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Where Might We Look for Environmental Heroes?

by Robert A. Thomas

In June 1991, I spoke at a meeting focused on strategic planning about recycling issues hosted by the University of New Orleans. Before my talk, I gazed across the 100 or so participants as I stood in the back of the room listening to other speakers. I noticed a young woman in the audience who I did not know. I knew that she was excited about the topic, because she was sitting on the front row! I subconsciously committed the sin of type-casting by wondering who this young environmentalist was and with which organization she was affiliated. I did so because she had braided hair, wire-rimmed glasses, faded jeans, a green tee-shirt, and Birkenstocks. I guessed that she was about 25 years old.

During my talk, I was discussing the issue of making environmental choices based on the best information available. I used the example of then recent studies comparing cradle-to-grave environmental costs (energy and other resource consumption, pollution, etc.) of polyfoam vs. paper products. I described the nature of the studies and explained why science suggests (see sidebar article below) that polyfoam appears to be the better environmental choice. I then asked why the audience might think that McDonalds had, within six months thereafter, changed to paper products. The answer was that McDonalds yielded to pressure from their ill-informed customers who still believe that paper is superior to polyfoam.

Almost instantly, the young woman on the front row raised her hand. I thought that she was going to take issue with my facts about which product was the most environmentally friendly. Instead, she said, “I think it’s horrible that McDonalds did not seize the opportunity to educate their customers about the correct environmental choice instead of giving in to their misconceptions.” I was pleasantly surprised to hear that this young lady embraced such an open and progressive attitude. We lamented the way we as a society often mishandle entrenched information, then I went on with my talk.

During the coffee break, I introduced myself. The young woman was Christine Lepisto, a chemical engineer with American Cyanimide (from August 1990 to July 1993), now Cytec (a company that produces many chemical products). The story could end here, but I was intrigued at meeting such a youthful chemical engineer, as opposed to the stereotypical middle-aged males that I normally expect. I have since found that there are, and have long been, many women in leadership positions in this field.

Lepisto talked of the many challenges and opportunities encountered working in industry by someone wanting to design a better environmental world. Now, one should understand that according to the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 (called SARA; this act regulates the way we handle and dispose of toxic wastes) Toxic Release Inventory (“TRI”) report, American Cyanimide was, at that time, one of the most polluting chemical plants in the United States. So much so that its presence in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, made that parish (=county), which had very few chemical plants, among the most polluting counties in the U.S. I knew that Cyanimide was in the process of developing a massive pollution reduction program. In fact, between 1987 and 1997, Cyanimide invested over $50,000,000 and reduced their release of TRI pollutants almost 90%. This feat, by comparable standards, took them out of the top 10 polluting companies in the U.S.

A few years later, Jim Dutcher, Cytec’s manager of public relations, affirmed that Christine Lepisto had been a integral member of the team that designed and implemented the company’s pollution reduction program. Lepisto, as all their chemical engineers, worked on permitting required for the company’s $250 million expansion (they doubled the size of their plant that produces melamine), personnel training, environmental audits, operation of the Environmental Awareness Committee, and the sulfuric acid regeneration program (in which they removed sulfuric acid previously injected into the earth, removed contaminants, and used it again to produce methyl methacrylate - clear plastic sheeting).

Since my encounter with Lepisto, I have used her as an example of an environmentally-committed person who chose industry as her avenue for improving the environment. When talking about environmental career options, I always discuss environmental groups and organizations, nature centers, government, and the like. Then I describe Lepisto’s approach and suggest that one of the best ways to protect the environment is to work inside industry and use their resources to solve environmental challenges.

I began to wonder if I was exaggerating this story after telling it so many times. I called Jim Dutcher and asked how to contact Lepisto. He said that she had left Cytec to work for a chemical company in Oklahoma. I called and got her on the phone. Imagine the conversation. “Hello, this is Bob Thomas in New Orleans. Some years ago I was speaking at a meeting and I believe you were there dressed in blue jeans, a faded green shirt, Birkenstocks, you had braided hair, and were wearing wire-rimmed glasses.” So far, there was total silence at the other end of the phone. I suddenly realized how I would feel if I were a young woman, my phone rang, and an unknown male voice began to describe, in detail, how I was dressed some years ago. I laughed and told her this must be a weird encounter for her, and she readily agreed.

