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Back in the late 1990s, Roberto Carra and I produced a slim book aimed at the graphic design community called The Guide to Tree-free, Recycled, and Certified Papers. It later became the first volume in our Wood Reduction Trilogy and was followed by Building with Vision (2001), which set forth standards and examples for "forest-friendly" residential building. Paper or Plastic? (2004), our latest volume, spans the rambling, packaging landscape, with an eye toward meaningful reforms. An exclusive excerpt for CA follows:

Paper or Plastic? This seemingly innocuous question assumed almost existential dimensions in the early '90s, as it became a daily reminder to most of us that our industrial consumer society (in a world approaching 6 billion people) was running a collision course with the planet's ecological life support systems. Because packaging has rapidly become such an integral part of how all of us meet our daily needs, it serves as an easy scapegoat for a world bursting at the seams. In the form of litter and waste, packaging is a critical feature on the physical landscape. About one-third of the gross weight and half of the volume1 of America's municipal solid waste stream is comprised of packaging materials—at least 300 pounds per person per year. That figure includes a half-billion virgin wood transportation pallets that are used only once and sent to landfills—enough material on a volume basis to frame 300,000 houses.2

Yet despite all the negative attention—the ozone-depleting hamburger pack, Long Island's orphaned Mobro 4000 garbage barge, six-pack ring strangulated wildlife, oil-soaked birds and sea mammals, clear-cut, eroded hillsides—packaging remains in a growth phase. A study by the Grass Roots Recycling Network reported, for instance, that between 1990 and 1997 plastic packaging grew five times faster by weight than plastic recovered for recycling.3 Riding the economic boom of the 1990s, the production capacity of paperboard folding cartons used to box everything from carry-out food to pharmaceuticals, breakfast cereals, and printer cartridges, increased by 30% in the United States.Each year more than 150 billion single-use beverage containers are sold in the U.S. not to mention a conservative estimate of 320 million hot and cold take-out cups purchased everyday across the country.5 Some 19 billion pounds of peanuts and 25 billion cups made from polystyrene comprise just a fraction of the 1 million pounds of waste author Paul Hawken estimates are generated on behalf of the average American each year.6 One might even say that a tendency toward over-packaging is inextricably ingrained in our culture, psyche and economy. This is never more evident than during the holiday season when waste spikes 25% in the United States, with packaging doing a lot of the heavy lifting. A CNN poll TV-broadcast in December 2001 reported that 80% of people surveyed bought Christmas gifts for their pets, and that 67% wrapped them! A number of developing countries are also beginning to follow our lead. China is rapidly becoming the world's largest market for disposables, consuming chopsticks, food containers, cups, and other plastic packs by the billions. In an effort to combat the onslaught of "white pollution," major Chinese cities have imposed fines and restrictions on throwaway packaging, though no easy solution is in sight.7

There is no doubt that packaging fulfills invaluable functions in a global economy that provides basic necessities like food and beverages, fiber, building materials, clothing and medicines, as well as consumer and commercial goods to billions of people everyday. In as much as the right to food is seen as a basic human right, and it is increasingly recognized as such, packaging has an important role to play. Modern packaging's essential services—transportation, convenience, safety, hygiene, nutrition, spoilage prevention, information, branding, merchandising, product protection, theft-proofing and regulatory compliance—are widely acknowledged. And these services should not be underestimated. If a package fails to safely and adequately deliver its product, even more resources can be squandered.

Initiatives to reform packaging emerged from numerous sectors and to varying degrees of success in the early '90s. European governments passed revolutionary legislation that put the onus of resource recovery and waste minimization on manufacturers and the business sector. Design gurus began depicting a vision of a twenty-first century industrial paradigm based on Natural Laws and accounting procedures that include the long-term social and environmental consequences as well as the economic costs of doing business. Third party-certification organizations raised standards for ecologically sound and socially just practices by uniting producers and consumers in the marketplace. Highly efficient, regionally-based mini-mills were specifically designed to close local resource, water and energy loops. Scientists and manufacturers worked to make plastics from plants rather than petroleum. Activists escalated the fight to put the brakes on global deforestation and to embrace Zero Waste as an achievable and desirable long-term strategy for communities.

