Sustainability in Action: Reducing Packaging

23 09.11

Howdy, friends.  How do you do today?

We’re parked up here at Seven Springs Resort in Western Pennsylvania for the Mother Earth News Fair.  It’s a lovely spot – if not a bit rainy.  We can’t seem to escape the rain, no matter where we go … Tom, a crewmember, half-jokingly called this the “bring the rain tour.”  (Cue rimshot)

So – anyhoo – we had a long (soggy) talk this morning amongst ourselves about steps we can take to be more sustainable.  We may be the Sustainable Living Roadshow, but we’re by no means perfect, and we struggle with pushing ourselves towards sustainable practices just like anyone else.  The issue on the docket today was packaging.

"Why yes I would, sir, but only if you take off that labcoat"

It’s a silly little comic, but there’s a lot of truth in it.  Surely you’ve noticed just how packaged our products are – from our food to our clothing to our medicine (and on, and on, and on).  The EPA estimated in 2008 that 30% of the average American’s waste stream was made up of packaging – and almost half of that doesn’t get recycled.  That, by the way, is about 71,000,000 tons of packaging — only packaging!  Add to that the energy (and raw materials) needed to create packaging, then the extra fuel used for shipping it … and you’ve got quite a bundle of oil and waste on your hands.

Not to frighten you (or maybe to frighten you a little..?), but here are some more facts about landfills that might make you think twice before purchasing that product that comes cocooned in plastic:

  • The barriers of all landfills will eventually break down and leak leachate into ground and surface water. Plastics are not inert, and many landfill liners and plastic pipes allow chemicals and gases to pass through while still intact.
  • In 2008, a survey of landfills found that 82 percent of surveyed landfill cells had leaks, while 41 percent had a leak larger than 1 square foot.
  • Incinerators are a major source of 210 different dioxin compounds, plus mercury, cadmium, nitrous oxide, hydrogen chloride, sulfuric acid, fluorides, and particulate matter small enough to lodge permanently in the lungs
  • Waste incinerators create more CO2 emissions than coal, oil, or natural gas-fueled power plants.

(taken from cleanair.org)

I’m not trying to belittle you – you undoubtedly knew that landfills were not exactly the cat’s pajamas before I spouted any of those facts.  Still, it can help to hear facts like that, if only to remind ourselves of just how much of an impact our personal decisions have.

Back on point, what of the eco-friendly, biodegradable, and compostable packaging that is becoming increasingly popular in stores – especially grocery stores?  That’s not so bad, right?  Hey, it doesn’t sit in a landfill for lawd-kn0ws-how-long – it breaks down!

Yes, true.  And admittedly, that’s a better option than plastics and other non-biodegradable materials – but still not your best bet.  Plant-based plastics and other such “eco” options don’t grow from the garden in their current state; they still take raw materials and energy to make, and use up space (thus more fuel) to transport.  They’re a step in the right direction, but ultimately, these new materials only divert our attention from the real issue at hand.

– Which is to reduce. The biggest change we can make in our personal lives to be kinder to this lovely earth is to reduce our consumption.  Though this applies across the board, a low-hanging fruit on the tree of sustainability (to borrow a metaphor from our dear crewmember Dan) is simply reducing your own waste stream by cutting out packaging.

What does this look like in practice?  Well, it means:

  • Buying in bulk – and bringing your own containers!
  • Opting for non-packaged produce (farmer’s market, anyone?)
  • Choosing fresh snacks instead of prepackaged bars, chips and sodas
  • Really thinking before you buy something!  The cost of a product should not be the only consideration – remember that it has a cost far beyond the price put on it.  It has a cost in its impact on the environment and in upholding and supporting the system that made it.
  • Buying secondhand is a great way to reduce packaging – and waste in general!

We don’t live in a world that promotes non-packaged items, and it can sometimes be hard to either resist the temptation of a packaged good or, in some cases, find another option.  But if there is an option, choose it – remember that if everyone just made that one small decision, companies would be forced to listen and reduce their packaging.  We vote with our dollar every time we buy something, so vote for what you truly believe in!

What do you think?  What steps have you taken in the realm of waste and packaging?

Cheerio, friends!


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