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

July-August-September 1999
Volume 6, Number 3


Conservation Controversy        Y2K Again        UCS Confirms ULS

Conservation Controversy

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 packaging:

* Lighter packaging means less waste.

* Larger sizes translate to money and material savings.

* Bag-only products save resources versus their bag-in-box cousins.

* 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. Wouldn’t 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 packaging alternatives.

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.


How Much Stuff Gets Landfilled?
From The ULS Report Study of Packaging Efficiency (March, 1995)

Gross Discards

Recycle Rate

Net Discards

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




*Based on package containing 25% Post Consumer Recycled (PCR) Content, as reported on label.

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 heavier cans.)

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 weren’t 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 mining activities.


Isn’t it always better to use a container that can be recycled rather than one that can’t?

The answer is no, thanks in part to something we illustrated in the first question. It’s 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 They’re already at the end of their life cycle. Sending them back to the mill probably means they’ll 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, shouldn’t 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, there’s 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, there’s already far more glass available than the recyclables marketplace can absorb. Why? Because it’s 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 plastic.)


OK, even if paper isn’t always recycled and goes to a landfill, at least it’s degradable. You can’t say that about plastics and metals.

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, we’re 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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Reduction Roundup...
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 ( 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 month’s 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 (312)240-2829.



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 Thanks!


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The ULS Report is a quarterly publication of Partners for Environmental Progress. Send e-mail to

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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