More than a decade after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, however, change appears to be frustratingly slow. In "mature" industries—where the infrastructure in place is massive in scale and entrenched, where profit margins are fractional and R&D hardly a consideration let alone a priority, where resource extraction is heavily subsidized—progress tends to be incremental rather than profound. By the end of the '90s, public interest in recycling was waning, and with each passing year, the pressures of population growth and economic development intensify. Still, people have been trying to forge paths toward "sustainability" and the world of packaging offers the opportunity to peer into unexpected windows for signs of hope. There will be no silver bullet to solve packaging's environmental challenges. Instead we must be open to a great variety of alternatives from a diversity of perspectives, approaches and places along the supply chain.

The proper answer to the paper/plastic conundrum is still neither. Eliminate, reduce, refill, and recycle as much as possible. But even better, develop whole new ways (or reintroduce old ones) of consuming, producing, distributing, packaging, reusing and reprocessing products and materials that actually address the complex situations we face in this new century. ca

Molded pulp made from old newspapers is a shock absorber (left).
The Regale packaging concept brings 100-year-old egg carton technology into the computer age. Through the aid of rapid prototype technology and injection molding, the Napa-based company can now produce molds and packaging previously limited to shallow forms such as egg cartons and apple trays. Regale's plan is to establish mini-mills that can use post-consumer paper from the local waste stream as their primary source of materials. At center is a prototype for a shoe box that is custom sized and can be reused. To the right is a material-efficient shock-absorbing corner cushion. www.regale.com
Three basic types of paperboard are used in packaging consumer goods: 1) coated recycled board (CAB); 2) solid bleached sulfate (SBS); and 3) coated unbleached kraft (CBK). According to the Alliance for Environmental Innovation, CAB is the material of choice. It is made from recovered materials with a minimum of 35% post-consumer waste. It is available in a wide range of thicknesses, exhibits high-quality printability, prints as fast as other materials and has a very favorable perception among consumers. In addition, it cuts greenhouse gas emissions and reduces wastewater discharges, among other benefits. The coating is typically a combination of clay, latex, and titanium that offers the brightness and vibrant graphics that marketers require. Over the past 20 years, CAB has cost between 25-40% less per ton than virgin board. This alone should have companies converting. Download their entire report on Greener Cartons at www.EnvironmentalDefense.org/alliance/reportsindex.html or see the Recycled Paperboard Alliance at www.rpa100.org.
Hundreds of millions of hot and cold take out food service cups are used each day in the United States. In order to hold the heat and protect the customer from a product that is best served at high temperatures, take out coffee is often double cupped or sleeved, primarily with paper. Reusable ceramic and glass cups, however, offer significant environmental and economic advantages over disposables. According to a joint study prepared by the Alliance for Environmental Innovation and Starbucks, ceramic cups reduce water usage by 64% and water pollution by 99% compared with disposable alternatives. Ceramic reusables slash solid waste by 86%, and decrease greenhouse gases by 29%. And for cafe owners, who often have excess washing capacity, they can save money too. Check out the report at: www. environmentaldefense.org/alliance/reports-index.html.
Returnable Plastic Containers (RPCs) are increasingly being used particularly in the supermarket sector for products such as fresh produce. In this case, the package serves as both transport container and display stocking crate. These containers can take the place of wax-coated corrugated boxes, that are normally compacted and disposed of in the landfill at high costs to the distributor. RPCs offer a package leasing system that includes delivery, collection, cleaning and quality control. Because of their higher costs than disposable packaging, they are only economical when they can be easily reused and returned in consistent supply loops. The containers usually interlock and break down for more efficient stacking and return.
In 2002, Summit Brewery of St. Paul celebrated the introduction of wooden transport pallets made of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified materials sourced from nearby Minnesota state and county forest-lands. "Buying FSC-certified pallets encourages forest management practices that protect clean water resources—an essential ingredient in quality beer," Christopher Sietz, general manager of Summit Brewing, says.
FSC forest management plans frequently require the thinning of smaller-diameter, lower-value trees in order to restore a healthier, uneven-aged structure to forests. Pallets are the highest value-added use for those trees.
The Community Forestry Resource Center, a project of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, conducted essential research and networking to link potential buyers with suppliers. Stewart's Forest Products and Savanna Pallet, quickly stepped in to explore the niche among green businesses.
A half-billion wooden pallets are estimated to be produced in the United States each year, consuming 10% of all lumber and 40% of all hardwood species, ranking as the seventh largest contributor to the waste stream. Most are used once or twice before being discarded and chipped for mulch, paper production, energy incineration or landfilling. Less than 10% are refurbished. www.fscus.org
Cargill Dow is perhaps the leading producer of degradable bioplastic packaging, made from converting corn sugars to polylactide (PLA) polymers through a multi-stage fermentation process. Their new $300 million facility in Blair, Nebraska, offers these bio-based resins to fabricators who then make molded plastic shells, clear films, containers, as well as disposable wipes, blankets and bedding fillers. Introduced by Italian super-market chain IPER in mid-summer 2002, this package holds fresh foods such as pasta in thermoformed containers and heat-sealable film overlays made from NatureWorksTM PLA. NatureWorks claims its PLA plastics are fully compostable in municipal and industrial compost facilities in approximately seven weeks. Researchers are now attempting to produce resins from corn stover—the leaves and stalks that are the byproducts of feed and food production. A few nagging questions remain, however, including how sustainable are the industrial agricultural practices that will supply the 14 million bushels of corn needed annually to run the plant at full capacity? To be fair, this amount is still just a fraction of one percent of the United States's annual corn output. www.cargilldow.com
It is only after the contents of the Italian Sarda Acqua Minerali are used and the bottle becomes waste that the lightweight Ecobottle reveals its innovative "design for recycling" concept. The bottle is made from 100% PET plastic including the cap with no labels, inks or glues, resulting in a raw material and energy savings of up to 15% according to the manufacturer. A seal sleeve on the screw top allows the application of the bar code and the colors that identify the product. Like many mineral waters, the Ecobottle is marketed in packs of six with a handle for easy transport. The shrink-wrap film can be printed in color with product information. A free, purposely-made tool cuts the Ecobottle in two with a simple circular movement to facilitate stacking. Nothing needs to be thrown away. The screw top can stay on the bottle. Due to the double conical shape of the Ecobottle, the lower part of the bottle can be placed exactly inside the upper part. The low neck allows for a tight concentration of stacked half bottles.
Introduced in late February 1999, Ben & Jerry's Eco-Pint container was the first phase in what is hoped to be a long-term overhaul of the conventional ice-cream container. Work on the Eco-Pint initially stemmed from a single goal—eliminating chlorine from the paperboard of the company's ice-cream packaging. Standard production relies on chlorine compounds as bleaching agents during papermaking, a process responsible for discharging organ-ochlorine-laced waste water. Among these are highly-toxic atmospheric and water contaminants known as dioxins. The Eco-Pint was made from 100%, non-chlorine bleached, virgin-wood kraft paperboard sourced from Riverwood in Louisiana. (Virgin wood-based paper is required by law and still goes to the landfill because of its petroleum-based vapor and moisture barriers.) Ben & Jerry's packaging designers immediately started work on finding alternatives to the federally-mandated food-grade polyethylene coating. Addressing inks and glues will follow. In an ironic twist, not long after Ben & Jerry's (now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Unilever Corporation) launched the Eco-Pint, a complaint was filed with the Federal Trade Commission alleging that their environmentally-friendly packaging was misleading, since laboratory tests revealed that a sample of their World's Best Vanilla flavor, which the company used to launch their new packaging, contained 0.70 parts per trillion of dioxin. This only validates the important work needed to rid ourselves of toxic pollutants that move freely through air, water and the food chain. www.ben&jerrys.com

