The ULS Report TM
Helping people Use Less Stuff by conserving resources and reducing waste.

April-May-June 1999
Volume 6, Number 2


Index

Less Landfilling        Sound Thinking        Speeding and Reading


Great Taste, Less Landfilling

For years, we've been touting the environmental benefits of reduced packaging. It's nice to know that another group agrees with us The National Consumers League (www.nclnet.org). The NCL works to protect the interests of consumers by ensuring that products are produced and sold both fairly and equitably.

The NCL commissioned a study by the Michigan State University Packaging Department. It examined 40 different grocery products and measured the different types of packaging used to deliver them. We've taken a subset of 10 common food items and compared apples to apples by looking at how much waste is generated when a typical family consumes a year's worth of each item. We then created two baskets of identical products packaged in different containers. Market Basket 1 used the least amount of packaging, while Market Basket 2 created the most waste.

As you can see, the differences were rather startling. In fact, simply by choosing the lighter weight packages shown above, your family can reduce waste by a whopping 285 pounds a year! What's more, many of the reduced-packaging choices cost less, too. For example, buying toasted oat cereal in a bag will save your family about $65 a year vs. the traditional bag-in-box-kind. That's not small change for such a small change.

 

NCL Packaging Study, Selected Statistics
Based on Estimated Annual Household Consumption

Less Filling:
Market Basket 1

More Packaging:
Market Basket 2

Annual Diff.
(Pounds)

Beer Aluminum Cans,
LDPE Ring Carrier
6 Glass Bottles,
Paperboard Carton
166.30
Cereal, Toasted Oat PE Bag Paperboard Box,
Plastic Bag
8.58
Cheese, Cheddar Plastic Bag Paperboard Carton,
servings wrapped in plastic

1.90

Eggs PS Foam Carton Paperboard Carton 3.62
Juice HDPE Jug, 1 Gal Glass Bottle, 1/2 Gal

66.73

Lunch Meat, Ham PE Pouch Paperboard Outer Carton, Inner Plastic Pouch 3.14
Pasta . Plastic Bag, 32 oz Paperboard Box, 16 oz. 2.82
Potato Chips Laminated Bag, 14 oz. Paperboard Tube,
Foil Bags
5.83
Soft Drinks PET Bottle, 2 liter 12 Aluminum Cans,
Paperboard Carton
19.03
Tuna 6 oz. Steel Can 3 Small Cans (8.25
oz.),Paperboard Sleeve
7.98
SAVINGS

285.94


Here are some of the more obvious conclusions that can be drawn from the study

  • Flexible packages often deliver more product with much less packaging than do rigid containers. Examples include buying pasta or rice in bags rather than boxes.
  • Lighter packaging can mean a lot less waste. Take beer, for example. Buying in aluminum cans versus glass bottles will reduce the weight of packaging refuse by over 165 pounds a year, and that's assuming only one six-pack consumed per week.
  • Larger sizes translate to big packaging savings. Juice bought in gallon versus half gallon jugs, soft drinks purchased in 2 liter bottles rather than cans, and tuna bought in large versus small cans all save materials and energy.
  • Bag-only products save versus their bag-in-box cousins. Besides the cereals, many luncheon meats are now sold in bag-only packaging.
  • Multi-serve packaging creates less waste than single-serve convenience items. Thus, bulk cheese in plastic wrap uses much less packaging than individually wrapped cheese cubes. Ditto for tuna in big cans versus the little tiny cans held together in a paperboard sleeve.
  • One of the less obvious conclusions that can be drawn from this study is that from a packaging standpoint, plastics have a positive role to play in waste reduction. In many instances, the packages made from plastics are far lighter than more traditional rigid packages, conserving material and energy resources while reducing the amount of trash generated.

OK, so lighter packages mean less back strain for you and even a nice little monetary savings. But what does it mean for your community? The answer, as it turns out, is "lots!"

 

How Much Less Waste Can Your Town Generate Annually?

1999
Households
Tons
Saved
$ Million*
Saved
New York City 3,303,000 472,224 $47.2
Boston 2,216,000 316,817 $31.7
Atlanta 1,458,000 208,448 $20.8
Phoenix 1,126,000 160,982 $16.1
Minneapolis 1,093,000 156,264 $15.6
Denver 803,000 114,803 $11.5
Miami 745,000 106,511 $10.7
Portland, OR 734,000 104,939 $10.5
Sacramento 581,000 83,064 $8.3
Milwaukee 558,000 79,776 $8.0
Louisville 396,000 56,615 $5.7

*Assumes $100/ton for waste removal/disposal/recycling
Source U.S. Census, The ULS Report

Let's take New York City. As the chart above shows, if every family in the Big Apple were to save 286 pounds of trash from being generated each year, the total savings would equal almost 500,000 tons! And with the cost of collection, sorting, recycling and disposal running around $100 a ton, the city would save about $47 million in sanitation costs. This would significantly ease some of New Yorker's concerns about their looming lack of landfill space.

