Thinking Outside Shrink Wrap: Ways to avoid wasteful packaging
posted by: Beth Buczynski

It's no secret that humans are consumers. Except for the most disciplined individuals among us, the typical human starts consuming non-renewable, non-recyclable products from the moment they are born. Think about it: disposable diapers, cartons of milk, soap, clothing. While typical babies can't control these choices for themselves, it just proves that consumption is deeply ingrained in most cultures from birth.

Breaking the cycle can be painful and uncomfortable, just like any other bad habit that you're trying to get rid of. But if you think of all that can be gained from changing just a few of your shopping and consuming behaviors, you just might find the motivation you need.

One of the biggest environmental problems related to over-consumption is the production and disposal of excessive packaging. Because we are a society that is programmed to buy everything in an attractive box or bag, over a lifetime we can contribute to the disposal of hundreds of thousands of highly toxic boxes and bags into landfills where they'll slowly poison our soil and water. Not to mention taking up space in our houses, cupboards and refrigerators.

Stop the wasteful packaging cycle by keeping these simple tips in mind next time you're at the store.

Bring Your Own Bags/Refuse a Bag: Did you know that over 500,000,000,000 (that's 500 billion) plastic bags are consumer annually, or almost 1 million per minute? Most of these bags are only used once before ending up in the landfill. Some bag recycling programs do exist, but many curbside recycling programs still won't accept them. Avoid the issue of paper or plastic by bringing your own canvas or hemp sacks whenever possible, and refusing extra bags, like double bagging meats or bagging produce that doesn't need it.

Post-consumer = Smart Consumer: Some manufactures of goods and even foods have started to wake up to the costs and consequences of excess packaging and are beginning to offer packaging (and products) made with post-consumer content. Seek out these brands and support them!

Concentrate on Concentrates: Some times good things really can come in small packages, and small packages mean a smaller carbon footprint. Look for products that you can buy in concentrated forms that will save money and produce less carbon emission to make and transport. Common concentrates include juices, soaps, and household cleaning projects.

Got an easy tip for reducing the amount of packaging we waste? Share it in a comment!

Check out the 471 reader comments HERE:

Tags: bags, landfill, packaging, plastic, recycle, shrinkwrap, waste

Views: 148

Replies to This Discussion

Visit stores that refill containers for products like washing up liquid, laundry liquid, toilet cleaner etc. Many health food and organic stores should do this.

Stores in the UK are starting to use plastic films made from cellulose from crop residues and excess production of potatoes in produce packaging. These are biodegradable, and are preferable to oil-based plastics, if packaging is absolutely necessary.

As with all consumption, the hierarchy is reduce, reuse, recycle. The greenest solution is almost always buy less, and only what you actually need (as opposed to want).
As much as I like to shop at my local Trader Joe's market, who offers a decent selection of organic and vegetarian choices at lower prices, most all of their produce is pre-packaged in plastic. They only carry their great selection of coffees in non-recyclable containers. It is not specifically a health food store, but do carry many health food items. It's a dilemma. I wish that they were more environmentally concerned, although they do make a half-hearted effort. I end up going to a green grocer for my produce most of the time. I go to the local health food market every couple of weeks, but they still sell cases of bottled water on their shelves. I've complained, but that went nowhere.

It's awfully hard to be to want to be environmentally conscious when every where you turn it's nearly impossible to be so.

Since people are still not even bringing their own bags with them when they shop, no one gives a hoot if their broccoli is already wrapped in plastic... Little progress is being done in my 'neck of the woods' sadly.
Hopefully it will come. It is amazing how quick the changes happen once they start, but you're right that it can be deeply frustrating while we wait for that initial impetus.

I have used my homemade shopping bags for many years, which I sewed from a piece of remnant linen that I got from a local shop for literally pennies, and people looked at me like I was an eccentric for so long! Now they come up and ask where I got them, and take notes when I tell them how to make them. Plastic bag use has dropped considerably here, and recycling rates are rising rapidly, though we have a long way to go to catch up with Germany, Holland and the Nordic countries, especially in the recycling of plastics. In Ireland they introduced a tax on bags so you have to pay 10c for them, and their use almost ceased overnight. It's much more of an issue in Europe, as land is far more scarce and we are running out of places to bury waste. Recycling is an absolute necessity, not just a personal statement, as it may have been viewed a few years ago.

I would guess that in some ways the States is at the place Europe was 10-15 years ago, where people still believe that much packaging is necessary and desirable for hygiene reasons etc, as the packaging industry tell us. nce they realise how much they are paying for all that packaging, both in purchase price and for it's disposal, then they may begin to change their minds and their habits. Of course, in other ways the US is way ahead, especially in the use of deposits on cans, bottles etc, which I have only seen bettered in Finland.

In Finland, you take your recycling to the supermarket with you. It is scanned by a conveyor belt at the rear of the store, and you receive a discount on your shopping, relative to the recycling you brought in. As the store is then responsible for it, and is audited on it's recycling, then they have a huge incentive to reduce the packaging on the goods they sell. You can take in recycling regardless of where you bought it, and you will see the young kids picking up the empties if any are left in the street, so that they can get extra pocket money by taking them to the store. Their consumer recycling rates are well in the 70-80% range for most materials, and some are higher than that.

