Our last issue on packaging
and waste reduction generated more comments both positive and negative than
all of our previous issues combined! We thought the best way to respond would be to
directly answer the questions raised, since they strike right to the heart of our
philosophy on using less stuff.
First, let's review the lead story in our last issue,
entitled Great Taste, Less Landfilling. In it, we reported on a recent study
commissioned by the National Consumers League and performed at Michigan State by the
Department of Packaging. From the data generated, we drew the following conclusions about
* Lighter packaging
means less waste.
* Larger sizes translate to money and material savings.
* Bag-only products save resources versus their bag-in-box
* Plastics such as polyethylene and PET can play positive
roles in reducing waste.
These conclusions sparked much controversy and concern. We have
provided answers to the most frequently asked queries. Many of our responses may surprise
you. Remember Our job is to provide the facts. We are merely the messenger, and have been
surprised by much of what we have learned, as well.
The research failed to address the value of recycling.
Wouldnt the inclusion of recycling data change your recommendations?
We strongly agree that the lack of recycling data was a flaw in the
research. Recycling is important, and deserves to be included in any discussion of
However, we performed similar (and methodologically more rigorous)
research in 1995 that gave credit to packages that were either recyclable or contained
recycled materials. Significantly, the results were not demonstrably different than those
discussed in the recent study. Lighter packages created less waste, regardless of
differences in recycling rates. (See the chart below.) The full packaging study is
available on our Web site.
Much Stuff Gets Landfilled?
From The ULS Report Study of Packaging Efficiency
*Based on package containing 25% Post
Consumer Recycled (PCR) Content, as reported on label.
|Ketchup (1000 Lb.)
| 32 oz. Glass Bottle
28 oz. PET Bottle
|Vegetables (1000 Lb.)
| 16 oz. Steel Can
16 oz. PE Bag
|Fruit Juice (1000 Gal.)
| 46 Fl. oz. Glass Bottle
64 Fl. lz. Paperbrd. Ctn.
64 Fl. oz. PE Bottle
11.5 Fl. oz. Alum. can
Looking at the first example, we compared the packaging needed to
deliver 1000 pounds of ketchup. We measured gross discards for glass and PET plastic, gave
appropriate credit for recycling, and then looked at net discards what is actually
thrown away, and thus the true measure of waste. As can be seen, even though PET is
recycled at a much lower rate than glass, it produces about 80% less net discards.
The vegetable example tells the same story. Because the plastic bags
are so much lighter than the steel cans, they produce much less waste even when the far
higher recycling rate for steel is added to the equation. (Note We were not able to
develop a total lifecycle perspective, since we couldn't compare the increased energy
needed to keep frozen vegetables cold versus the increased costs of transporting the far
Finally, we looked at juice, which shows a similar story. The much
lighter weight paperboard and polyethylene cartons produced far less waste than glass
bottles, even though glass is recycled at a higher rate. However, the real winner, so to
speak, was the aluminum can, which is both very light and highly recyclable. In
fact, if it werent for recycling, aluminum would have a rather negative
environmental profile. Creating new aluminum from bauxite ore can significantly degrade
the local environment, thanks to large-scale energy consumption as well as unsightly
Isnt it always better to use a container that can be
recycled rather than one that cant?
The answer is no, thanks in part to something we illustrated in the
first question. Its not just how much material that is saved that counts, but also
how much stuff ultimately gets thrown away. Further, since recycling is a process like any
other manufacturing system, it creates pollution and waste, uses energy, etc. For example,
typically between 10 and 30% of the paper returned to a mill for recycling ends up as
sludge and has to be thrown away. The fibers just don't have the strength to make another
trip through the paperboard packaging process. Many such containers, including cereal
boxes and egg cartons, fit this category Theyre already at the end of their life
cycle. Sending them back to the mill probably means theyll head for a landfill.