It would also reduce the concerns and costs associated with trash collection and disposal in other major cities as well. From Boston and Phoenix to Milwaukee and Louisville, the savings in trash and cash are substantial.

Finally, let's consider the national picture. If all of us made the small changes mentioned here, we'd collectively reduce waste by about 14 million tons, a 7% reduction versus today's numbers. Not bad for making 10 little packaging changes.

 

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How to Analyze Scientific Studies

Last issue, we ran a column on global warming and the types of questions to ask when confronted with "the facts." We received many responses, with most people asking for ways to think more critically about other issues. At the top of the list were requests asking us how to understand and evaluate the results of scientific studies. Here are the questions we ask when presented with research findings and results:

  1. What institution conducted the research? Research should be conducted by institutions and not by individuals currently or formerly associated with them. Also, try and establish that the institutions are respected and credible, with a history of doing sound scientific research.

  2. For whom was the research conducted? Much of the time, reputable institutes are given research grants by government, environmental and industry groups. These groups are hoping that studies will either prove or disprove a particular perception or point of view. For example, the Tobacco Institute may fund a lung cancer study to be performed by Johns Hopkins University. There is nothing wrong with this situation, as long as the funder exercises no control over the study's design, execution, results or conclusions.

  3. When did the study occur? Make sure that results are recent. Otherwise, it's possible that the conclusions have been superceded by more current studies.

  4. What are the credentials of the people conducting the research? Medical research should include PhDs in the specific discipline being studied. Watch out for studies with "experts" whose credentials seem to be in fields that are not directly related to the research in question.

  5. Were results published in a respected scientific or medical journal that routinely conducts peer reviews? Look for names like Nature, Science, The Journal of the American Medical Association or The Lancet.

  6. Is the sample size large enough to be projectable? Studies of small samples are of dubious value.

  7. Was the sample selected properly? Try to make sure that bias is reduced through the use of properly matched test and control groups. Check the reports for sections discussing methodology and any potential problems relating to it.

  8. Did the study contain other methods to eliminate bias and confounding variables? Good studies go to great lengths to minimize the potential for error. They also go to great lengths to explain both what bias or errors may still exist.

  9. Are results consistent with the generally accepted body of research on the subject? Don't draw conclusions from single studies or ones that contradict the preponderance of available evidence.


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Auto and Energy Companies Driven to
Use Less Stuff

We're happy about the news coming out of Detroit and other automotive hubs. There are lots of new developments to watch, many of which could truly reduce waste, pollution and energy consumption. Here are some samples

The Union of Concerned Scientists, General Motors and Green Mountain Energy have teamed up to create a new charging station for electronic vehicles in Berkeley, CA. The source of the energy? Wind, which is a renewable resource. Further, the combination of wind and electric power means that little, if any, carbon dioxide is emitted during the production, distribution and consumption of energy.

General Motors has also announced a $1 billion, 13 year deal to purchase recycled aluminum from Imco Recycling Inc. of Irving, Texas. A quarter of the aluminum will be coming back to GM, since it will be recovered from their own vehicles and operations. GM continues to look to aluminum to make their vehicles lighter and more fuel-efficient. For reference, their 1999 model cars contain an average of 271 pounds of the metal, up 29%, or 61 pounds, from 1998.

Not to be outdone, DaimlerChrysler has unveiled the first zero-emission, fuel-cell vehicle with enough space to fit a driver and passengers. The company considers the NECAR 4 (short for New Electric Car) to be a breakthrough, since the fuel cell technology creates a storage system small enough to fit in a compact car and still allow room for people (what a concept!).

For reference, fuel cells convert hydrogen and oxygen into electricity, which then powers the car. The output of the process is water vapor, which is supposedly more environmentally friendly than carbon dioxide. (Both are greenhouse gases.) The company plans to commit over $1.4 billion for fuel cell technology enhancements and commercialization.

Finally, Shell has opened four solar service stations in Europe -- two each in Germany and Holland. The four stations use different types of solar power systems to provide energy for electric vehicles, the objective being to learn which types are the most efficient and effective. Shell plans to open eight more such units in Germany during 1999.

 

Buy the Book

We are very happy to report that Use Less Stuff Environmental Solutions for Who We Really Are continues to sell well, and has gone into a second printing. So those of you who couldn't find it, take heart! Try your local retailer or any of the on-line booksellers.

