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Opinion: Evolving to eco-friendly – an ambitious, lucrative proposal

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Leaving a local restaurant, my thoughts weren’t about the meal I’d just had. Instead, the only thought going through my head was, “Styrofoam cups? Really?”

Not only is Styrofoam terrible for the environment, but eco-friendly options are readily available. Huhtamäki Oyj, a publicly traded Finnish company specializing in food packaging, pounced on society’s shift away from petrol-based products and created both compostable paper cups as well as the first plant-based disposable drinking cups. The fivefold increase in the trading value of Huhtamäki stocks maps directly onto the timeline of the development and release of these cups. Local companies, such as Jack Henry & Associates Inc. (Nasdaq: JKHY), have demonstrated the economic benefits of eco-friendly practices by posting year-to-year increases in revenue with concomitant decreases in total greenhouse gas emissions, leading to its recognition on Newsweek’s list of Most Responsible Companies for 2022. On both a local and international scale, environmentally conscious business decisions have proven to also be financially sound decisions.

The business world is coming to the realization that eco-friendly practices are beneficial for operations. Like anything in the business realm, those who adapt most quickly with innovative strategies are most likely to be the ones still standing year after year.

A key environmental challenge facing industry is reducing greenhouse gas emissions to address the crisis of climate change. Despite industrial juggernauts pledging to be carbon neutral within the coming decades, it is unclear if carbon neutrality will realistically garner the desired environmental benefits. Carbon neutrality is achieved when the amount of greenhouse gases – generally carbon dioxide, aka CO2 – produced by a company is equal to the amount of those gases that they remove from the atmosphere. Many companies plan to reach carbon neutrality by either planting more trees (bio-sequestering) or capturing the CO2 that is produced when fossil fuels are burned (industrial-sequestering). Therein lies the problems.

While no one should object to planting more trees or stopping CO2 from entering the atmosphere, these solutions do nothing to curb our world’s appetite for fossil fuels and merely kick the can down the road for the next generation. Solutions that de-emphasize the use of fossil fuels not only provide meaningful remedies for Mother Nature but also opportunities for new industries to emerge through innovative thinking.

Fossil fuel reliance is linked to climate change, air pollution (and its associated health issues) and, historically, indirect support for corrupt/oppressive governments. The Ukraine crisis has only emphasized the need for the United States and Europe to expedite the transition to renewable energy sources. Governments are beginning to invest in all aspects of the science of renewable energy. For example, the U.S. Department of Energy has already awarded multimillion-dollar grants to install CO2-capture systems at fertilizer plants. CO2 isn’t the only greenhouse gas posing issues and in the crosshairs: As a greenhouse gas, methane exhibits 25 times the potency of CO2, and in 2021, its atmospheric levels posted a record increase. This increase is directly tied to fossil fuel production and use. In response, the U.K. government has backed half-billion-dollar loans for private-sector companies to develop “green” hydrogen gas to circumvent their reliance on methane.

For the innovator, it is an exciting time. Innovation is driving business, and the push to address climate change is opening previously unavailable economic opportunities. Particularly, the design of renewable-based products that, while only months ago may not have been financially competitive with petrochemical analogues, now are not only financially viable but also environmentally responsible. The Ukrainian conflict has brought about myriad raw-material sourcing issues, many of which may be addressed with green alternatives.

If there currently isn’t a green alternative available, begin asking questions and seeking innovative people. The government’s emphasis on emission reduction will incentivize innovators to apply their talents to your specific needs. Companies big and small are diving headfirst into renewable-based products: Tire behemoths Goodyear and Bridgestone are making new tires from dandelions and recycled tires, respectively; Portland cement producers are substituting limestone for calcium silicate to avoid CO2 release during manufacturing; plant-based indigo is being scaled to replace synthetic indigo for dyes in the textile industry.

From a Styrofoam cup to a rubber tire, and everything in between, greener pastures exist and are ripe for discovery.

John Kiernicki is an assistant professor of chemistry at Drury University. He can be reached at jkiernicki@drury.edu.

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