Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Problem with Packaging

Tree huggers and environmental advocates everywhere are always urging consumers to purchase products that use as little packaging as possible. While this is good, sound advice, even well-intentioned shoppers wind up reaching for the brand names or sale items instead of the environmentally sound alternatives, which often trumps their desire to avoid excess packaging. So, how big of a deal is it, really? Most people are stunned to discover that, as of a 2006 EPA report, 32% of all Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) in this country comes from product packaging alone. That's nearly 84 million tons a year, or 1/3 of all trash hauled away from our homes and dumped into landfills!

The sad thing is, much of this packaging is unnecessary. There's a whole psychology to product packaging; graphics and color schemes draw attention to the product, while larger packages take up more shelf space, which makes consumers think they're getting more for their money and also increases product visiblity on store shelves. Also, manufacturers can charge more for all the extra materials used to package the product, which is a sneaky way to increase their profits. Are we really that distracted by bright and shiny objects? Research suggests that we are, and as long as we keep succumbing to these sales tricks, manufacturers will continue in their wasteful ways.

As far as unnecessary packaging goes, some of the biggest culprits (in my opinion) are print cartridges, eletronic accessories, and over-the-counter drugs. Have you noticed that the box the print cartridges come in are usually twice the size of the actual cartridge, which is nestled in a plastic tray (usually made from hard-to-recycle plastic), which is encased in a plastic bag? Sure, the box has all the information and instructions on it, and the plastic tray keeps the cartridge from rattling around the box, but all the same instructions are printed on the plastic bag! Why not just poke a hole in the plastic bag and hang it on a hook!?!

I recently bought a memory card for my camera (it's a very small disk), which came encased in plastic packaging the size of a paperback-- why!?! And pill bottles drive me nuts. I bought some allergy medicine last year, which was embedded in an oddly shaped plastic package (which requires much more shelf space and larger shipping boxes than the bottle alone). It wasn't for protective purposes; I removed a tamper-resistant seal on the bottle when I finally got it dug out of the package. Once I got the bottle opened, I then pulled out a large piece of cotton, then dumped out some miniscule pills, which barely covered the bottom of the bottle. Ridiculous.

That said, there are some responsible producers and manufacturers out there. Take cell phone companies, for instance. They have one sample of each make and model of phone on display, and once the customer selects one, they go into the back and bring out an unremarkable box, filled to the brim with the phone, charger, and instruction manual. Windex has come out with refill packets for their glass cleaner-- a one-by-three-inch package of concentrated cleaner can be dumped into an empty spray bottle, mixed with water, and-- voila!-- a whole new bottle of Windex, minus the plastic bottle disposal.

I know some of these measures are used as shoplifting deterrants, but surely there are better ways to go about it... What if pharmacies had bulk dispensers of some of the most popular OTC drugs (like the plastic bins with the different colored jelly beans at most candy stores)? If customers come in with an empty bottle, they can get it refilled, at a discount. Or why not keep more of the small electronics behind a counter? With minimal packaging, stores could fit quite a number of products behind the electronics counter. Leave one out on display, like the cell phone stores do, and only pull out the product after the sale has been made. As for ink cartridges, many stores already offer a refill option on existing cartridges, which is something every consumer should take advantage of whenever possible!

The European Union issues levies (taxes) on manufacturers who use excessive packaging; if they want to waste materials, they can, but they will be charged accordingly. While it's not a ban or a law that producers would likely rail against, it has proven to be an effective deterrant in wasteful packaging. Our government and policies, unlike those of the EU, are more reactionary than preventative, but consumers can wise up now-- look at the packaging before purchasing a product. If we band together, we can pressure manufacturers even if our government will not... When it comes to product packaging, if consumers boycott the worst offenders, they will get the message!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Daylight Saving Time!

I love Daylight Saving Time, especially in the spring. For me, the extra hour of daylight in the evenings is synonomous with growth, renewal, happiness, and all things summer. In fact, I consider the extension of Daylight Saving Time in 2006-- by moving up the start date by three weeks in the spring and delaying the end date by a week in the fall-- to be the single crowning achievement of the Bush Administration. I was surprised to find out, however, just how many people disagree with me. They argue that it's hard to get up in the dark and reset their internal clocks, to lose an hour of sleep, and even to lose an hour of drinking time at the bars the night the clocks change.

Although the idea of Daylight Saving Time started with Benjamin Franklin, in an essay written while in Paris in 1784, it wasn't seriously considered until Englishman William Willet took up the cause, lobbying to shift the clocks ahead a total of 80 minutes on four consecutive Sundays in April, and to reverse the progression by the same incriments in November. He began lobbying Parliament in 1909, and was met with much ridicule. He continued to fight for this idea of "Summer Time" until his death in 1915; the bill finally passed in 1916 and was adopted in the U.S. two years later.

The argument has long been that Daylight Saving Time (note it's not Daylight Savings Time, even though that sounds more grammatically correct) helps save energy because people are able to rely on natural light later into the evening. However, the advent of air conditioning seems to have negated these benefits somewhat, as people are instead using the energy to run their fans and window units longer than they might otherwise do. In fact, a study was recently done in Indiana (a state which has been a little slow on the uptake, only switching to DST at the request of the Bush Administration in 2006) that shows energy usage went up during the summer hours, which reinforced their theory that DST was useless. What the study failed to mention, however, was the climate trends and population growth from the years used in the comparison.

Whatever your position on the matter, I find it's easier to get up in the dark those first few mornings when I think ahead to the long, lazy days of summer, and the time spent outdoors in the evenings, when the kids can stay out and play until bedtime. It's much more depressing to me when the daylight goes away, when it's dark by the time I come home from work. And not even an extra hour of sleep can change that.