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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.


- plug-in scented home fragrance oil cartridges

- printer cartridges

- disposable razor cartridges. Again, a bit of a stretch but the packaging holds what has now become up to six razor blades, designed to get dull after the first pass. One of my New Year's resolutions is to learn how to use the old-fashioned slice and dice straight razor. There’s a common theme emerging as this list unfolds. It's wise to move back to products that once served people well for hundreds of years but went by the wayside when people got lazy or when marketers got clever (probably a bit of both). As an unwilling rider on the planned obsolescence roller-coaster that is the disposable men's razor blade cartridge, I am eager to break the cycle to prevent lots of unrecyclable waste and save untold amounts of money throughout my lifetime.

- OK, anything with the word "cartridge" is probably a total waste of money and resources. I looked up "cartridge" in the dictionary and here's what it says: "A small, costly receptical designed to bilk the consumer out of an insane amount of money ...$10, $15, even $50 for less than an ounce of usable product." In fact, things that come in cartridges don't even mention the product inside the cartridge by name. They just describe the thing you're supposed to put the cartridge into and what to do when you've used up the cartridge. It's formulaic madness.

- beer cans, beer bottles and wine bottles at parties...isn't everything more fun with a keg? Ten minutes into a party, the room is swimming with empties. Your living room will look less like a frat house and more like a dignified social gathering if you serve beverages from bulk containers. Get over the boxed wine stigma. Pour it into a carafe first if you have a problem displaying the box of wine on your counter. If your guests are going to gossip about your party for serving wine from a box, they probably aren't guests worth inviting.

- mail order items that arrive in boxes more than 2x the volume of the item inside. Someday, this will be a felony and it will be acceptable for the recipient to fill the empty space in the packaging with dog poop and return the item to sender. Actually, in New Jersey it is already legal to do just that.

- Pizza boxes (especially for delivery orders). The pizza ends up tasting like cardboard even if they do put that piece of wax paper inside. It still tastes like cardboard. Inevitably the top of the pizza touches the roof of the pizza box when the driver is upside down hurtling upside down through traffic in his Millennium Falcon delivery vehicle on the way to your house to make the delivery. There needs to be a reusable, recycled, sanitary, insulated way to deliver a pizza in the year 2011 that does not involve a printed cardboard box that I have to tear up and dispose of.

- dry cleaning / commercial laundry - my "organic" dry cleaner provides a personalized reusable green laundry bag to all of its valued customers. Then they return my freshly laundered and pressed clothes to me in a sea of plastic film, plastic fasteners, cardboard spacers, and metal hangers. The only one in my house who enjoys disassembling the wasteful dry cleaning packaging is the cat.

- plastic bags. Already banned in many places and soon to be banned in many more. These insidious sacks end up in the pacific ocean and make their way back into our food chain.

- bottled water

- milk cartons. The beverage carton is not the worst form of packaging in the world. It is however a step backwards from days when milk was delivered in convenient, returnable glass bottles. Anytime society takes a giant step backwards and ends up using more resources, we think it's worth highlighting. Bring back returnable bottles for commonly purchased bulk liquids, including milk.

- disposable diapers. Technically these qualify as packaging since they contain either a baby or, when full, a baby's nasty mess. There have been some noteworthy attempts to reinvent the diaper but all of them fall short of a sustainable solution that will work on a large scale and for people from all walks of life.

- Contact lens saline solution. Like half the planet, I am blind without corrective lenses. I have a problem with paying $9 for a 7oz. bottle of water every month. There must be a way for a consumer to create a saline-like sterile solution suitable for use in contact lens storage and disinfection by using ordinary tap water. Surely the companies to develop such a miraculous system for home use would be the same companies that currently enjoy ripping us for $90 per gallon for their plastic packaged stuff. We won't hold our breath that a solution is forthcoming for this product category but the visually challenged can always hold on to hope.

- the plastic "blister pack". This is the type of transparent plastic packaging that often hangs on wire and pegboard store display racks and contains some low-value but theft-prone item. One of three things typically happens when a human being attempts to open the blister pack. a) severe laceration to the hands, wrist or forearm when the packaging suddenly gives way under the force of your desperate gnawing and tearing. b) you destroy the product inside or fling the contents across the room. c) severe laceration to the hands, wrist or forearm as a result of the scissor, razorblade, or screwdriver you attempt to use to open the packaging. To add insult to injury, most blister packs are not recyclable in most municipalities. UPDATE: June 2, 2011 -- NY Times "Devilish Packaging, Tamed."

What is this rant all about? We want to let you know that you're not alone in your frustration with inane packaging. For now, the consumer products companies are operating on borrowed time using borrowed resources that have lifecycle impacts which far exceed the current costs of products. They've discovered it's easier to design wasteful packaging than it is to make great products. We're hoping to change that. We'll come out with a list of GOOD product packaging examples very soon but in the meantime it's just easier to point out the really bad packaging and "stuff" that permeates everyday life.

Einstein said that chaos breeds opportunity. Too bad he isn't around to redesign the "cartridge" for us.


  1. Much easier to use than a straight razor, minimal expense & packaging:

  2. This is a great list. Gotta link to it from my new site where I'm gathering pix of all the packaging that we get: evilpak.com