Monday, June 30, 2008

Trash, Sustainability, Packaging, and Awareness

Trash. Our society generates a lot of it. What do we do with it? It's leftover stuff that we tend to think is useless. But if we look at the biological world we see that one organisms refuse is another organisms food. The trash our society generates generally does not fit this model. Coming from that general idea I recorded a podcast yesterday about packaging, and today am reading a CNET article that covers a lot of the same ground. They've found a cluster of bloggers who focus on trash and go so far as to not throw anything away and otherwise closely scrutinizing the things for which most people's only consideration is how quickly it can go in the trash can.

Trash is a big problem, but one which most seem to completely ignore. Our trash goes to incinerators, landfills, when it's properly corralled by the trash industry. The rest just gets dumped willy nilly along roadsides or anywhere else and for example there is a large floating island of plastic in the middle of the ocean. That plastic island is breaking down and becoming part of the food chain.

These ecobloggers are supposedly motivated by global warming and "are fed up with promiscuously packaged, toxic products and other evils of conspicuous consumption they say are trashing the planet". Uh, global warming? It's not clear to me what is the connection between excess packaging, trash, and global warming. "Trash" is a land use issue in that most of it ends up in landfills. However the stuff which ends up as trash does require energy to produce and that energy typically comes from a source which causes emissions of global-warming-gasses, but this connection between trash and global warming is (to my mind) tenuous.

I do agree many products are "promiscuously packaged" and contain toxic chemicals and that there are serious side effects to this whole regime of products we are inundated with in this society.

In my podcast I contrast between two types of product packaging. This is an idea I've been working on for awhile.. take a typical snack bar. It's wrapped in a foil/plastic wrapper. You will get maybe 5 minutes of enjoyment out of it, but the wrapper will last nigh on forever. The wrapper cannot itself be reused for anything and its makeup means it will not biodegrade on its own. That snack bar wrapper will be consuming landfill space for the next 10,000 years or more. The other kind of packaging, typified by a beer bottle, is readily reusable (e.g. as a candle holder) and is readily recyclable.

It's about the impact of the side effects of the products we buy.

A key issue is awareness. Until I began paying attention this issue is not something I gave any thought to. I observe this in other people, they don't think about the packaging, they don't think about the trash they generate, it just goes in the trash and goes somewhere. With awareness we can begin to see our effects on the world, and over time develop ways to mitigate or correct them.

Here are some interesting factoids in the CNET article:

... Each person in the United States produces 4.6 pounds of garbage each day, up from 2.7 pounds in 1960, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And with recycling and composting taken into account, net waste amounts to about 2.5 pounds per day. Up to 65 percent of the nation's 251 million tons of annual waste comes from households as opposed to businesses and institutions, according to the EPA. And although the majority of U.S. consumer waste is recyclable, just under one-third of it actually gets recycled....

But.. how many people are aware of this? Why is the recycling rate so low? I think it has to do with awareness of the effects of ones actions upon the world. Although the majority of waste is recyclable, just under 1/3rd actually gets recycled.

A snack bar wrapper may seem tiny and inconsequential. Likewise with the packaging which comes with other products. But let me ask you, in your mind, to scale this up to our whole country. If every person, all 300,000,000+ of U.S.A. citizens, were to buy a snack bar wrapper each day how big would that pile be? And according to the factoids above the typical American generates 2.5 pounds of "waste" per day. Apparently the majority of that can be, but is not, recycled.

Most products you can buy are wrapped in packaging. To an extent the packaging is required so that you can bring the product home. e.g. a television comes in a box with styrofoam inserts, and lots of plastic wrapped widgets and manuals inside. All that packaging does serve a purpose in protecting the thingymajob during shipment. But the makeup of the packaging is also toxic, nonrecyclable, nonbiodegradable, and therefore will take up landfill space for eons to come.

We as individuals have little ability to choose the packaging that comes along with the products we buy. The packaging is chosen for us by the widget makers. And it probably doesn't enter into focus group meetings the question of how the product is packaged, the marketeers probably are focused on determining what featureitis is desired by the public.

One of the issues with awareness of trash is that the trash due to product packaging is secondary to the goal of buying the product. When one buys, say, a snack bar the goal is to have a little snack and satisfy some hunger. The goal isn't to buy a plastic wrapped thingymajob, it's to buy the thingymajob. So the conceptualization of "buy" is focused on the thing inside the packaging and leads one to largely ignore the packaging. With awareness of what I'm doing, I find myself being more aware of the packaging and finding myself choosing products to buy as much for the packaging as for the content of the product.

For example.. take the preprepared lettuce mixes that are prevalent now in the supermarkets. Usually this comes in a plastic bag. The plastic bag is nonrecyclable and nonreusable and by the above reasoning will end up in a landfill and stay as a plastic bag until kingdom come. Recently while shopping at While Foods I found preprepared lettuce packaged in a box. It's still a plastic box, but it's marked with a recycling symbol meaning that once I'm done with the lettuce the box can go in the recycling bin rather than the trash bin. That one little change means one less item which I'll be responsible for sending to the landfill.

Who is responsible? A concept I've had for awhile is to take personal responsibility for the effects of my actions upon the world. This responsibility includes being responsible for properly disposing of the whole of each thing I buy.

As I said above its the widget makers who are making the choices of the makeup and packaging of the widgets they make. My quest is to reduce the impact of side effects of my living on this planet. The CNET article shows people who are taking a similar quest to extremes. Yesterday while recording the podcast a realization dawned on me, however. The responsibility really lies with the widget makers. My quest still is to reduce my impact on the world, but there are more parties in this dance than myself. This dance includes every other person living on this planet at this time, and most especially it includes the widget makers.

Widget makers could certainly make their products out of stuff which is less toxic and/or more biodegradable. But they don't. Why is that?

It may simply be awareness on their part, and a lack of awareness on all our parts as to the effect of our living. We individuals can tell the widget makers "hey, do this a different way". One way we can communicate this is through our purchasing power. Every time we buy something we are voting with our dollars for the existence of more of whatever we just bought. The maker of that widget will say "hey, obviously people want that thingymajob, so I ought to make more of them". By focusing our purchasing on things whose construction and/or packaging is more sustainably focused it ought to influence widget makers to making more of such things. That is, if the widget makers are able to discern the pattern of buying things whose construction is sustainably focused.

It may not be possible for the marketeers to realize there is a movement of buyers looking for sustainably constructed widgets. So therefore it's required for us sustainability focused buyers of widgets to raise attention to the makers of widgets.

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