We Dont Know What We Dont Know

Oct. 1, 2007
Reading my local newspaper the other day, my finely tuned editors eye spotted a material handling error in the middle of a story about an unfortunate

Reading my local newspaper the other day, my finely tuned editor’s eye spotted a material handling error in the middle of a story about an unfortunate chap who had “been a towmotor operator for 20 years…”. The error, written by a journalist acquaintance, was another example of what civilians don’t know about material handling, transport packaging and a host of other things that impact our daily lives.

Towmotor, that lift truck manufacturer virtually gone from the scene, remains the generic term for lift trucks, at least in the northeastern part of the country. It’s trivia, or lack of knowledge, that probably hurts no one. Neither does it create better understanding of our industry.

On that same day, I had been reading a study from the Archer Daniels Midland Co. (Decatur, Ill.) that says, “72% of the American public does not know that conventional plastic is made from petroleum products— primarily oil.”

I predict there will be some really disappointed people in this country as we head down the Sustainability Highway. Sixty-two percent of the respondents in this study rate their own level of environmental knowledge as fair or poor. Only 5.6% rate it as excellent.

Truth be told, about 10% of U.S. oil consumption (about 2 million barrels per day) goes into making plastic. Why don’t people know this, and why aren’t they (we) doing something to reduce our dependence on non-sustainable resources? And, what does it mean?

As former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield said, “…because as we know, there are known knowns: There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But, there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Despite the fact that petroleum-based plastic is not biodegradable, 40% of the people in this study believe that it will biodegrade underground, in compost heaps, landfills or oceans.

At first blush, it appears I’m picking on plastic. Not so. The upside here is that plastic is durable. You can reuse plastic pallets and totes numerous times. They can be made safe for reuse in environments where safety is a requirement. They withstand abuse and virtually all that Mother Nature can toss at or into them.

My concern here is the long-range outcome of using non-renewable resources such as petroleum.

Metabolix (Cambridge, Mass.) is a company that has developed a brand of fully biodegradable plastics. Jim Barber, president and CEO, says people see plastic in the form of litter. “But, the fact that so many people are unaware that plastic is made from oil and that it will persist in the environment for thousands of years, shows the need for education about the impact of plastic on the environment and the need for education.”

And, then, there’s the part about what people think they know. According to the study, on average, people believe that nearly 40% (38.2%) of plastic is recycled. Fact is, according to the U.S. EPA, about 5.7% of our plastic is recycled in this country.

Where’s the bright spot in all of this? Education matters. The survey points out that, when informed that plastic is made from oil and it never biodegrades, more than half (50.1%) said they would be willing to pay, or would be very likely to pay, from 5% to 10% more for natural, biodegradable plastic. About one quarter (24%) were unlikely to pay extra.

Okay, we can live with that.

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