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Monday, September 14, 2009

Guest Post: Staples

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure: Why global sustainable production and consumption matters.

By Mark Buckley

Mark Buckley is Vice President of Environmental Affairs at Staples, where he directs Staples’ environmental commitment and sustainable business practices to protect and preserve natural resources. He is responsible for driving the company’s environmental leadership in four major areas: the purchase and promotion of recycled content products; chain-wide recycling initiatives; energy conservation programs and renewable power procurement; as well as educational initiatives for customers and associates.

Have you ever seen the PBS series titled, The Antiques Road show? Regular people bring in their junk, heirlooms and hand me downs to a group of antique experts who appraise the value of their items. Some of these items are worth very little and folks are dejected while some others are surprised that the appraised value is beyond their wildest dreams.

As a loyal member of Red Sox nation I can remember all of the old baseball cards that my brothers and I had stashed in a shoe box under our beds. At the time I was happy to trade them…. a Roberto Clemente rookie card for Carl Yasztremski or Al Kaline for George Scott or we used them in the spokes of our bikes to make them sound like they were “motorcycles”. Many of these “wasted” cards that I had deemed “disposable” then are worth hundreds of dollars in today’s sports memorabilia markets.

Similarly, The earth’s resources, the materials and the critical ecosystem services that they provide, can not be viewed as “disposable” and need to be viewed as having immediate and long term value. Many sustainability experts believe that if the emerging economies of just China, India and Brazil were to consume natural resources and energy at the same rate that we do here in the US it would require the planetary output of 5 Earths.

As populations grow, we approach or have reached peak oil, see the collapse of many of the world’s fishery stocks, lack of clean water and unprecedented deforestation …clearly “business as usual” is not an option or a sustainable model for the future!

So how are companies starting to look at designing products with sustainability and hidden value in mind? They are designing these products by looking at the life cycle impacts of raw materials, where are they derived and are they sustainable?

They are considering the direct and indirect manufacturing impacts, toxics, carbon and energy intensity, product recovery, reuse, and end of life disposition. Surprisingly by taking a life cycle approach to product design they are finding new uses for materials that have historically been viewed as “invaluable” and worthless “waste”.

At Staples we have had a long-standing commitment to utilize post consumer recycled waste and FSC (Forest Stewardship Council)certified fiber in the production of our office supplies and in particular paper, but we are increasingly looking at other materials that diversify our fiber supply and reduce the pressures on natural forests.

To that end we have developed a line of high quality paper products that are produced from sugar cane waste or “bagasse”. Sugar cane is grown north and south of the equator all around the world for the production of sugar, alcohol and biofuel. The sugar cane is traditionally harvested and then the juice is extracted at the mills. The residual cane fiber “waste” that remains is either burned for fuel or worse burned openly in the fields creating localized air pollution which contributes to respiratory disease in these farming communities. Utilizing sugar cane waste for paper production has several social and environmental benefits.

The agricultural waste fiber takes pressure off of natural forests and land use, the farmers derive additional revenue from the sale of a “waste stream”, we eliminate open burning and mitigate air pollution for a village half a world away and the heat and energy required to manufacture the paper comes from the “bagasse” waste making it’s production carbon neutral. This is just one example of many where non traditional “waste” materials can be utilized to create high quality products with direct and indirect social and environmental benefits.

We can no longer let post consumer and post industrial “wastes” go into landfills and incinerators. Interestingly, many experts believe that someday we will actually “mine” these very same landfills for metals and other valuable resources. Today we must find innovative ways to create scalable markets to effectively recover these materials that reduce life cycle impacts and take significant pressures off of our dwindling natural resources.

A life-cycle approach will help transform our attitudes toward waste management and help us think more about “resource management”. Companies that are focusing on life cycle for all of the internal and external costs of production are finding cost and efficiency savings and new innovative market opportunities for these products where product quality, efficacy and price does not have to be a trade off. They are also beginning to recognize that such an approach helps mitigate supply chain risks and avoid cumbersome government regulation today and in the future. In the end sustainable production and consumption is just good, smart and responsible business……..the way businesses should operate today and for future generations!

“Now where is that shoe box with my old baseball cards?”


  1. Mark,
    Great post. I learnt that Sugar Cane waste can be used to make paper. I am sure there are many such industrial and residential wastes which can have alternative production value. I am aware of another startup that is working on reusing coal dust and fly ash to make coal. The impact of this business on the environment will be huge.

    We all need to educate the world that looking for these innovative ways is important as we have to reduce our climate impact NOW. We need to motivate people to take charge, innovate and change the world one step at a time.

    Thanks for Sharing.


  2. Mark,

    Well done! As an investor, I am glad to see the strong CSR story at Staples continue. And as a Massachusetts native, I especially liked the reference to Red Sox Nation.