Watchful eyes, thoughtful mind

Earth and us ….. past, present and future ….. connected?

Packaging: who needs it? October 1, 2009

Filed under: ecology,recycling,technology — Radiance @ 10:00 AM
A guest post generously contributed by Bob Williamson, Founder & Chair, Greenhouse Neutral Foundation. Contact details and details of book ‘ZERO Greenhouse Emissions – The Day The Lights Went Out – Our Future World’ authored by Bob are given at the end of this post.

When going about busy daily lives for most of us in the developed nations, we rarely give much thought to the externalities either upstream, or downstream of our consumer society. Upstream from our individual consumption, we can site the resources used by manufactures; the raw materials, the water they consume, the energy and all the emissions associated with these activities. Downstream we can site not only the costs of collection, but the loss forever of these original consumed resources (all that energy and water) when recycling for reuse doesn’t happen. Downstream are also the environmental time bombs of toxic waste and landfill methane emissions we are leaving for future generations to deal with. The mounting piles of rubbish arriving daily at landfill sites around the world are testament to the profligate ways of our own current consumption and of the desire for ever rising profits by industry and commerce.

Finite resources are used in making and supplying all these goods to us and then almost instantly in the case of packaging, they are discarded to landfill. They take with them vast amounts of externalised consumed resources that are mostly hidden from our view ‘out of site and out of mind’. (example – an aluminium can in the smelting process alone will consume 25.75 litres of water!) See the PPI white paper which reports 37% of greenhouse emissions in the US are attributed to non-food products – “Opportunities to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions through Materials and Land Management Practices,” this report offers new insight into the impact of products and packaging on climate change.

I have lobbied long and hard for these consumed resources in products and disposable packaging to be brought to the foreground with the hope that we will change our habits with knowledge, to a future that is more in balance with the laws of nature. If we don’t, very soon we will need to live our lives with finite resource extinction. In the book I take a tongue in cheek look at packaging waste and suggest the ‘Unpackaged Movement’.

Here is an excerpt: Now what about that plasma TV, the fridge, or even the electric drill bought at the corner superstore? What exactly are we buying, the product or the packaging? Are we buying the TV, the electric drill or other consumer products, or the cardboard box and cardboard packing, the bubble wrap and the polystyrene foam? I have an idea here. We could start a movement, the Unpackaged Movement! One of my favourite songs from the 1960s got me thinking, Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant.” Quite appropriate I think, as Arlo got busted for dumping garbage. I downloaded the lyrics off the Web and was going to put them in, but they would have been longer than the book so far, so here’s the gist of what happened and how it might be incorporated into present-day real life. As mentioned, Arlo got busted for dumping Alice and Ray’s (Alice’s husband) garbage, paid the fine of $50, and had to pick up the garbage in the snow. When called up for the draft, they wouldn’t take him because he had a criminal record. He suggested at the end of the song that if you wanted to get out of going to Vietnam, for your psychological evaluation you could walk in and sing a bar of “Alice’s –Restaurant” and walk out. He said if one person did it they would think he was a nut and wouldn’t take him. If two people did it they would think they were both crazy and they wouldn’t take either of them. If three people did it they would think it was an organization. And if fifty people did it they would think it was a movement.

So, here’s the plan: we all unpack our purchases at the store and leave them with the cardboard box and cardboard packing, the bubble wrap, and the polystyrene foam. “Here you go, you can have this, I just want what I came here to buy!” Now if just I did it they would think I was a nut. But if we could get a movement going, The Unpackaged Movement, all the packaging could stay where it belongs, with the person/company who is making the profit and make them responsible for waste that would normally fill our bins. (There is a P.S. here—I’ve put my money where my mouth is on this idea. The look on the guy’s face at the hardware superstore when I dropped in to deliver all their cardboard packaging and plastic back was a picture. “I bought this product at your store last week. But I don’t want the packaging. So you can have it back. Thank you.” I found the whole experience strangely exhilarating. I have some more in the trunk of the car for my next trip out.) End excerpt

There is indeed a PPS to this story since I wrote ‘ZERO Greenhouse Emissions – The Day the Lights Went Out – Our Future World’.

The unpackaged daily life of our family has become very personal.

On one particular occasion we needed a replacement kettle to the one that was designed to last a month outside the warranty period of 12 months. I returned to where we had bought the other Breville stainless steel electric kettle and bought the same model. When unpacked at home on the kitchen counter, my daughter dutifully packed the old one in the box that the new one came in; writing on it ‘PLEASE RECYCLE’ and on my next trip out I called back to the mega electrical store, walked up to the salesman I had seen the day before and said, “Hi.”

He replied “Can I help you sir?” looking at the box in my hand.

I said ‘Yes, I bought a kettle yesterday from you, the very same model I bought 13 months ago from this store. Here is the old one back, packaged up in order for you to send it back to Breville for recycling along with their box and polystyrene packaging. Thank you.”

Handing him the box, I savoured the look on his face, knowing full well of course, that its long journey of return to China would stop at the dumpster at the rear of the store. Still as I said in the book, if we all did it, then we would see a movement and eventually become extended producer responsibility and as it should be; ‘ZERO Waste’ to landfill.

Bob Williamson
Founder & Chair, Greenhouse Neutral Foundation

Author of ‘ZERO Greenhouse Emissions – The Day The Lights Went Out – Our Future World’
Hard cover book or e-book available for $9.99 from
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