The ULS Report

Helping people conserve resources and reduce waste by Using Less Stuff

June-July 1994 Volume I, Number 2


As we discussed last issue, reducing the amount of packaging we use and throw away can make a huge difference in our ability to cut trash. For reference, about 500 pounds of packaging material is discarded annually per person in America, or about 10 pounds per week.

If we each cut our packaging consumption by 10%, wed reduce the total amount of trash created by 6.3 million tons, or 12.5 billion pounds, every year!

What to look for.

There are three simple things you can do the next time you go shopping. As you'll see, they're all inter-related:

1. Concentrate!

Most powdered and liquid laundry detergents now come in concentrated form. You get more washes, less packaging and usually save some money as well.

Another concentrated product that can save packaging and money is fruit juice.While most people are familiar with the frozen kind, Ocean Spray has come out with concentrate in a juice box. Since it doesnt need to be kept cold, the box saves energy.

And the box is the source reduction winner among all juice packaging once reconstituted, you get 99% juice and only 1% package. (TABLE OMITTED)

Ocean Spray advertises up to 30% cost savings when you buy the concentrate and use it to refill one of their rigid PETE bottles. We found the savings to be closer to 20% not as high as advertised, but still substantial.

2. Buy refills.

Refills reduce waste for three reasons: First, theyre usually larger than the original packages and thus contain more product per ounce of package. Second, theyre often made of thinner, more source reduced, material than the original container, since theyre only intended to hold product, not dispense it. Finally, theyre stripped down, so you dont end up with (or paying for) extra spray tops, pour spouts, etc.

Lots of products now come in refills, including liquid soap, window cleaners, hand lotion and laundry detergents. Better yet, many of the refills contain concentrates, and the containers are made with recycled materials. (See the story below.)

3. Be flexible!

Flexible packaging is just like regular packaging, but much thinner, lighter and less bulky. The great advantage of flexible packaging is that you get so much more product per a given amount of package. Good examples include coffee, nuts and snacks that come in foil brick packs and pouches rather in cans or jars; juice sold in boxes or pouches rather than in rigid containers; and household cleaner refills that come in thin pouches rather than in plastic or glass bottles. The chart below outlines some typical packaging weight savings for flexible versus rigid containers.

It's interesting to note that while many of these flexible packages are not recycled or currently recyclable, they are still a good environmental choice. Thats because theyre so thin and efficient when compared to more typical rigid containers.

Take coffee, for instance. For a steel coffee can to be as efficient as a foil brick pack, the can would have to be recycled at a rate of 85%. However, steel cans are currently being recycled at a rate of about 45%. Thus, at least for now, the flexible package is a good, if not better, option.

Don't Be Fuelish

What's a few miles per gallon worth? Plenty, as it turns out. Take two fairly similar cars. One gets 20 miles to the gallon, the other 23 miles. Big deal, you say? Over the typical 100,000 mile life of each car, the more fuel efficient one will use 650 gallons less gasoline. This translates to a financial savings somewhere between $625 and $1000. Most families have two cars, so combined savings would be 1300 gallons and up to $2000.

How do you increase fuel efficiency? By switching to lighter materials such as aluminum, composites and plastics. (As a rule of thumb, a gallon of gas is saved for every pound that a car sheds.) Since 1988, Americans have saved over 350 million gallons of gas, thanks to lighter, more fuel-efficient cars.

Besides less energy consumption, less weight also translates to reduced air pollution and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. And speaking of auto emissions, did you know that about 80% occur in the first few minutes after you turn the key?

The reason is that catalytic converters, which reduce tailpipe pollutants by about 90%, dont work until they heat up, which can take five minutes or so. A number of companies are now working on devices that speed up catalytic heating to as little as five seconds. Theyll probably be available in 1997, when tougher emissions standards go into effect in California.

Thank You Very Mulch

Many of you wrote us asking how to do a better job of composting. Were glad you asked, since 15% of garbage is organic matter such as food scraps, grass clippings, leaves and other yard wastes. Composting can turn this trash into valuable (and free!) fertilizer or mulch.

