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.4 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
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.