Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Free range organic packaging

You can’t be a citizen of the modern world or a consumer in modern markets without being constantly reminded of the sheer volume of “stuff” we use and, more importantly, then throw out. Every time I lean into an awkwardly sized box to squeeze it into my overstuffed garbage and puzzle over how to fit the pile of cardboard boxes into my recycling bin I wonder at the sheer volume of stuff my small family is adding to the growing pile of waste on earth. I hear there is a floating pile of our garbage the size of Texas bobbing around the ocean. And with each of my contributions, it’s only getting bigger.

How did we get to such a disposable culture? Sure, everything is more convenient. Diapers no longer require scarily sharp safety pins and now have NASA-quality water absorption that promise dry sheets and bums, but they now take 500 years to decompose in a landfill. Cameras and kitchen appliances use to boast lasting from your wedding until your kid’s college graduation, but now gadgets change so quickly that a digital camera is outmoded in a matter of years. The constantly changing seasons of fashion have always spurred consumption, but with cheap labor from globalized markets, even our clothes are disposable. We literally can’t get rid of them fast enough. Clothing donation bins are now ubiquitous on urban street corners and poorer countries are balking at the flood of clothing donations, which are undercutting their homegrown textile industries.

And even though these thoughts of environmental responsibility and guilt about over-consumption ring in my head, there’s really no disincentive to keep creating more waste. Sure, we recycle, and our municipalities help us do so by carting away and sorting for us our recyclables. But there’s no systemic incentive to create less waste overall.

Switzerland has attacked this problem squarely and quite cleverly. While visiting a friend in Zurich, I learned that their plastic garbage bags – which citizens are required to use if they want their garbage hauled away – are incredibly expensive. But their recycling is free. It’s such elegant and basic economics. Put a cost on creating waste and people will be more judicious and careful with their decisions. They’ll look for lighter packaging and buy more recyclables. I haven’t researched the outcomes of this strategy, but Zurich sure is clean and pretty.

So, here’s another proposal: Consumers – at least wealthy consumers in wealthy countries, who create most of the waste – are coming to increasingly care about the environmental and social costs of their purchasing decisions. We look for hormone-free locally and organically produced food. We buy things with various seals of approvals that assure our products are free of toxins like BPA. But when we go to buy something, we often cart home with us a gratuitous and even alarming amount of plastic and cardboard packaging.

Cereal is sealed in a plastic bag, and then enclosed in a cardboard box. We buy toys in shiny non-recyclable boxes that double as display cases in which the item is held in place by hard bits of plastic and wiring. If it weren’t so toxic, I would have a big cathartic bonfire with the mountains of excess packaging that have accompanied all my son’s birthday gifts. We all complain about this packaging and frustrate ourselves getting rid of it. It seems we don’t want it. So, why do the markets produce so much of it?

Sure, businesses make a profit-minded determination on the minimal amount of packaging required to protect their products from damage. But there has to be some slack, right? Isn’t some of this packaging designed simply to attract and entice consumers? To display the item in the most attractive light?

Well, I think enough consumers would be attracted to an item that brings with it the least amount of packaging waste. Such items could be stamped with a “responsible packaging” or “earth friendly packaging” label potentially enticing a consumer indifferent between the myriad similar product choices flooding our shelves. There could be some standards and labeling body. Maybe some federal agency overseeing the whole process.

If enough consumers express their preferences this way, businesses will have to figure out how to use the minimal amount of packaging to get their product safely attractively to market. They’ll wring out the packaging slack that isn’t doing anyone any good.

OK. This idea is not exactly going to solve the coming train wreck of environmental ruin, but it may slow it down and at minimal cost. So, go ahead, powers that be, and recycle this idea.

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