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Today there is a growing awareness that business-as-usual corporate and lifestyle practices jeopardize the health of the planet and the ability of future generations to sustain a good quality of life. Awareness in turn has created a confusing array of sustainability-oriented decisions. The Greenophobe takes a skeptical, practical, informed look at a variety of sustainability topics. Explore a mix of common sense solutions and in-depth discussions that demystify how to live green and live well.

01 March 2011

The Greenophobe's Wasteful Packaging (S)hit list

George Carlin explores in hilarious detial the odd obesession we human beings have with "stuff." A great setup for a spirited discussion of the inevitable revolution in how "stuff" is boxed and bagged.

Just about everywhere you look, you'll find people with an unquenchable thirst for more and more "stuff,” as George Carlin so effectively details in his famous act on this very subject. For as long as there has been stuff, there has been packaging to protect, display and transport that stuff. Some packaging is decidedly clever and necessary. The majority of packaging is archaic and wasteful. Its days are officially numbered.

Changes in the dynamics of consumer behavior, global resource availability and attitudes around product stewardship are catalyzing a major shift in what we consider acceptable ways to package all of our stuff.

Environmental concerns aside, price will be the biggest driver of the packaging revolution. Why pay for packaging when you could be getting more value in the form of the product inside? The big box stores popularized in the 1990's proved that bigger is better. Consumers gobble up opportunities to purchase more product with less packaging. “Refills” have become commonplace for staples such as liquid hand soap and detergent. Wal-Mart successfully worked with suppliers to provide ultra-concentrated detergents that require a fraction of the packaging and shelf space as the original formulations.

The supermarket is an easy target for a thought experiment. The American supermarket carries some 50,000 different items. By weight, packaging accounts for 30 percent of the products we buy and comprises the majority of a person's annual non-organic waste footprint. Considering packaging is made from the same raw resources that we rely on to make the products themselves (oil, paper, metals, glass, etc.), it would make sense to prioritize product over package. In many cases, the package is the product or it creates convenience or some other feature that people are willing to pay for. That's great. This article is about the other 99.9% of packaging, much of it conceived for the sole benefit of the producer with no regard for the end-of-life hassle the consumer is faced with, or the resulting environmental impact.

Up until now, the end-of-life stage of a product's use was not at the forefront of a product or packaging design discussion. If a company has a great idea, it can package that idea up in some flashy, plasticky, heavily armored container in order to attract attention and reduce spoilage. The very moment that the sucker (the consumer) purchases the product, the packaging becomes the consumer's problem. Landfills, backyard bonfires, and ocean dumping are the most visible consequences of what happens when massive amounts of packaging end up in the hands of consumers who have limited options for responsible disposal.

Consumer choice is becoming an increasingly powerful force in just about every product design area, including packaging. The proliferation of the Internet and social media (the Greenophobe included) makes it pleasantly easy for well-intentioned people to trash stupid products. Demand side forces such as consumer choice are just the beginning. As resources become increasingly constrained, we will experience a natural evolution toward bulk and reusable packaging. It's not a new concept. During World War I and Word War II, resources were heavily constrained in order to preserve valuable materials such as tin and aluminum for the war effort. Disposable consumer product packaging practically disappeared.

More recently, because of decades of relative resource abundance and low energy prices, packaging blossomed into a key marketing differentiator. Many products are marketed exclsively under differentiated packaging configurations. Same parent company, same formulation – different package and different price.

If you're not convinced that a revolution in packaging is imminent, peruse The Greenophobe's packaging (s)hit list. Many everyday products are likely to be banned globally if they do not develop product stewardship programs or innovate. "Stuff" that makes our list includes:

1) hopelessly high ratio of packaging to actual product
2) the energy intensity of the packaging is fiendishly high for the benefit delivered by using the product
3) it just has to go. Outdated, inconvenient, annoying. You'll know these products when you see them.


I'd like to propose a toast, without toasting the planet.

"A playful nose of soot and flyash dominates.  Sweet, full bodied bouquets of pesticides and petrochemicals underscore soft tannins.  The finish is mellow but prominent, leaving you with a zesty mouthful ripe with the essence of uncombusted hydrocarbons and just a touch of mercury and arsenic."  
Luxury products like wine typically travel great distances to reach us.  Production, packaging, shipping and disposal consume vast quantities of dirty fossil energy, scarce groundwater, and petrochemical resources that release toxic byproducts into the environment.  Shockingly little thought goes into the product's lifecycle impact because luxury products focus on creating perceptions of high quality at the expense of nearly every other product attribute.  Why place a hard-fought reputation at risk by dabbling in green features that can distract from the carefully constructed prestige of the brand?  In the case of wine, there's literally very little room on the label for green product characteristics.  In an industry that names products after bucolic estates and conjures inflated prices from thin air, there's plenty of room for eco innovation. 

It's not that luxury products are incapable of having positive environmental characteristics.  The reason for the lag is that we're still emerging from an era when greener product alternatives frequently evoke perceptions of inferior quality.  Think rough unbleached institutional-style toilet paper. Think puny, underpowered fuel-efficient cars.  From the look of things at your local wine shop, it probably seems like the green revolution has temporarily escaped the wine biz.  The standard glass bottles and labels, funky names, and fanciful descriptions are the same as they've always been.  Consumers may not quite be ready for eco wine but the earth's changing climate has other plans for the industry overall.

Back on the farm, wine producers face great economic and environmental uncertainty, in no small part due to the impending effects of climate change on the wine industry.  The business will likely find ways to adapt as the dynamics of a warming planet alter the sensitive microclimates that are responsible for producing the wines we know and appreciate today.  In response to regulation, rising costs or a combination of both, many wineries are already championing responsible land use practices.  There is a shift underway back to organic production methods that result in healthier products and prevent groundwater contamination.  As energy prices rise, producers in every type of agribusiness are looking for ways to incorporate energy efficiency and renewables into operations in ways that drive cost savings.

One producer is boldly breaking convention in the wine business.  Y+B Wines approaches the market with an environmentally conscious product