What this question really points out is that conservation of
resources is the key factor to consider. Let's look at an example that's easier to grasp
than a typical packaging story the automobile. While it certainly makes sense to recycle
an old car, it still makes more sense not to put one on the road in the first place. No
amount of recycling can offset all of the gasoline, oil, tires and spare parts needed to
keep a car running, not to mention the pollution and greenhouse gases emitted during 100
thousand miles or so of use.
Thus, from an environmental standpoint, recycling does not
automatically make for a rosier picture. That's why source reduction, or the elimination
of weight and waste, is generally more powerful and desirable. Simply put, it's better to
not create waste than to figure out what to do with it.
Since we recycle glass, shouldnt we switch back to using
more of it?
Increasing the amount of glass produced or collected for recycling
will not increase the amount of glass that actually gets recycled, and will probably end
up reducing the recycling rate! The basic reason is that glass recycling is controlled by
both demand in the marketplace and available production capacity.
Theoretically, theres plenty of room to increase the recycling
rate. Including reusable bottles, only about 35% of glass is collected for recycling. So
without increasing the amount of glass produced, theres already far more glass
available than the recyclables marketplace can absorb. Why? Because its either not
effective or efficient to go above the current level. If it were more efficient, the
recycling rate would rise, as more of the glass collected would actually be reprocessed.
Now, think about this The best way to increase the rate of recycling
is to decrease the amount collected! For example, if we use 100 pounds and recycle 35 of
them, the rate is 35%. But if we use 70 pounds and recycle 35, the rate jumps to 50%! How
can we accomplish this feat? By reducing the amount of glass needed to carry a given
amount of product, or by switching to a lower cost, lighter weight alternative.
In fact, both of these scenarios have occurred. Much to its credit,
the glass industry has been able to reduce the amount of glass per bottle by about 25% in
the last 20 years. Also, cheaper and/or lighter materials such as paperboard and plastic
have replaced glass in many applications, especially where larger sizes are in demand.
(This is why quarts of grape juice are packed in glass, while gallons are packed in
OK, even if paper isnt always recycled and goes to a
landfill, at least its degradable. You cant say that about plastics and
Yes, paper is degradable. But because modern landfills are designed
to be air- and water-tight, they keep paper and other organic wastes from breaking down
quickly, if at all. Fifty year old newspapers are as easily read and recognized in a
landfill as the plastic, glass and metal packages found next to them. We have plenty of
Garbage Project research from 14 landfills around the country to prove it.
* * * *
What does all of this mean? Basically, were back where we
started: Choose products that come in very lightweight packages, regardless of the
material or materials from which they are made. Buy larger sizes, and buy in bulk.
Purchase items in bags, rather than bags-in-boxes. And most importantly, buy only what you
need or can use before it spoils.
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Y2K and the Environment, Redux
After reading our last issue, Linnea Perlman passed
along these words of wisdom: Do not throw away your VCR in the year 2000. Set the year
to 1972 because the calendar days of the week and month will be the same as the year 2000.
Great advice, with credit as well to Jenny Sullivan at Ohio State.
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UCS Report Confirms Advice of ULS Report
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has
published The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices (Three Rivers
Press, 1999), a book that confirms much of what we've been saying in this newsletter, as
well as in our own book (Use Less Stuff Environmental Solutions for Who We Really Are).
Here's what the experts had to say about what we should worry about, what's not that
important, and what we need to do to create a more sustainable future.
The Big Picture
As we've been saying for over 5 years, the key environmental issue
we humans have to face is consumption, and the two primary things that we Americans
overconsume are food and energy. Our consumption patterns are the cause of four leading
environmental problems air pollution, global warming, habitat alteration, and water
pollution. The activities primarily responsible for these concerns are:
* Use of cars and light trucks
* Meat and poultry production
* Fruit, vegetable and grain production
* Home heating, hot water use and air conditioning
* Household appliance usage and lighting
* Home construction
* Household water use and sewage
The Answer? Use Less Stuff!
Here are the actions which the UCS recommends be taken by Americans.
Don't be surprised if they look very familiar:
* Choose a place to live that reduces the need to drive.
* Make your next car more fuel-efficient.
* Eat less meat, especially red meat.
