One of the major drivers of the trash we create, at great cost, is the things we buy from day to day. I have marveled, once I started thinking about it, at how much of my groceries, for example, is packaged in individual, small plastic, glass, and paperboard containers. Every time I toss another plastic bag or container I can’t help but ask myself “Is that another cup of oil going to the landfill?” or “How much electricity (and petroleum) did it take to make that paperboard?” It also occurs to me that groceries pose an extra problem in the attempt to eliminate wasteful packaging, and that is sanitation.
Certainly adopting more hygienic practices in the production, distribution, and consumption of food items has been a cornerstone of our improved health and longevity. It makes major news when some part of the system goes wrong, and there is a major e coli contamination of hamburger, for example, but less news when someone suffers from salmonella or any one of the other nasty microorganisms contracted through contaminated food. Individual packaging of products helps us avoid this, but mostly provides increased convenience in the handling, sale, and storage of what we buy. So, if we want to reduce packaging in our waste stream, how can we do it?
I have been thinking about reusable packaging, and how it could be applied to our groceries. It’s not impossible to eliminate the one-time-use packaging we have so much of today. A good place to start is to recognize that people living a hundred or more years ago had a tremendous amount less of it. They had crocks, jars, whicker containers like bushel baskets, and wooden boxes, for example, which they cleaned and reused, and which lasted for years. Unfortunately, our standards of sanitation are a good bit higher now (not to mention the fact that few of us alive today remember the time before individual, disposable packaging became standard). On the strength of that thinking, I came up with the following ideas, at least some part of which may come about in the future. (Feel free to comment and poke holes in my ideas, or add your own.)
I envision using re-usable glass, composite, and hardy plastic (not the cheap crap we mostly see today) containers for groceries. They could be of standard sizes that fit nicely, not only in our cupboards and refrigerators, but in light weight carrying racks with convenient handles, made to fit neatly in the trunks or back seats of our vehicles. They would also fit nicely in our dishwashers for easy cleaning, have a standard label space on the end for displaying the content’s name and barcode, and last for years.
At the grocery store, near the entrance, would be perhaps a hundred square feet of counter and equipment where we could send the containers through a very fast sanitation process, with optional wash, just to make sure they’re sanitary, and for pennies per container. We might even be able to put the whole rack in at once and pick it up 30 seconds later at the other end of the machine. There would also be some space where new containers and carrying racks could be purchased. To buy a product, peanut butter, for example, we would place the container on a scale under a spigot and push a button to dispense. The machine would take the tare weight of the container, dispense into it the amount of peanut butter we wanted, weight it again, and spit out a name/barcode label for the container. Or, even better, the end of the container could contain a bit of the relatively new “digital paper” and/or a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag, into which the dispensing machine would program the product name and barcode. We would put the container back in our carrying rack and proceed to checkout when our shopping was completed, where either the containers’ barcodes would be scanned, or the RFID tags would be polled for their identification and quantity information by the “cash” register. We would scan our debit card (or wave it over the touch terminal) to pay for our groceries, and leave with our groceries neatly labeled and stowed in our carrier. This is not a great jump from where we are now, except that it implements reusable containers in place of our current one-time-use packaging.
Along with this development, I thought of ways the sanitation process could be expedited. We might have a device the size of a microwave oven, and no more expensive, that would sanitize items quickly, possibly by a flash of high intensity ultraviolet light, a bath in a recoverable, sterilizing vapor or gas, or a very fast wash-and-dry in a recyclable, no-residue sanitizing solution. I am far from expert on sterilizing technology, but am sure the knowledge exists now, and that the production of such an appliance is just a matter of packaging and commercialization.
If we can do something like this with our groceries, it will be even less expensive and easier to apply reusable packaging to the non-food items we consume. I can foresee a day when our personal waste streams will be greatly reduced, with attendant positive effects on our pocketbooks and the ecology of the planet. After all, we won’t have petroleum and coal to kick around forever. We need to start thinking and working ahead now. I look forward to the comments and ideas of others, and hope to live long enough to see much of what we need to do come to fruition in the future.