Oreo Cookies and Infrastructure Sustainability

Dec/Jan 2016/17 VOL 14 No. 6

Nicholas R. Hild, PhD.

Several seemingly non-related events have been in the news lately that should pique the interest of environmental professionals. In particular, these "events" provide teaching lessons for the classroom as well as for professionals whose jobs entail providing their companies with real world solutions that are sustainable.

The first "event" is actually not an event at all but rather a recognition that our infrastructure---highway systems, bridges, electrical transmission 'systems' and our in-ground water and wastewater piping (and allied treatment facilities), are falling apart.  Unfortunately, every attempt by the Obama administration to at least begin to address funding a systematic plan to rebuild the public infrastructure has been thwarted by Congress. One of the 'events' calling attention to the nation's infrastructure dilemma was the failure of the Flint, Michigan lead piping potable water delivery system in late 2015. Politicians at the federal, state and city level claimed the problem was not caused by lead piping that has been in the ground for over half a century but, rather, by a decision made by Flint city managers to switch sources of water, allowing more corrosive water to be introduced into the lead piping distribution system thus, causing it to 'leach' lead into the city's drinking water.

The mere fact that the lead found in Flint's drinking water came from the piping should have raised red flags in most municipalities across the country because a large percentage of municipal water delivery systems in this country built before 1960 utilized lead pipe in their distribution systems. Yet, today, more than a year after the Flint 'event' no efforts to address this potential 'infrastructure' problem have been implemented.      

Does anyone else see a teachable moment here?               

As noted above, our nation's 'infrastructure' (private and public) includes many other 'systems' besides water and wastewater delivery. The general public is aware that our bridges (vehicles and railways), deteriorating interstate and intrastate highways, underground piping systems (oil, gas, water; etc.), government-owned buildings and neighborhoods built in the '30's with Roosevelt's WPA program are deteriorating and in need of repair. But most people don't realize what a problem we have in the private sector, especially in aging manufacturing facilities built with antiquated electrical, structural, and underground piping systems that are a threat to worker safety and the environment alike. 

A second "event" that recently made headlines would seem not at all related to our dilapidating 'infrastructure' but let me explain. During the 2016 vitriol of the political debates that led up to a November election, our President-elect now says he wants to prioritize rebuilding our (public) infrastructure---bridges, electrical grid, highways), although no plan has been forthcoming for how that will be funded.

At the same time, he has indicated he wants to bring jobs back from countries where companies moved production operations to take advantage of cheap labor. What hasn't been a part of the dialog is the fact that, at least part of the reason companies do that may be related to cost/benefit analysis of addressing their old US facilities' infrastructure problems. Many are operating in industrial sites that are 50 to a hundred years old. And, worse, they are literally falling apart. An example is the Chicago-based Nabisco Oreo Cookie plant which had decided to lay off 600 workers and ship the Oreo cookie factory to Mexico! When that became "news" in the run-up to the elections, every politician wanted a piece of it resulting in the President-elect promising that he will not let that happen.

Behind the headlines, what the politicians don't tell you is, Nabisco will still employ half as many people at the plant in Chicago where the 600 workers will lose their jobs, several other Nabisco plants in three other US cities will continue to produce Oreo cookies as well as other products.  And even if the company had decided to upgrade the Chicago facility (instead of moving to Mexico), they would have automated that plant and laid off at least 300 workers anyway.

But here is the environmental connection that is not well publicized: the Nabisco facilities in Chicago are very old, and possibly requiring millions of dollars of infrastructure work (such as asbestos removal, underground piping replacement, and installation of automated production equipment, just to make the facilities safe for workers and the community alike. Thus, the decision to move jobs to Mexico had other factors driving it, which were much more complicated than just deciding to move where cheap labor offered the company a better profit potential. Significant and costly infrastructure upgrades in existing facilities, especially in very old and deteriorating industrial sites, are equally as important in any company's cost/benefit analysis.

But, here is the teachable moment: companies across the country have been making these cost-benefit decisions for the past 50+ years. And, they continue (as in this Oreo case) to be contemplated even as our economy seems to be recovering. So, if you are an EH&S professional working at  a company that faces this critical cost/benefit decision in the near future, should it not be your primary job (and within your sustainability wheelhouse), to provide your company management with the best (and most sustainable) set of infrastructure options to keep those jobs right here in the US?

Our infrastructure (public and private) has been deteriorating at a rapid pace. Jobs have been shipped overseas for decades and no amount of political posturing will bring them back any time soon. If you really dig into the details (as good sustainability professionals always are prepared to do), these two examples of 'infrastructure events' may share some common elements (i.e. water/waste piping, asbestos, old buildings with corroded structural issues, cyber-security needs), that can be addressed in a realistic plan that could work for US businesses as well as political fiefdoms.

The pledge of the new President to address the nation's public infrastructure problems and actually make that a priority for the new administration is encouraging.  If Congress will agree to fund these (public) infrastructure programs properly, it presents a great opportunity for EH&S professionals who work for contractors and engineering firms that specialize in infrastructure to once again make a difference in reducing environmental impact of antiquated and failing infrastructure systems.  

So, let us use these teachable moments to inspire students, environmental professionals, and employers throughout the US to find ways to train workers how to rebuild the nation's infrastructure, public and private alike, while also incentivizing businesses to go the extra mile and keep those plants and jobs here. If we don't do this soon, our politicians will continue to be in denial and our lack of action now, will be a huge burden on our children's, children's, children.

This area will be reformated at a later date.