Dear Packaging Development Team

So, I was sent a link about an organism that happens to like maple syrup, and one of the by-products of this ‘sweet’ encounter is a family of natural polymers that could help ween us off petro.

Some of you might know that I make maple syrup this time of year, and I’m intrigued about this, that’s for sure!

I did a little research on alcaligenes latus and was surprised and disturbed at the same time. First, I was surprised in the fact that an organism in Nature can do this. They are eating sugar and a by-product is a biodegradable polymer! Then I was disturbed to find out that this particular organism is being cloned by scientists that are skilled at gene sequencing. It reminded me of a Vonnegut book – Ice Nine, in which a special allotrope of ice is created that, when it comes into contact with water, acts as a crystal ‘seed’ and freezes all normal water at ambient temperatures and ruins the planet. They are not going to make an organism that changes the world as we know it, are they?

I think there’s danger in tweaking Nature for a specific short term goal without deeply considering the consequences. What will plastics look like a hundred years from now? Will most containers, packaging, biopolymers, etc. be made by genetically transformed microorganism by-product? I was truly hoping for a more elegant and sustainable solution that already occurs in Nature.

I agreed with Martin about the food for fuel (or packaging) dilemma, but think that there can be a way to use ‘not fit for human consumption’ material to try our hand at weaning ourselves off of old carbon. Some of the ‘B’ grade syrup I make at the end of the season would certainly fit that category! I would take this a step further by observing that it’s not just the food itself we should be concerned with. The acres available for planting are finite, and what is grown on that land portrays the values of that society. Are we a society that will begin to use natural systems agriculture, or stay an ADM/Cargill mono-corn culture?

But why aren’t we looking outside the box for a solution? Why are we trying to make a ‘gallon’ of something to drive our vehicles? Isn’t it really a transportation issue? How do we elevate our thinking about transportation? And more importantly at Seventh Generation, how do we elevate our thinking about packaging?

I’ve been interested in farming lately and the evolution of farm machinery in particular. It’s interesting to see the evolution of drying hay for instance. Dozens of workers used to pitch fork hay onto loose piles to dry for a couple of days. So along came an inventor that welded several pitch fork heads onto a counter rotating wheel. Although this was a great invention and saved hours of labor, it wasn’t really innovative in an out of the box elevation of hay drying techniques. What we have now are harvesting machines that roll the hay flat to make it dry faster and is ejected out the back in fluffy windrows to be collected later in the same day.

I think that what’s needed are less people welding pitchforks together, and more people thinking about the basic system improvements. Maybe it’s not an improvement, but an innovation. Or maybe we are already there and just need an improvement on the innovation.

I’m sure I’m just singing to the choir!

Anyway, back to the syrup…

This year has been average, and the trend is bleak for the maple industry. I’ll keep doing this as long as the sap flows, but in seven generations, we could see the maples become a very small part of the landscape up here. Other species that find our environment harsh now, might thrive well later and compete in the woods with the maple trees. We are in a transition zone, as Janine puts it. Three hundred mile north of us there is a boreal zone up to the artic tree line. Three hundred miles south, and you’ll find a deciduous forest full of hickory, black walnut, etc. and not much in the way of sugar maples. Vermont could become a ‘Virginia’ in a couple of generations.