Editor's note: Watershed Media is offering a unique pre-sale of the book at the price of $I0 (which includes book-rate postage and handling) to the first 250 respondents. (This book, published by Sierra Club Books, will retail for $I6.95.) Refer to this article and send your mailing address and check made payable to Watershed Media to 4SI Hudson Street, Healdsburg, California 95448. Expect shipment sometime in August 2004.


1. William McDonough and Michael Braungart, "The Next Industrial Revolution," Atlantic Monthly, October 1998, Vo. 282, No. 4, pp. 82-92, Web issue.

2. John Winter and Anne Marie Alonso, "Waste at Work: Prevention Strategies for the Bottom Line." INFORM Inc., 1999·

3. Jim Motavalli, "Zero Waste," E Magazine, March/April 2001, p. 31.

4. "Greener Cartons: A Buyer's Guide to Recycled-content Paperboard," Alliance for Environmental Innovation.

5. Food Service and Packaging Institute.

6. Paul Hawken, Amory and Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism. Back Bay Books, pp.52-53.

7. Xu Zhengfeng, "Putting an end to a plastic plague," August 17, 1999, www.atimes.com/china/AH17Ado2.html.

Daniel Imhoff is a Northern California-based writer who primarily concentrates on issues of design, the environment and agriculture. The Environment column is adapted from his latest book, Paper or Plastic (Watershed Media), which will be released this summer.


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