Paper or Plastic: Searching for Solutions in an Overpackaged World
There are environmental causes that stir the emotions—the plight of whales and baby seals, the fate of redwoods, or the metastasis of suburbia. But Daniel Imhoff would point out that the most pervasive and fastest-growing environmental problem is so commonplace it’s invisible: packaging. Styrofoam containers from a fast-food meal, the anti-theft blister packaging that encapsulates retail electronics, or the common aluminum can and plastic bottle are all part of a waste stream that composes some 300 pounds of garbage per person per year, headed straight from the shelf to the landfill.
Apparently mindful of the fact you can read only so much about polystyrene peanuts and polyethylene bottles, Imhoff has organized his book into punchy little essays, short case studies, and colorful charts that survey the extent of the packaging problem, along with a range of solutions that some companies are trying.
Imhoff points out that packaging is increasingly the product itself—a method corporations use to market feelings of familiarity, uniformity, or purity. To illustrate, he would have you consider evolution of the egg: It is nature’s perfect packaged food source, with its container, the shell, being durable yet entirely biodegradable. For years, eggs came in molded paper pulp. Now the most expensive of them frequently come in molded plastic trays, derived from petroleum products. (Nature’s Promise, which markets eco-friendly eggs, requests on its tray that you recycle the plastic packaging, even though few municipalities take such containers.) And lately eggs come as pre-scrambled “pasteurized real egg product,” in capped cartons at premium prices—far removed from the simple egg. The packaging will be with us decades, maybe eons, after the egg has been cracked, scrambled, and eaten.
As its title implies, packaging choices for environmentalists are dilemmas, with few simple solutions: Would you rather bag your groceries in the products of clear-cut forests or petroleum? He holds up companies such as Aveda, the Minneapolis-based cosmetics company, as pioneers. Aveda worked to eliminate toxic or less-recyclable plastics from its packaging line, and strove for 100 percent recycled plastics in its containers, risking profit margins in the process. Other companies are experimenting with novel products, such as biodegradable plastics.
But even these are merely “less bad” solutions in a world full of packaging waste. Imhoff concedes that packaging offers a good deal of convenience and that making upright choices involves giving up some of that convenience. He recommends carrying a mug and a reusable water bottle, eating in instead of getting takeout, buying in bulk (which reduces packaging waste), buying from local farmers and farmers’ markets, and toting around cloth bags. When the cashier asks the question in the book’s title, Imhoff suggests, hand over a cloth bag and say, “Neither.”