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A reporter's week as a trash-free warrior

A reporter investigates what it takes to forsake a trashy lifestyle

By Samar FarahStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 11, 2002

I felt trapped in a giant shrink-wrapped nation, set on a corrugated-cardboard barge, adrift in a sea of styrofoam peanuts and tissue paper.

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Worse, I was beginning to think I liked it.

The feeling started with an assignment that stung like a moral challenge: My editor asked me to devote one week to reducing the amount of garbage I send curbside.

It was bad timing. I had just returned from my first trip to Spain. Of course, I'd heard that it was no longer Rome but recycling that bound together Continental Europe. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for such drought conditions there: Disposable napkins were to be found, it seemed, only in time capsules; receipts were smaller than movie stubs; subway passes were harder to keep track of than chad; and, most shocking of all, coffee had to be consumed on cafe premises in ceramic cups.

I came back longing for the convenience of a to-go cup, the security of a domed lid, the comfort of a cardboard sleeve. Instead, I took on a waste-free regimen.

I began with an inventory of the contents of my kitchen trash bin. Food and personal care packages, especially cereal boxes, are my biggest problem. Even discarded credit card offers can't compete.

A quick check on the website for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reassured me that this is normal. Normal, at least, for most of the developed world, including the US, where on average one-third of all garbage is packaging. I also came across some less reassuring news: While recycling in this country has nearly tripled in the past two decades, waste has ticked up steadily as well.

So I called package designers, environmental activists, and educators. Many confirmed that, after a spate of high profile attention in the early 1990s, concern about waste and packaging has been losing steam. A January survey by Packaging World magazine found that only 13 percent of manufacturers (of everything from cosmetics to food) describe their customers' interest in "green packaging" as "very high."

In the US, "premium products are expected to be in premium packaging," Lisa Pierce, editor of Food and Drug Packaging magazine, told me.

"If you like the packaging, you want it more," said Libby DeLana, who has designed packaging for firms like Veryfine and L.L.Bean.

That implicit standard, I was told, combined with a growing demand for convenience and security, means many consumers – even card-carrying granola crunchers – are less likely to balk at a few extra inches of plastic.

After work, I headed to my supermarket, a trendy whole-foods retailer. On my way in, I passed a young man carrying a plastic bag as flaccid as an empty pillow case. Did it cradle a solitary banana? A bagel? Either could have fitted easily in his backpack.

Emboldened by my observation, I took on the produce section and found sheared corn in styrofoam and cellophane, pre-bagged onions and potatoes. The salad bar was no better, offering one-size fits all (extra-large) containers, and knives and forks in plastic sleeves. I found individually wrapped snacks wrapped together, frozen single servings of cuisine from every corner of the globe, and row upon row of bags of organic tortilla chips: one part chip, two parts air.

I left empty-handed, wondering why I hadn't noticed before that my grocery store was a den of unbridled packaging.

It's this "huge, invisible industry," Don Ariev, chair of Packaging Design at Pratt Institute in New York, told me. "The vast majority of my students as well as the public in general, continue to be unaware of the significance of packaging."