I think the big area here to still be addressed is the waste in the construction industry in terms of poor design, materials choice and the almost complete absence of recycling. Norway has a brilliant scheme for reducing waste and recycling in this industry, and hopefully it will be adopted here once the current slump is over.
Hey Adrian,

Fifteen years ago I lived in North Carolina, a conservative bible belt state, but there was an established state recycling program there then. Believe it or not, recycling just began in my neighborhood on Long Island, NY less than a year ago.... I live 50 minutes outside of Manhattan. New York City has NO recycling program. I'm sure if one was so inclined you could haul your stuff to a recycling center that accepts tin, glass, paper, aluminum, but that is too inconvenient for most New Yorkers to attempt. I know that they closed the garbage dump that had been located on Staten Island years ago, and now all the trash collected in NY City is hauled by barge to some other state's landfill. The costs must be enormous. It's hard to image the amount of garbage generated by nearly 10 million people, being hauled and dumped hundreds of miles away for some other state to deal with. I'm sure they are paid handsomely for the privilege of accepting NY City's waste.

The mayor of NY City did attempt to put forth a law which would force customers to pay a 10 cent tax for each plastic bag that a store would supply. The bill didn't pass.... Truthfully, I believe that the ONLY way that American's will be forced to make the necessary changes to benefit our environment is for them to feel it in their wallets. But no politician wants to introduce new taxes in any form, or anger their constituents by raising prices to make people conform to being more ethically and environmentally engaged. They also don't want to hurt small businesses by putting more limitations that would drive up their costs. It's a cycle which seems unresolvable.

Europe has gotten their shit together far, far more than the US has, and I do envy the lifestyle there. If I was younger and able, I would seriously consider giving up my US citizenship and moving overseas....
The irony is that Americans are being hit in their wallets (maybe not as much as they should be!), but that they simply don't realise how much they are paying through the checkout for packaging, or through taxes for waste disposal. That was the same here until very recently.

Local authorities here were forced to act, as the central government placed taxes on rubbish being dumped at landfill. This has been raised progressively with time, so that authorities were being charged vast amounts if they did not act to reduce landfill, primarily through recycling. They can only access the revenue from that tax for schemes that reduce landfill further, or remediate environmental damage, creating a virtuous circle. My own local authority raised recycling from 4 % a few years ago to 35% last year. Councils are beginning to plan for zero waste as a realistic long term goal, and for progressive reductions to 50 and 70% being mandated in the medium term. If I remember rightly, all EU local authoriites must achieve 25% recycling by 2012 (I think the latest members, Bulgaria and Roumania are exempted for a while).
"The irony is that Americans are being hit in their wallets..."

Adrian, you are so right, and it the true costs that American's are paying for is much more than for packaging and the lack of proper recycling programs....

We subsidize our farmers to produce soybeans and corn to feed our industrial animal farms, which in turn drives down the legitimate cost of meat production for one thing. If plain old chop meat cost $10.00 a pound like it does in Japan, American's would be eating far less meat, and our nation's health and heath costs would improve dramatically. The cost of processed foods and beverages that contain such high levels of corn syrup would also increase in price, making soda a luxury rather than the beverage of choice at every meal...

Europe pays much higher costs for gasoline than we American's do. If we paid $7.00 or more per gallon for gas, no one would be driving SUV's anymore, and we would be demanding alternative less costly fuels and small gas efficient vehicles. Eating more locally grown food, which should prove less expensive than the cost of transporting food from all over the country and the world, would also help small farmers prosper and grow. More public transportation would have to be made readily available, and more of us would choose to use it as well.

Money talks... Few will make these important changes in their lifestyle, care about future generations, if they are not forced to do so economically.
Yep, I think we are currently paying almost as much for a litre of fuel as you pay for a gallon. Current price is about £5.00 per imperial gallon (smaller than yours, right?), or £1.10 per litre.
I found a conversion to US measures, and we currently pay $6.35 per US gallon, bur in 2008 it was up at $7.50.
In NY, gas is slightly more expensive than many places in the US. I'm paying around $2.87 a gallon now... It had been close to $4.00, when the recession/depression first hit, and then dropped to around $2.30. For a time the used and new car lots were filled with SUV's and there was a 3+ month waiting list for the Toyota Prius, but once the prices dropped, the SUV's were eagerly sought and bought once again... Fools.
My friend lives in Plantation, Florida and has to pay just for regular garbage pick-up. There is no recycling program where she lives. She could bring her recyclables to a recycling center, but she won't bother... Long hours at work, and being a single mom, makes it all the more difficult.

Doone, You must live in a more progressive part of Florida...??? Good to know that they've got their recycling program working well. The rest of the state needs to catch up.
In the UK we have recycling facilities at almost all supermarket car parks, though not in the supermarkets themselves, so that shoppers can combine the two functions, though most houses have kerbside collection in my area. Supermarkets are also where you tend to find the recycling for cardboard, books, textiles, drinks cartons, CDs etc too, though you still have to take wood, furniture, specialist metals, batteries, paints, oils, electronics and any toxic materials to a civic amenity site (dump, in plain English) where the council handle recycling directly. You have to make it simple and convenient, or people won't do it.
I can't recycle half the stuff you mentioned. They won't even recycle glass here. No drink cartons, CD's, no textiles, no books or phone books. I can't even recycle a cardboard pizza box for some reason. And no packaging that has a waxy or glossy exterior. See how behind we are. Pitiful.


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