Practical Sustainability

An Interview with Teresa Clark, Vice President of Product Development and Sustainability, ENSO Plastics

How are standards important to ENSO?

When you have an organization like ASTM building international standards, it helps reduce market fragmentation that would otherwise occur. One thing that ASTM does really well is creating standards and bringing the world market together. When ASTM hasn’t taken the lead, regions put what they want in a standard, which then may be implemented in legislation. That legislation may be driven by organizations with the most money and commercial interests available to push that legislation. What then happens is you start barring certain technologies or products from getting into regions. 

ASTM brings all the voices together to build standards based on data rather than whoever has the largest commercial interest. Especially as a small company, ENSO has really noticed the value of ASTM and ASTM standards. We have the same voice as a Fortune 500 company in the group. In the commercial marketplace, that’s not necessarily the case. With regulations, we don’t have the same influence as a larger organization.

Another important aspect, one that affects us more directly, is that there’s often a need to evaluate product performance in a laboratory because field testing may not be feasible. A lot of what we do is for a landfill environment, and it’s not always possible to put a product in a landfill to evaluate its performance. And there are tests being used that are not standardized, so every laboratory does it differently and you can’t compare results. To have ASTM tests done in the lab and obtain reproducible and repeatable tests through a third-party organization is invaluable. 

For instance, 15 years ago, there was a widespread belief that plastic materials couldn’t biodegrade in a landfill. But there has been a huge change. Now it’s well-known that plastics, when treated appropriately with the right technologies, absolutely do biodegrade in a landfill. I attribute that change to ASTM standards. 

READ MORE: Standards and Biodiesel

Why did you want to start ENSO? 

Before ENSO, I owned a water bottling company, and I wanted something better, environmentally speaking, for its packaging. With that, ENSO was founded with a mission to identify and bring to market a technology or material that was superior environmentally without losing any of the packaging properties that we needed.

I wanted the packaging for my own use, but quickly realized that my passion was solely focused on environmental issues and creating materials that worked in sync with waste management practices.  With that, we decided that ENSO was more fulfilling than making a product — the water — for the marketplace. This has something of a moral mission to it. You feel like you’re doing something good for the world and your community. You’re giving back, and at the same time you have a business. 

Our primary product is an additive-based material that assists with the biodegradation of plastics in a landfill. Degradation would normally be 200 to 1,000 years in a landfill depending on the type of plastic but with ENSO’s additive, the estimated timeframe (based on ASTM test methods) is closer to 12 years. There are some areas, like underground piping,  where our material may not be applicable and could jeopardize its useful life. However, ENSO’s technology is a phenomenal solution for most plastic products. We have a fairly wide market that we support, including all the major plastic commodities and some engineering resins for many applications.

How did you get involved with ASTM International?

Our company got involved initially out of a need: standards being developed that we had an interest in, either in helping to direct new standards or to revise existing ones. I became a member because we needed someone involved who was technically driven and understood more of the idiosyncrasies involved to be sure that proper science was being followed in the standards being implemented.  

I’ve really enjoyed being involved with ASTM. There’s some contention at times, and we all have different viewpoints, so coming together and being able to discuss something is important. I like that if there’s a standard I have an issue with, it’s seldom that a chair would not approve my starting a work item on it. At ASTM, you shouldn’t complain about a standard because you can always take out a work item and try to change it. 

How does the work of your committees support the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals?

I take a slightly different approach than most. Many environmentalists focus on how to reduce the use of products and move away from modern conveniences. As humans, we usually want our technological advances. So it’s not how we get rid of them, it’s how can we have them more efficiently and effectively but with less impact. That’s partially what ENSO does. We’re not plastic haters. We realize plastic is a superior packaging material in many applications. 