For more information, please contact Adaora Lathan, Community Solid Waste Coordinator, National Audubon Society, 666 Pennsylvania Ave., S.E., Washington, DC 20003. Telephone 202-547-9009.

Our Garbage Lifestyles

by Dr. William L. Rathje

Flies to molasses. Bees to honey. Archaeologists to garbage any kind of garbage. In fact, archaeologists are no longer just digging at ancient sites for chipped stone tools, broken pots or the odd gold cup. Today, a few are recording coffee grounds so fresh they are not yet cold, squashed PET bottles encasing soda that still fizzes, and half-full bottles of sugar plum ice nail polish yes, our own garbage.

Why would any self-respecting archaeologist abandon tradition and start recording his own civilizations garbage? Good question, especially because we are so pleased to place pieces of our ancestors garbage the older the better in museums, but our own trash we create, discard and strive to forget about.

One answer is that over the last two million years, as odd as it may seem given the recent hullabaloo about discovering resources in refuse, garbage has always been treated as a valuable commodity a disgusting one which makes its associates the butt of demeaning jokes, but a resource to be exploited nonetheless.

The etymology of our word garbage (medieval French for kitchen wastes) hints at its original value as nutrients the meal preparation debris which dogs and pigs have subsisted on for millennia, as well as edible food discards which some humans have used likewise. The earliest professional garbage sorters inaugurated their trade 4,200 years ago at the worlds first monster dumps, located (downwind) from the worlds first cities in ancient Sumer, now southern Iraq. Their tradition has been carried down the ages to counterparts in America. Last century, this motley bunch was referred to as Rag-pickers, since the rags they sought were as valuable then as aluminum cans are today. (Today's sorters are known, appropriately, as dumpster divers.)

Besides food and reusables, garbage holds other treasures. The one that most fascinates archaeologists is information about our lifestyles and about the fate of the material remains we leave behind. Garbage has been called a mirror; but it is more than that. Garbage, in truth, is our most measurable, material selves, perhaps our best chance to see ourselves honestly and to understand how future generations will come to see us.

Most of us know very little about this world of garbage; in fact, we regularly say Out of sight, out of mind. But this is nonsense. Garbage is always right under our noses, and we are perpetually making more of it. In fact, Ill bet you are within sight of, or a few steps from, a trash can right now. We should really say, In sight, out of mind. Ironically, garbage is so common that our waste stream flows past us unceasingly and unseen.

This is the reason some archaeologists are turning to the study of modern garbage because there is so much garbage today, and because even now we pay so little attention to it. At present, accurate information about Americas garbage is vital to all of us, so that we can learn to minimize and safely manage the unwanted municipal solid waste legacy we are bequeathing to our descendants.

As an archaeologist and as a director of The Garbage Project for 21 years, I have been fascinated by what my garbage-sorting associates have uncovered about the way we live. Join me in future issues of The ULS Report as I investigate the good, the bad, and the ugly of our garbage lifestyles.

Dr. William L. Rathje is Professor or Archaeology at The University of Arizona and Director of The Garbage Project. The Project studies contemporary cultures by digging up their landfills and examining the resulting debris.

Companies Recognized for Using Less Stuff

The governors of New England, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania recently recognized several companies that successfully reduced packaging waste and encouraged source reduction. Here's what a few of them have accomplished:

What's on your mind?

We want to know what's eating you. Please call or write us with your questions. Starting next issue, well be devoting a column to answering them. If we feature your question, youll receive a free ULS cap or T-shirt.

The ULS Report is a bi-monthly publication of Partners for Environmental Progress. 

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Snail mail address:  P.O. Box 130116  Ann Arbor  MI  48113
Phone:  313-668-1690       
Fax:  313-930-0506

Editor: Robert Lilienfeld
Technical Advisor: Dr. William Rathje
Editorial Advisor: Tony Kingsbury

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Copyright 1994, Partners for Environmental Progress.