Thursday, August 21, 2008

Sustainability science fair project

Familiar with Wal-Marts scorecard for their vendors? Wal-Mart is trying to reduce their environmental footprint by encouraging their suppliers to reduce their packaging footprint.

A laudable goal.

I was at Wal-Mart last week and certainly noted (just like the shrink wrapped potatoes I mentioned in a prior blog post) the huge amount of packaging on all products.

A trend is towards individual servings and convenience foods. I saw a 'two pack' of eggs. Now realize that I'm not talking about two 1 dozen cartons of eggs packaged together but TWO eggs in a 2 egg egg-carton. Also apparently popular is a half-dozen egg carton.

This brings me to todays blog topic--science fair projects in sustainability.

In my day (my niece tells me I'm older then dirt) we got our science fair project ideas from Popular Mechanics or other mags of that ilk. Now students have a science fair project book that gives them step-by-step instructions on over a hundred science fair projects. Don't get me started about 'paint-by-number' experiments for students.....

So what about a sustainability science fair project? Here's one to which I don't have the outcome because the study needs to be done. I think this would be a great project for a student interested in applied math as well as a young tree-hugger with curiosity about balancing sustainability with market trends (yes a budding scientist with a bent for business).

Let's go back to the eggs example I mentioned. The premise is: packaging/product may not linear. This means that if one plots the weight of the packaging vs weight of the product, that graph might be parabolic and not linear. If that turns out to be the case (and realize I have no idea), there should be a sweet spot where packaging/product is at its minimum and hence represents the most sustainable option. And if it is linear then sustainability is independent of product amount packaging.

Student should buy eggs starting with Costco multi-packs where the foam cartons are held together with shrink-wrap. Then head to Wal-Mart or the grocery store and by foam cartons of 2 doz egss, 18 eggs, 12 eggs, 6 eggs and 2 eggs. To get a true measure it is important that all eggs must be encased in Styrofoam (aka foam) since different packaging has different weights making it unable to correlate. With a postal scale or food scale that can measure light materials (like Styrofoam) the student should weigh the packaging and weigh the product and then plot packaging/product on a graph. If the scale is not sensitive enough, the student may need to consult with their HS chemistry teacher to use the more sensitive scales available in the chemistry lab. Once graphed it is up to the student to interpret the results: Is there a minimum where packaging/product is sustainable based on the consumer trend of not buying in bulk. The student may want to consult with a scientist to ensure that their interpretation makes sense. To do this it is best that the student have their analysis written down and provide it to the scientist/teacher for discussion.

A follow-on would be for the student to identify other foods (or other stuff) that is sold in various sizes (like cereals, rice, etc). In this case the packaging will probably be different depending on size/weight of product. Here it would be interesting to see if there is a break point in packaging/product. This could be discussed in terms of packaging made of paper (natural) or plastic (oil based). Lots of opportunity for students to think.

The key to any science project, if you are an adult teacher or parent, is to not tell the child what the answer should be but to pose questions that allow the child to think about the possibilities. Even if the child concludes 'wrong' it is their conclusion and they need to learn how to defend their conclusion whatever it may be.


Sunday, August 10, 2008

Unsustainable practices--what are people thinking!

It never ceases to amaze me. At the grocery store individual potatoes are wrapped in shrink wrap. Why?

In the pre-prepared frozen food section, 'Healthy Choice' now has a new product called 'Cafe Steamers(TM)'. OK it may be old but this is the first time I've noticed it. I bought one (it was on special). Yes it was very tasty but there was more plastic than there was food! Innovative concept having a microwavable steamer but it is sad to see that this product has a huge unsustainable footprint relying on petroleum-based materials. On top of the heavy plastic steamer, the whole package was wrapped in an outer wrapping of wax-coated paper so nothing could be placed in the recycle bin. Conversely Michelina brand of pre-prepared frozen meals uses the box as the cooking container/serving tray. If you have to eat pre-prepared frozen meals, at least Michelina gets kuddos for providing a reasonable balance of individual serving convenience and sustainable packaging and the food is pretty good to, for a frozen dinner.

I wonder if the Healthy Choice brand is more expensive because of its heavy use of packaging. That would make it both unsustainable and uneconomic.

Certainly buying everything in bulk and making meals from scratch may be the more sustainable and economic practice but convenience seems to be part of our mode of operation now days.

Healthy choice has innovative but not sustainable packaging. Michelina uses both innovation and sustainability.

(Please note I have nothing against/for either of these brands, these are simply observations of packaging practices)

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Welcome to the dirty footprint blog

The objective of this blog is to opine on sustainability issues and practices. Join me as I explore this important environmental area.

What is sustainability? Let us look at a definition:
Free Dictionary definition:
Capable of being continued with minimal long-term effect on the environment.

OK that sounds good but you know, that could be rather draconian to our way of life. Seriously, are we going to give up our lifestyle? I think not.

So my definition of sustainability is: the ability to continue improving our way of life without long term effect on the environment.

What I'd like to do in the days, weeks, months, years ahead is to explore this definition and really see if we can keep improving our lifestyles while minimizing our environmental impact. Are there methods we can apply to achieve our goals? Are there behavior changes that are necessary?

Let's explore this together.