A reporter's week as a trash-free warrior
A reporter investigates what it takes to forsake a trashy lifestyle
(Page 3 of 3)
I asked packaging experts and environmentalists how far the US is from adopting such rules. The answer from Bette Fishbein, a senior fellow at the environmental research firm Inform, was typical: "very far off."Skip to next paragraph
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The morning went well. After taking out the trash, I relined the bins with old grocery bags. I also excavated a dusty plastic bowl and lid from the bottom of a kitchen cabinet and filled it up with cereal (mid-morning snack), forgoing the handier sandwich bags. Carrying it to work in my arms without a paper bag was, however, a blight on the wardrobe (someone should tell EMS to design plastic containers).
Later that day: Dinner with a friend at a Tex-mex joint. I ordered Cajun chicken with fries it was enough to feed me and my roommates for three days. I asked our waitress to wrap it.
"No problem, I'll bring a box over," she said, triggering my new waste radar.
"Could you bring some wax paper instead?"
Two days later, I threw out the wax paper and the wilted fries and chicken.
Forgetting my water bottle was one thing. But what was really hurting my career as a waste warrior were long, circuitous debates with myself about what in fact was the best course of action. It was one thing to reuse shopping bags. But was it better to admit that the leftover chicken and fries were likely to go uneaten, and therefore spare a sheet of wax paper? What was worse, an unbagged head of romaine, a third of which is likely to rot in my fridge before it can be eaten, or a presealed bag of mixed greens?
It's confusing for good reason, said Karen Proctor, the chair of packaging science at Rochester Institute of Technology.
The term "excessive packaging," she said, is overused and misused. Some might call a single croissant in a styrofoam shell wasteful, but to Karen, "single serving sizes do the job they have to do."
In other words, extra packaging can add value. Moreover, she said, manufacturers and packagers face demands and restrictions not immediately obvious to consumers, such as FDA regulations, shipping requirements, and specifications from retailers.
I recalled a complaint posted on the website for GrassRoots Recycling Network about a brand of organic chocolate that is sold in three layers of wrapping. "It may be that an organic chocolate bar needs three layers of wrapping ... maybe the light affects it," DeLana says.
Don't judge the cover, they were telling me.
I was ready to quit. Four days of paper and plastic dieting, and my kitchen waste bin was still bulging. To ease my conscience, I told myself it was up to the manufacturers to dress their wares more economically.
But then that night, I was picking up my dry cleaning when I decided to give the waste-free thing one last go.
Maybe it was the nice smile and quiet demeanor of the man ringing me up that encouraged me to ask: "Would it be OK if I took off the plastic and the tissue paper and the hangers and left them with you?"
He was a bit confused at first. No one had ever made such a request. But he helped me remove the wrapping. In the end, when I stood there with my clothing slung over one arm, he clapped. And clapped.
"I can reuse all this! Great!" he said, as if I'd just performed a disappearing act. And in a way, I guess I had.