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America: The Saudi Arabia of plastic packaging

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Dec. 27, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
December 27, 2011 6:06 pm

This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.

Christmas is over. The Christmas packaging is not.

There it sits, forlornly, in garbage cans or under couches or in recycling bins. Crushed cardboard boxes. Polystyrene foam peanuts and packing noodles. Hard plastic shells torn open by teeth, screwdrivers, scissors and fingers (some of them now bandaged).

Somebody must think Americans are in love with packaging.

Small, hardy electronic gizmos, thumb drives and the like, might have been safely mailed in padded envelopes. Instead, they arrive in boxes 100 times their size. Sometimes the goodies are encased in three or four layers of cardboard and plastic. Valuables seem to demand multiple defenses, like a king inside his tower inside his castle walls inside his moat.

Consumers pay royally for the cardboard castles their stuff comes in. Extravagant packaging can account for a hefty fraction of retail prices. The extravagance peaks this time of year. California’s recycling agency, CalRecycle, says America produces 1 million extra tons of trash a week between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.

Plastics are the worst. Though most of it is theoretically recyclable, little of it actually winds up getting recycled. Instead, it jams landfills or becomes litter. The peanuts and noodles are mostly non-biodegradable. The geniuses who make America’s packages often helpfully glue paper labels to plastic containers, making them infernally difficult to recycle.

Plastic clamshells are a positive threat. Come the holidays, emergency rooms see a stream of bleeding moms and dads who got infuriated trying to break into those almost impregnable bubbles. The use of clamshells is blessedly in decline. Manufacturers must be figuring out that trying to kill their customers is bad for business.

The ridiculous overuse of plastic packaging is more than an environmental blight; it is an exceptionally dumb use for petroleum and natural gas, from which most of it is made. Most people would probably prefer to drive their cars or heat their homes with it.

Europe has gotten serious about this insanity. The European Union aggressively recycles packaging. In some countries, merchants who put their goods in too many containers get stiff fines.

Americans are more laissez faire about business practices. But couldn’t we try some voluntary scheme to stop the arms race among businesses that try to outdo each others’ packages? Maybe prod them to come up with standardized specs for a variety of recyclable, sensible boxes?

Like EnergyStar appliances or LEED-certified buildings, such containers could bear some stamp of environmental virtue. Something like, “This box is no bigger than it has to be” or “I’ve got nine lives,” or “This package will biodegrade by next Christmas.”

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