I love checking out Colin Beavan’s blog, No Impact Man — he’s a smart, funny, thoughtful eco warrior who also happens to live here in New York City. A recent visit revealed a hopeful post on packaging, suggesting that if we could eliminate it, we’d also eliminate some 40 percent of the greenhouse emissions caused by manufacturing. While that percentage may be a bit optimistic, he has a great point. Packaging is excessive, it takes energy and materials to create and then dispose of, and we, as consumers, can do a lot to curb its production.
First, choose products wisely, young Eco, and avoid stuff that comes over-packaged. I’m thinking of those extreme chewing gums with funny names that are packed in plastic bubble-packs — why not hit up a pack of good-old Dentyne, with paper wrappers instead? Loads of personal-care products come in boxes that are far from disposable: I recently saw tooth-whitening strips, themselves individually wrapped in plastic, packed inside a sturdy plastic box that might double as a lunch box, that was then wrapped in another layer of plastic film. Good night! You could kill a beach full of sea turtles with that many pieces of plastic, and I’m sure the packaging outweighed the product by a large margin. Don’t ever buy anything that has more packaging than product, and feel free to complain to manufacturers when you find something that does.
Second, start choosing products for the recyclability/biodegradeability/reusability of their packaging. Buy toothpaste that comes in aluminium tubes instead of unrecycleable plastic, and choose laundry powder in paper boxes, instead of liquids in plastic. Sure, the plastic is recycleable, but not into more plastic boxes — that bottle might become plastic lumber, which will eventually end up in a landfill. Some spaghetti sauces come in Mason jars, reusable for home canning, by you, or your country cousin. Many electronics companies are protecting their products in paper-board rather than styrofoam, and some companies, like Apple, have worked hard to pare down packaging to an absolute, biodegradeable minimum.
Thirdly, shop at stores that let you bring your own packaging: join a food coop (like 4th Street, in Manhattan!), and take your own containers. You’ll be able to get the bulk of your food, and soap and shampoo and cleaning products, packaging free. Use plastic takeout buckets, jars and boxes for your staples — they work better than those flimsy plastic bags. Many health food stores have some bulk foods (peanut butter! Lentils!), and food’s cheaper in bulk too.
Finally, take a serious look and ask yourself what you really need. What would be the energy savings if we gave up all the “worthless” stuff we consume? Soda, “fake” tea (those huge cans and jugs of Arizona iced tea), bottled water, etc. I love the occasional Coca Cola, but when I think of the thousands of trucks, and the millions of cans and bottles generated to feed us something that is, essentially, sweet poison (with a really high profit margin), it makes me kinda sick. Packaging seems to increase with the uselessness of the product — the drinks above, crackers (which are just expensive, tiny bread, with too much packaging), or Lunchables, which are tiny amounts of junk food wrapped in ridiculous amounts of plastic/cardboard. If, for example, you ate only fresh bread, bought without packaging at the green market, you’d steer clear of excess plastic, save a lot of money, and avoid all the unhealthyness of crackers, chips and other novelty bread-type foods.
As a last resort, take a page from eco-activists of yore. Back in the 1970s, a group of environmentally-minded New York City women began purging their purchases of excessive packaging immediately after paying (say that three times fast): the packaging became the stores’ problem, and the stores, having a direct line of communication with the manufacturers, could pass along the message. At the very least, it’s less to carry home.