We're most proud of the fact that we've received many comments from readers telling us that the book totally changed their view of what needs to be done in order to conserve resources and preserve the environment. Thanks for all of your support!

 

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A Seasonal Reminder

When it comes to reducing waste, Spring is king. Between the house, lawn and garden, there are plenty of ways to cut down on time, money and materials. You've probably thought of many of these, but we're betting you haven't though of all of them

  • Start with a comprehensive plan that examines the flow of materials in your garden. Look at your yard's "waste stream" and think about ways to turn it into "food" for other processes. For example, grass clippings, leaves, etc. should be mulched and/or composted, thus creating fertilizer, mulch and soil conditioners. This will keep many, many pounds out of the trash, and will also reduce the need to purchase fertilizer and similar products.
  • Plant shade trees as a way to make the yard prettier, help absorb greenhouse gases, and reduce the need for expensive air conditioning. Trees can keep your home cool by reducing the amount of direct sunlight that hits the siding or windows.
  • Consider ground cover rather than grass in high-shade areas. It's easier to maintain, needs less watering and doesn't require cutting or fertilizing.
  • Perform a water audit on all hoses, couplings and timers. Leaky faucets and such can waste hundreds of gallons of water or more. Make sure that timers turn the water on only during low-sun periods (early morning and evening), and that the water is only turned on as long as is necessary to get the job done.
  • Don't bother with bug zappers. Studies have shown them to be both energy-wasteful and ineffective. In many cases, they attract more bugs to the area than would have shown up without them!
  • Try sharing yard implements with your neighbors. Does each of you really need his or her own lawn mower, trimmer, hedge clipper, rake, shovel, etc? Sharing the cost is a great way to save money while reducing the amount of stuff in the neighborhood.
  • Do a little spring cleaning on your appliances. Replace filters as necessary on air conditioners and dehumidifiers. Clean the dust and lint off the coils on the fridge, freezer, AC, and dehumidifier. Doing so will reduce energy use and maintenance costs will increase appliance life.
  • Don't forget about outdoor appliances. Lawn mowers will run better and cleaner with a new filter, a new spark plug and clean oil. (Please dispose of used oil properly.)
  • Get the car in shape, too. Perform a thorough washing to remove salt as well as to expose dings and scratches that need attention prior to rusting. Have your emissions system checked, along with engine timing, spark plugs, tire pressure, etc.

 

Y2K and the Environment

What affect will the Y2K software glitch have on the environment? Don't laugh, it's a serious question, at least judging from the number of people who have called to ask us. We've done a little research and given it some thought. Here's what we would recommend:

Don't stockpile too much food. Garbage Project data indicates that food waste goes up during shortages,as people buy unfamiliar types of food that their family won't eat. Also, the more you buy,the more that can spoil. If you feel that you must stock up, buy canned goods and other non-perishable items.

Test your computer yourself. After backing up your entire system, set the clock on your machine to December 31, 1999 and leave it on overnight. (Do this on a Friday or Saturday so you don't potentially cripple your machine on a weekday.) You'll know the next day if you have a problem and thus have plenty of time to find a fix, avoiding the need to send the machine to the landfill. No matter what happens, you'll finally have that complete back-up you've always wanted to make but never got around to doing.

 

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Reduction Roundup...
Fowl Play -- Chicken producer Perdue Farms has announced that it will begin disposing of manure in a more environmentally-friendly manner. Its $6 million joint venture with Missouri-based AgriRecycle Inc. will turn 120,000 tons of annual waste into fertilizer pellets. All local chicken producers can participate in the program, and will be paid an as yet undetermined sum for the waste they bring to the recycling facility.

Save Your Energy -- The U.S. Department of Energy has developed a Web site that can help you determine the best ways to save energy, and thus money, at home. The site can even help you find the right products, as well as a contractor who can install them. The Web URL is http://homeenergysaver.lbl.gov.

Eco-Pest Control -- If you're looking to green up this year's gardening efforts, we have a few ideas for you. Gardens Alive! of Indiana (812-537-8650) specializes in earth-friendly pest control, selling a variety of bug sprays, insect traps, lures etc. Similar companies include Gardener's Supply of Vermont (800-863-1700) and Planet Natural in Montana (800-289-6656). Ask about their compost supplies and gardening books, too.

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The ULS Report is a quarterly publication of Partners for Environmental Progress. Send e-mail to uls@cygnus-group.com.

Snail mail address: P.O. Box 130116, Ann Arbor, MI 48113
Phone: 734-668-1690
Fax: 734-930-0506

Editor: Robert Lilienfeld
Technical Advisor: Dr. William Rathje


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Copyright 1999 Partners for Environmental Progress. All rights reserved.


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