* Buy organic produce whenever possible.
* Work to improve the efficiency of home appliances, heating
and cooling systems.
Forget About It!
Based on a number of scientific analyses, the UCS concludes that
it's far more important to worry about the items listed above than items we more typically
worry about, as described below. We completely concur.
Cloth vs. Disposable Diapers
Basically, it's a wash (pun intended). The environmental impacts are
not that different. The real issue? Fewer babies to put in the diapers!
Paper vs. Plastic Bags
Again, there's no big difference. Take fewer of each, bring your
own, and reuse the bags you do take.
Disposable Plates, Cups, Cutlery and Napkins
In moderation, their impact is small. Using these items once in a
while is fine, but every day is probably wasteful.
Spray Cans and Styrofoam
Neither of these is made using ozone-depleting chemicals anymore, so
moderate use is not a big deal.
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Be a Lean, Green, Shopping Machine
Contrast the story above with this quote from Why
We Buy The Science of Shopping (Simon & Schuster, 1999): "If we went into
stores only when we needed to buy something,, and if once there we bought only what we
needed, the economy would collapse, boom... Fortunately, the economic party that has been
the second half of the twentieth century has fostered more shopping than anyone would have
predicted, more shopping than has ever taken place anywhere at any time."
What a difference of opinions! We decided to use a little
intellectual judo. We took the strategies listed in this book which are designed to sell
you more stuff and turned them on their ear. Instead, we're going to tell you what to
watch out for so that you don't make unnecessary purchases.
First, shop with an attitude. Get in and out as quickly as
possible. Studies show that the more time spent shopping, the more money spent as well.
Second, reduce the need for, or size of the basket, you take.
Shoppers have a tendency to fill baskets. That's the reason why some stores only have
large carts, or others scatter baskets around the stores.
Third, don't talk to strangers, especially store clerks. It
may sound a little rude, but research shows that the more time you spend chatting with
store personnel, the more obligated you feel to buy something.
Fourth, keep going. Usually, the thing you want most is at
the back of store, and the aisles taking you there are full of eye-catching impulse items.
That's why video stores put the new releases at the rear so you'll walk past the popcorn,
soda and candy on the way to the counter. Or why drugstores have the pharmacy at the back.
You've got to go past all the other goodies to get to what you need. Or why the big toy
stores put the bestsellers like Barbie in the back and make you walk through racks of
coloring books, crayons and other doodads to get to her. The stores make more money from a
$2 coloring book than from a $12 Barbie.
Fifth, shop from a list. This is especially true for men, who
are far less likely to plan their trips before they shop. Those people who create and use
lists buy less impulse stuff than those who merely wander around the store.
Sixth, check bargains carefully. Underwear stacked on a table
at 4 for $20 is not any cheaper than the same stuff stacked neatly on the shelf for $5
each. Also, read signs closely. Many times, the featured price is the everyday price. In
many states, stores are required by law to let you know.
Happy and smarter shopping!
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Smart Gardening As part of its Countywide Yard
Waste Program, the Los Angeles Department of Public Works has made "Smart
Gardening" ideas and instructions easy to discover online. Residents can find
instructions for backyard composting, worm composting and grass recycling. They can also
find helpful information on how to implement water-wise gardening practices that conserve
water and reduce waste. Check out the site (www.smartgardening.com) or call (888)CLEAN LA.
ReTIRE It What was once considered an
eyesore and potential fire hazard by many Atlantans has been turned into a safety
enhancement for children. Residents reaped an additional benefit from last months
Tire Amnesty Day as NTB National Tire & Battery recycled and donated the scrap tires
collected back to the city. Volunteers resurfaced the playground of an area park with a
pour-in-place compound made from the recycled tires. Contact Kristen Barnfield
ULS DAY 1999 is November 18
Many of you have been asking about ULS Day this year. It'll be on
Thursday, November 18. We're just starting to work on plans now and could use your help!
Any and all sponsors are welcome. For details, please contact Bob Lilienfeld at
734-668-1690 or via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!
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