But then, she recalled the recycling meeting and said that she was wearing the same green tee shirt at that moment. We talked about my observations and I told her how I had used this situation as an example of 1) how one should not type-cast, and 2) how a person armed with the right education and capability, and the will to clean the environment, can have an incredibly positive impact working within industry. What better compliment can an environmentally concerned person receive than that he/she is recognized as an important part of one of the country’s largest pollution abatement project?

Lepisto told me that she had left Cytec to gain experience working on more environmental challenges. She accepted a job with a company that was seeking an environmental staff that would aggressively seek to improve the company’s past record of poor environmental performance.

We discussed the thin line that a person in her shoes must walk. Lepisto is an avid member of several mainline environmental organizations, and she admitted that if she ever works for a company that uses lies and deception in their environmental campaign, she may well end up outside the gate carrying a protest sign in the demonstration line. Meanwhile, she is quite content to be helping to improve Mother Earth from within the heart and soul of America’s industrial establishment.

POLYSTYRENE VS. PAPER

In the mid-1980s, I considered products made from foam polystyrene ("styrofoam" being the most familiar trademarked name) to be something an environmentalist should never use. Everyone knew that polyfoam products produced awful litter and they virtually never biodegraded - it would take 500 years! Polystyrene was the environmental devil. Companies were outlawing it and ceramic coffee mugs were springing up everywhere with logos professing a clean environment. Every good environmentalist knew that when given a choice, the responsible action was to choose paper food containers!

In 1990, the Council for Solid Waste Solutions commissioned a study by Franklin Associates LTD to compare paper food packaging with polystyrene packaging in a "cradle to grave" study; i.e., they were to compare the environmental impact of producing, using, and disposing of, say, a paper cup as compared to doing the same for one made of polystyrene. When looking at paper, they had to consider land use, impact on watershed, impact of planting and nurturing the trees, harvest, transporting, milling, processing into paper (ever been around a paper mill?), turning the paper into a cup, plate, etc., and final destination (landfilling or recycling). Then they did the same for polystyrene, starting with extraction of hydrocarbons.

The finding of this study was that polystyrene is the superior environmental choice! A sudden clamor arose, with many voices saying, "Well, of course your study said that! You are funded by the packaging industry and it is in your self interest to make these findings!"

A year later, a Canadian scientist named Martin B. Hocking replicated the study, corroborated its results, and published his findings in a highly respected refereed journal ("Paper vs. polystyrene: a complex choice. Science 251:504-505. 1991; see also challenging letters to the editor that followed in the June 7, 1991 issue). This was followed by a deafening silence. Basically, activists said, "Okay, let's focus on another issue."

The analyses were astounding. They found that it takes about 33g of wood, 4g of fuel (oil or natural gas), and 1.8g of nonrecycled chemicals to produce a 10.1g paper cup (with no plastic or wax coating). To produce a polystyrene cup, only 1/6 the materials are required and the chemical requirement is only 3% that of a paper cup. One could go on and on (as does the Hocking article), but it is sufficient to say that in every way possible, polystyrene seems to be a superior product to paper for use in disposable products. Paper products costed out at about 2.5 times that of polystyrene.

We used to praise paper because it biodegrades and polystyrene does not. Since we have found that paper does not always biodegrade in landfills, and, when it does, produces methane, carbon dioxide, and many water soluble products (such as cellulose) that create oxygen demand when decomposing, paper products are not as environmentally friendly as we once thought. Indeed, polystyrene is inert and does not degrade into harmful components. What was once a negative is now a positive when compared to the down side of paper decomposition.

After this information became public, some fast food businesses shifted to paper products - even though the evidence suggested that they should stay with polyfoam. Why did they do it? Because the uninformed customers demanded it. What a tragedy. And to add to the environmental mistake, their paper products cannot be recycled anyway, because health regulations demand that the paper be plastic coated!

So, does this mean that the proper environmental decision is to use polystyrene? Absolutely not. The proper environmental solution is to 1) reduce your use of any of these products, 2) use washables when possible, and 3) use polystyrene when forced to make a choice.

Now, has anyone done a cradle-to-grave study comparing polystyrene to washable containers (production, energy cost in washing and drying, detergents, etc.)?


Updated March 8, 2005

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