Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Cutting down on packaging and other disposable items

I'm a big fan of containers of various sorts. I can easily imagine the joy early humans must have felt when they discovered that they could use clay pots or other objects to carry water, freeing them from the need to go to a river or watering hole every time they became thirsty. I consider myself lucky to live in an era when consumers have ready access to airtight jars, ziplock bags, backpacks, envelopes, and countless other objects designed to hold contents securely.

However, I'm aghast at the recent growth of single-use packaging. Whether it's a plastic soda bottle, a milk carton, a steel can containing beans, or a plastic sleeve around a greeting card, something is seriously wrong when packaging gets used once then thrown out.

I don't see recycling as the answer. Recycling is certainly better, in most cases, than throwing packaging in the trash, but it still carries an environmental cost. Trucking recyclables to a recycling plant consumes fossil fuels, and then the plant has to use even more energy to break the recyclable material down into a useful form. And in the case of plastic and paper, true recycling doesn't take place. Materials are instead downcycled, and there's a never ending need for more raw materials to create high quality products.

I'm an avid reader of zero waste and plastic free blogs, including Living Plastic Free, Fake Plastic Fish, Life Less Plastic, and Zero Waist. I aspire to be more like the awesome writers of these blogs who have detailed their journeys towards a more sustainable way of living. My own journey hasn't yet taken me as far, but I've managed to cut down on my purchase of overpackaged or disposable items in a few ways:

  • During the months when local farmers sell fresh fruit from their farms, I now eat whole fruits instead of drinking juice. My intent was to avoid juice cartons, with their mix of cardboard and plastic, but as a bonus I've found that eating whole fruits fills me up much better than drinking juice.
  • I buy nuts and dried fruits from bulk bins, and eat those when I want a snack. A recent glitch is that some of the cashiers at one store seem to think there's a policy that items from bulk bins be placed in plastic bags for purchase, but I hope to clear that up by meeting with the store manager.
  • I always, always carry multiple cloth bags with me, no matter where I go. That way, I'm ready if I do any impulse shopping.
  • I always bring a sealable container with me to restaurants in case I have leftovers.
  • After giving up on finding any palatable source of caffeine that wasn't overpackaged, I stopped habitually using caffeine and now drink water instead of caffeinated beverages. This is almost worthy of a blog entry all to itself, because it involved a significant lifestyle change.
  • Although I still generate enough trash to make trash bags a necessity, I no longer buy them. Instead, I pick up other people's discarded plastic carrier bags and use those. This cuts down on the number of trash bags being manufactured, and also keeps other people's carelessly discarded bags from ending up in the river. I also pick up pens, which I find buried in dirt or mud surprisingly often. Occasionally, I find coat hangers or other useful items.
  • When I need to buy a battery-powered device such as a flashlight, I choose models that accept the rechargeable AA or AAA batteries I already own. The only batteries I ever purchase or throw out these days are ones for a gadget used at work that unfortunately doesn't accept rechargeable batteries.
Some challenges still remain. A few of the more pressing are:

  • Sandwich supplies. I can't find bread, margarine or deli slices without plastic packaging. I can buy peanut butter and jelly in recyclable glass jars, but the lids aren't recyclable and I think they include a plastic lining. Also, the jelly jars are much taller than they are wide, which is an inefficient form of packaging.
  • Soymilk. This is available only in single-use cartons that aren't recyclable.
  • Breakfast cereal. I recently started buying breakfast cereal that comes in large plastic bags with no cardboard box. This means less packaging, but I'm still stuck with plastic bags that are at best downcyclable.
  • Fruits and vegetables during the winter. During the warmer months, I buy produce from farmers who hate single-use plastic bags as much as I do, but in the dead of winter, the farmers don't come to town. My only options for buying produce are supermarkets that sell just about everything in plastic bags or boxes. Even the stores that have bulk bins for dried beans, nuts, etc., sell their potatoes in plastic bags. What the heck am I to eat?
  • Body care products. I can't find shampoo, hand lotion, lip balm, or sunscreen that are produced ethically and sold in reusable packaging.
  • Pharmacy supplies. I don't use a lot of pharmaceuticals, but once in a while it's nice to have some ibuprofen. Unfortunately, it comes in single-use plastic bottles.
  • Snack foods. Fair trade chocolate, Pirate's Booty, and potato chips are all weaknesses for me.


ehmeelu said...

Have you considered making your own bread and soymilk? It's not as hard as you may think, saves a lot of money, and reduces waste.

Cousin Yellowstone said...

I'm not very good in the kitchen, and find the thought of making my own bread daunting. I know from experience that I'm terrible at slicing bread, so even if I could somehow learn to bake beautiful loaves, they would become a mess when I hacked at them with a knife. Also, doesn't yeast come in little plastic packets?

I'd be willing to try making my own soymilk, but am concerned about giving up the vitamins and minerals that are added to the brand I drink at present. I guess I could take B12 and zinc supplements in lieu of drinking commercial soymilk. The supplements would come in plastic bottles, but the amount of plastic per dose would presumably be much less than the amount of plastic per serving of soymilk. I'll have to think more about this. Thanks for the suggestion.