The keys to improving our relationship with our environment, especially in the area of disposable products and packaging, are at least two-fold. Economic aspects will govern what we can afford to do, while information on our choices will govern what we choose to do, and the ways in which these two general factors play out is different between individuals and corporations. (By corporations, I intend to include human organizations of practically any type, because they function differently than individuals.)
First, packaging is a necessity, and while I expect that some disposable packaging is required for sanitary reasons, there are ways in which such packaging can be handled that minimize waste and landfill space. The options include recyclable packaging, packaging that is organic and can be composted, and edible packaging, for starters. But how do people and corporations know what to choose?
There is more than one key to environmentally friendly packaging, disposable or otherwise. Energy use in the production, handling, and disposal of the packaging is important, and more studies need to be done and, more importantly, made publicly prominent so that this aspect is understood by all.
Natural resource consumption associated with packaging is perhaps the biggest factor. Beyond the fact that most of our energy for processing and handling (including transportation) is coming from non-renewable sources, some of the chemicals used producing in packaging are petroleum or coal-based. These can include dyes, inks, scent agents and paints, many of which also have a high ratio of toxic waste production for the amount of the actual product produced.
Fortunately, some packaging has already begun to change to recyclable types such as paperboard, thereby reducing the demand on natural resources. Aluminum foil seems to be quite recyclable, and increasingly worth recycling as the cost of aluminum increases. Composite packaging, such as combined plastic and paper or paper-backed foil wrappers, may not be as good if the difficulty of separating the materials for recycling makes doing so uneconomical.
I have written separately about possible future concepts for reusable packaging (link). There is also the idea of edible packaging for foodstuffs. Most fruits and vegetables come with their own skins as packaging, some of which are edible and most of which can be composted, but we may need to carry them in quantities that make containers necessary from a practical standpoint, and the, all too often, we’re back to packaging.
It seems we need to work towards public awareness of the total energy and resource usage in our packaging, and the true costs involved, if we are to do an effective job of conserving our resources. It is encouraging to see more and more people (in the developed world, at least) willing to spend a little more in order to conserve our resources and reduce their environmental impact. In fact, if properly planned and designed, the cost of recycling is less than the cost of dealing with our non-recyclable waste, which tends to appear later, after we’ve benefited from the products we buy. It somehow seems to generate more inertia in the cleanup efforts if we are no longer benefiting from the products we’re cleaning up after.
Overall, however, the most important factor in decreasing human loads placed on our environment is economics. Both corporations and people need to control costs, and there is a limit to how much any entity can pay in order to be more ecologically responsible. That means that, to be truly successful and establish more responsible and sustainable standards, any new ecologically-friendly products or methods must increase benefit-to-cost ratios, either by providing more utility and value or by reducing costs.
There are also two components to that cost, for example: the cost of using the new process or product, and the cost of changing over to it. Corporations, in particular, being driven by fairly short-horizoned financial objectives, can usually only amortize startup and adoption costs over a few years, which creates a higher hurdle for new and more ecologically-friendly products and processes to overcome. An individual can take a longer term into account, and include the idealistic concept of “doing the right thing”, without risk of being reversed on the short-term financial side of the situation.
The person or corporation who would invent and commercialize a new product needs to take total cost into account, recognize the short amortization period that may be involved in the calculation of total cost, and also include an extremely deep dive into all of the contributing costs, all the way to basic raw material acquisition, changes to equipment and systems, and training costs, for example. Unless the improved product or process can be justified with a truly exhaustive view of costs AND environmental impacts associated with it, it will turnout to be either a hard sell to industry and the public, or to have ecological and/or economic drawbacks that will be found later, and which will detract from its value and reputation.
On the information front, many more studies, in greater depth than most I have seen publicized to date, and much more public exposure, are needed for the public to understand which products and processes are most ecologically responsible. Without this input people can not make the right choices. For instance, is a paper shopping bag really better for the environment than the ultra-thin plastic bags we have as an option in most supermarkets?
Personally, I don’t know if the energy to cut the trees, transport the wood, grind the wood into bits, cook it and process and dye it, roll it into paper, cut and fold it into bags, ship it to my store, collect it back and ship and process it for recycling has more or less impact on the environment than the drilling and pumping of the oil, the shipment by pipeline to chemical plants, the heating and processing of the oil into polymers that can be rolled into sheets, the processing into plastic bags, the shipment to my store, and the eventual disposal of the bags in the landfill. This sort of information needs to be common knowledge, and our media need to promote it. Incentives for media action may be dealt with in a future blog entry, as improvement in these areas (public information and media attention) needs serious thought and action.
The upshot is, reducing our ecological impact in the area of packaging will require both attention to the economics that motivate our choices and improved quality and availability of information that make the choices known to us. Much more study, publicity, and resulting popular support are needed if we are to achieve a sustainable and low-risk future. What do _you_ think?