Belland Plastic: A Study in the Challenge of Sustainability

The FIFA world cup scored with eco-enthusiasts as well as football fans with their Green Goal program. Sure, those with the highest expectations complained that the claim to be carbon neutral was calculated only for the emissions generated in Germany--not against the many air miles tallied by fans from all nations converging for the month-long events. But at least in one area, the Green Goal broke all records: five and a half million drinks were sold in German football (soccer) stadiums in returnable cups. A one euro deposit ensured the return of the cups for washing and reuse, an eco-friendly model for how to serve crowds at public events which is increasingly gaining hold in Germany.

Now the German football stadiums are in the eco-news again: this time under headlines containing words like "eco-sin" and reporting on pending legal actions rather than lauding the introduction of a novel recyclable plastic as the Bundesliga (National Football Association) might have wished and expected. The case demonstrates how hard it is to walk the thin green line in the complex world where innovation struggles to compete with established mass markets and where the "advertising value" of green ideas complicates the cost-profit equations used to evaluate whether a business is viable. The introduction of the Belland(R) plastic in football stadium drinking cups could be a case study for sustainable investors, ethics coaches and life cycle analysts alike.The story starts with the development of a unique plastic material which can be continuously recycled without down-cycling. By simply dissolving used plastic containers in a warm caustic solution and filtering at the molecular level, Belland(R) Vision claims to recover material which can be used to make new plastic containers for the same food-grade applications as the original containers. The technique is claimed to use significantly less energy and to operate at lower costs than traditional plastic recycling--which even in the best cases is not approved for reuse in food contact products. The technology won an award in 2004 from the Bavarian Minister for Health, Safety and Consumer Protection.

The marketing campaign picked up speed. Even TreeHugger, on a tip from a reader, took a look at Belland's Recycled Tableware, and recognized that the company's sustainability seemed to lie in its service rather than its technology. In a great coup, Belland won the contract with the German Football Association, underbidding the reusable container service Cup Concept in a move which Belland openly recognizes will not cover their costs of operation: the effort is justified for its advertising merits.

However, the newest reports question whether Belland is even delivering on the promised service. The Deutschen Umwelthilfe (German Environmental Support organization, with the thought-inspiring acronym DUH) contends that only a percentage of the cups provided to the stadiums are manufactured of the Belland(R) plastic. Tests show some of the cups do not dissolve in warm caustic and further show no hint of the unique material, being composed only of traditional polystyrene. DUH further claims that the Belland cups are not being recycled, but simply accumulated in storage at several secret locations around Germany. Alluding to privately held life cycle studies, DUH suggests that the the Belland system requires the transport of used container thousands of kilometers across Germany to the single recycling center, outweighing any benefits of a lower cost, low energy recycling technique. DUH seeks legal action against Belland for mislabelling of the plastics in the cups they provide under the German laws requiring clear identification of plastics for segregation in waste streams, and for violating German laws on the minimum percentages which must be recycled in order to make a "recyclable" claim.

Belland Vision retorts that the use of polystyrene cups in the German stadiums was intentional, part of a blind study to determine customer acceptance of the new plastic. Belland admits to difficulties with the first industrial installation of their recycling equipment, and charges DUH with failing to accept invitations to visit and see the "proven" pilot technology, which is hosted by the highly respected Frauenhofer Institute. Furthermore, the collection of the cups is necessary to accumulate a sufficient material stream to support a continuous operation once the industrial facility in Rudolstadt (Thuringia) is on-line. Belland Vision hopes to target the packaging industry ultimately. With sufficient market penetration, the lower recycling costs can finally outbalance the higher initial manufacturing cost of the Belland(R) plastic and more recycling installations will support the local handling, reducing the transport penalties in the life cycle analysis.

Perhaps it is the very success of the reusable concept, proven by FIFA, which now haunts the attempt of Belland plastic to enter the market: reviving the old debate on whether recycling--even low energy, no down-cycling processes--can ever compete with reusables. Perhaps a life-cycle analysis cannot be applied in the innovation phase of a new green idea...in which case the "advertising value" of green ideas may be just the fuel needed to charge their entry into the market until the volumes tip the cost-benefit and life-cycle equations to their side. Certainly the people behind Belland made a mistake when they delivered polystyrene cups under the guise of their new green plastic. Belland's success no longer depends on the strength of their invention, but on their ability to win back consumer trust.

Via tipster Christine Gautier and Der Spiegel (German).

Tags: Biodiversity | Conservation | Germany | Tourism

WHAT'S HOT ON FACEBOOK

treehugger slideshows