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!

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