Less should be more: The woes of wasteful packaging.

Image by barclaki | flickr.com

Image by barclaki | flickr.com

Think back to the last item you purchased.  Did you pick up some chips from the grocery store on your way home from work?  Perhaps you bought an ink cartridge for your printer?  Or maybe it was a light bulb to replace that one in your kitchen that has been burnt out for weeks?

Now, try to recall how this item was presented to you in the store.  What type of packaging did it have?  Plastic?  Cardboard?  How well can you remember what the packaging looked like? 

Sadly, most of us are guilty of falling victim to what I will refer to as ‘packaging desensitization’.  Over 65 million tonnes of packaging waste is produced in the United States every year, making it the largest source of waste in American landfills.  In Ontario, over 700,000 tonnes of packaging waste was produced in 2006, and that value is expected to have grown in the years since.  Despite packaging that is often five to six times the size of the product itself, we have become so accustomed to seeing our purchases wrapped, boxed, and sealed to the nth degree that we do not always evaluate whether the piles of plastic, heaps of packing peanuts, and rolls of bubble wrap are truly necessary.

When it comes to the main source of overwrapped items, food packaging may be the worst offender.  When you think about it, how often do you receive a sandwich that is first sealed in plastic wrap, then placed in branded wax paper, then placed inside a plastic bag? Not only that, but plastic and plastic-like packaging is ridden with contaminants such as perfluorinated compounds (usually in the form of a thin, waxy ‘non-stick’ layer; think of the inside of fast food cartons) and phthalates (to make plastic ‘bendy’), which are both linked to several health problems, including cancer.  The least sustainable materials use for food packaging includes plastic, paperboard, and of course, Styrofoam.

As implied, this excess packaging is often plastic.  Plastic can be considered the ‘best-but-worst’ invention of all time.  It is quite easy to make a case for the advancements that this versatile material has brought to modern life, yet its impacts on almost every type of ecosystem and the health of the organisms trying to thrive within them can be detrimental.  Most of these materials are virtually indestructible, and every overwrapped item contributes to excess plastic in our oceans and landfills.

Luckily, many individuals and businesses alike have begun to realize the silliness of all this unnecessary waste that we have become so accustomed to mindlessly welcoming into our lives.  The movement away from wasteful packaging ranges from disposable plastic bag bans in grocery stores to ‘bring your own jar’ food markets, like the Pollinator Power Market at the University of British Columbia, where honey falls right off of the comb and into your reusable glass jar.   In Seattle, single-use food packaging has been banned from entering the waste stream; one-time food containers must be either compostable or recyclable.

Fed up with excess packaging, a student in New York dedicated his Master’s thesis project to finding ways to reduce packaging waste, a project called, “The Disappearing Package”.  He analyzed packaging designs for five well-known products, including Tide PODs and Twinings tea bags, and developed alternative packaging in order to reduce overall waste.  Some of his solutions include washable inks on food storage containers, dissolvable soap boxes, and substituting individually-wrapped items inside a box with those same objects instead perforated together.  Sometimes the waste is substantially reduced; other times, eliminated completely.  More research and innovation like this is necessary to begin seriously re-thinking the way we buy and sell products.  Laws and regulations aimed towards controlling allowable quantities and materials for product packaging could be helpful, but do not seem overly promising.  In 2009, the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) compiled a report geared towards improving the state of sustainable packaging; however, no action has evolved from this report.

In the age of online shopping, bulk purchases, and product satisfaction guarantees, I understand the temptation to prioritize convenience and aesthetics over simplicity and environmental health.  As more and more people begin to ‘call out’ companies on their wasteful ways (there is a website called overpackaging.com designed exactly for this purpose), we can hope that this trend will lose traction, and be tossed in the trash, just like all of the waste it once helped to create.

PS - The other day I saw a package of hot dogs at the grocery store.  Inside, each hot dog was individually-wrapped.  That was the moment I decided to write this post.