Say you have a multi-layer film that you use to package meat. There’s a movement in California and Europe to get rid of packaging that’s not easily recyclable, which for meat effectively means changing to a rigid PET or HDPE container, or a single material film. If you try to do that with your meat packaging, you reduce shelf life significantly. That means you’ll have more meat going to waste, and meat production has a higher environmental impact than the packaging, no matter how you package it. So by trying to make the meat packaging recyclable, you are creating more waste and creating more environmental damage. In situations like this, ENSO takes a more practical and science-based approach; the goal is to have the least environmental burden. This means, first and foremost, using the best packaging available to prevent waste. The next step is understanding where it will be discarded and creating a value. This is where ENSO comes in, retaining the beneficial aspect of plastics, and then converting it to energy through landfill biodegradation at discard. Again, this is where ASTM standards on testing for landfill biodegradation come into play.

There is also a movement to look at the sourcing of plastics, and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals take the position of replacing fossil resources with biobased ones. Generally speaking, plastic is made primarily with fossil materials, though it doesn’t have to be. In fact, there is an ASTM standard for evaluating biobased or fossil-source plastics. 

There are many types of biobased plastics, including some that are exactly the same as fossil plastics, like renewable polyethylene. However, I don’t take the use of fossil sources necessarily as a negative. There are many times that fossil resources show through lifecycle assessment to be environmentally preferential. It really depends on many factors, including how the biobased plastic is produced and what plastic type is being made.

From a broad perspective, the U.N. goals create a noble document. But there’s vagueness. And that’s where some of the standards that we’re working on in ASTM committees will really help narrow the focus and identify specific actions. 

For example, take [sustainable development goal] number 7 on energy, and substantially increasing the amount of renewable energy. Sustainable energy is not mentioned, and renewable energy is not necessarily sustainable energy. So, in the [ASTM International] sustainability committee, we’re looking at how you perform lifecycle analysis and bring more science to the table and answer those types of questions. Most people agree that we need to increase the share of sustainable energy, but what is sustainable and how do you measure that? Until you can measure it, you don’t know if your goal is good or bad. I see ASTM bringing a lot of standards to the table that get down to those details. 

Another example is goal 12. Part of it involves reducing waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling, and reuse. That’s something that sounds great on the surface until you get down to the details. Going back to our conversation on the meat packaging: What type of waste is being focused on, and if you make a change in one area, what impact does it have in other areas? Sustainability is about balancing systems, so decisions and goals can’t be determined in a vacuum, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Another example of looking at the details of waste prevention is the impact of recycled materials. Currently, the sustainability committee is balloting a standard on using lifecycle analysis on recycled materials. Just to say you’re going to reduce waste by increasing recycling isn’t enough. Not all recycling methods are environmentally preferential. We have to have the standards to know if in fact it is going to help us achieve the goal of sustainability. This is where ASTM standards bring value.

How does involvement in ASTM International develop leadership and other skills?

In ASTM there are plenty of opportunities to learn and develop different skills, whether working on communication skills because you have a point you want to get across or refining negotiation tactics because you have a negative that you’re either trying to uphold or have voted not persuasive. Sometimes you even have the opportunity to practice conflict resolution. You can also take advantage of project management opportunities. Taking an active role in developing or revising a standard develops the skills of teamwork, motivating others, managing projects and timelines, as well as honing the ability to work independently and getting things done without a strict deadline or somebody looking over your shoulder. 

Each of these skills is part of leadership, they define a great leader. In addition to learning skills, ASTM is full of opportunities to volunteer in leadership roles that put these skills into practice. You can then take these leadership skills and experience into your professional environment. 

Getting involved is the key to maximum value. A lot of people can be a little intimidated because they may not understand the processes or the protocols. ASTM is really not that complicated, and most members are very open to helping. Staff managers are also a phenomenal resource and aid. Both ASTM members and staff want your involvement and your input, even if it’s contrary to their position and opinions. 

The more you get involved, the more impact that you can have. Don’t be afraid to try it. We all mess up at ASTM every once in a while. Then you shift, modify, and adjust, and it’s ok.

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