and resting on their laurels. Almost as if they had “been there and done that” or as one of our most entertaining politicians in recent memory, put it – “mission accomplished”.
We have the distinct privilege of working with some of the most progressive and committed companies who see “going green” as a never ending process so initially I did not share my friend’s opinion. However, as I took a closer look at some of the companies and organizations who received the great PR and headlines just a year or two ago, many are definitely green coasting. The one that stands out in an increasingly crowded field is our own United States Postal Service.
FSC and C2C are NOT Certificates of Completion
Two years ago, at the end of 2007 USPS was getting a lot of accolades for their FSC and Cradle to Cradle certifications and quite frankly, they deserved the applause and appreciation of the green community. Both certifications are difficult to obtain, and undoubtedly USPS spent considerable time and resources securing two of the foremost certifications available, at that time.
FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification on a product (in this case USPS corrugated boxes) confirms that the origin can be traced back through proper “chain of custody” practices, all the way to the forest that grew the tree, that the box was made from. C2C (Cradle to Cradle) certification applies to other USPS packaging products and is indeed a prestigious accomplishment. It certifies that a product is made using minimal energy, leaves a minimal carbon footprint, etc. Simply put, it tracks what a product was, how it is made and where/how it will wind up. I think we can agree, that is all pretty important stuff.
SISG’s Rider Thompson wrote and posted an excellent article back on December 13, 2007 detailing what these certifications mean and the process involved in earning them so I will not attempt to rewrite what has already been well documented. And I certainly don’t want to minimize these sustainability accomplishments; however, I do need to point out what these two certifications are not. They are NOT certifying the way the products are specified or used by the USPS or their customers.
These certifications are also not recent. Memo from Earth to the USPS: what have you done for me lately?
“We Deliver” Waste
I think it is wonderful that a person who occasionally ships a package can go to the local post office or hop on line, and order the packaging materials they need, for free. I don’t even have a problem with the professional E-Bay merchants and other large volume mailers using this no cost service to ship out dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of packages per week.
Even though I sell packaging materials, the secondary packaging market is large enough that I don’t see this USPS customer perk as a major threat to my livelihood. My problems with this program are green focused and are twofold:
- Since the boxes are free, I often see people “loading up” and the USPS web site encourages this by listing a maximum of 100 boxes on most items. Since no one monitors this usage, like any other government managed program, it has to be riddled with waste and I have to wonder how many boxes wind up never being used for their intended purpose. I can’t wait to see what the federal government is able to do for us on health insurance.
- This practice along with their “flat rate” service pricing discourages “right sizing” a shipping container to the product being shipped as I and any other packaging professional would recommend. How much air and void fill material is filling trucks and being shipped in their over sized containers? We may never know but let’s agree it is not an environmentally responsible way to ship anything.
Board Content versus Box Content
If what product goes into a USPS box is a potential problem, certainly so is what goes into the board that is used to make the box. Thanks to the USPS white exterior on their boxes, what is going into the USPS board is at least 30% virgin content, hence the FSC certification. Anyone who knows me knows I am a major proponent of recycling packaging waste and using that waste to make new packaging materials. I also believe that the largest shippers in the world such as e-commerce companies and catalog houses as well as the USPS have an obligation to help create a market for recycled content packaging by using it, not just creating the packaging waste.
USPS and the Two R’s of Sustainability
Most green minded companies live by three R’s which are Recycling, Reducing and Reusing. With their policies and programs it is obvious that the USPS is not doing as a good of a job as possible of reducing usage or recycled content but they are darn adamant about not supporting the third “R” we call reusing.
USPS boxes are well built and sturdy and can often times be used again but USPS policy prohibits the re-use of any of their shipping boxes. Why? I have no idea but you can ask Gary Adler of Castle Rock, Colorado who last year found himself in trouble with USPS for reusing a Priority Mail box. It is against USPS rules to even reuse containers that are turned inside out or used for internal packaging purposes. Scan the internet and you will find many incidents where customers unintentionally violated USPS and federal regulations by doing what we should all be doing, and that is reusing every box and container we possibly can.
You would think that a service provider expected to lose over three billion dollars in 2009 would be interested in minimizing wasted packaging, if not for green’s sake, for economic good sense but let’s keep logic out of the process. After all, we live in an era of government bail outs and the second largest employer in the country (second only to Wal-Mart) will undoubtedly soon have their hand out to get their fair share of our dwindling tax dollars. And of course, there is always another postage rate hike around the corner to relieve their financial woes, at least temporarily.The only thing more disappointing is all of those consumers who really think those USPS boxes are free.
Dennis Salazar is the president of Salazar Packaging, Inc., a certified MBE (Minority Business Enterprise) company specializing in packaging products, equipment and solutions. With over thirty years in the packaging industry, he is known for his tongue in cheek sense of humor as well as his sustainable packaging passion and expertise.
To contact Dennis, please visit his web site: www.salazarpackaging.com