Excess Packaging Feels the Squeeze

Manufacturers streamline containers as consumers seek ways to stem the flood of solid waste. WASTE: SOURCE REDUCTION

`I DON'T think we're going to get out of our waste disposal problem until we address the source-reduction issue,'' says Jeanne Wirka, solid-waste policy analyst at Environmental Action, a private advocacy group based in Washington. ``The waste crisis is ... a symbol of the way we Americans recklessly use resources.'' Source reduction is cutting down the amount of materials and toxics used in the manufacture of products before they reach the consumer, before they reach the waste stream.

It's the No. 1 priority on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hierarchy of solid-waste solutions, followed by recycling. Landfill dumping and incineration would serve only for what remains. Says EPA's Paul Kaldjian, ``It's attacking [trash] before it becomes waste.''

``It's critical because ultimately it's preventive medicine, not just a Band-Aid,'' says Ruth Lampi of the Coalition for Recyclable Waste based in Silver Spring, Md.

With recycling in its infancy and landfills reaching capacity, more and more attention is being paid to reducing the 3.5 pounds of trash each American puts into the municipal waste stream daily. About half of this, says Ms. Wirka, is packaging.

Reducing the amount of material used is not new for the packaging industry; but the motive has only recently shifted to environmental benefits.

In the past several years, many containers have become slimmer and lighter. Plastic containers have thinner walls; high-density polyethylene (HDPE) jugs (commonly used for milk and juice) weigh only 2.3 ounces compared with 3.5 ounces a few years ago, and an even lighter resin is on the way. Aluminum and steel products have been made lighter in weight; soda cans are made from half as much aluminum as before. And a number of containers - cereal boxes, detergent bottles, beverage and soup cans - are made from recycled materials.

Yet source reduction isn't happening fast enough for many advocates; nor is it getting the attention that recycling is. This may be because consumers think reduced packaging will mean a return to the old days, to a more difficult life style, says EPA's Mr. Kaldjian.

But the throwaway mentality is being challenged. Concerned citizens are pushing for state-levied taxes on excess and nonrecyclable packaging, bans on some packages, and reduction of toxics used in their manufacture.

By opting for reusable packaging, consumers can avoid the unnecessary, says Wirka, citing an example of overpackaging in the produce sections of most supermarkets, where fruits and vegetables are sold on plastic trays rather than in bulk. The reason for the package is to make checkout easier and faster. ``But nobody is thinking about the effect of all that added waste on the waste stream,'' Wirka says.

What can be done about this?

``From the consumer angle, there are a number of things we can do,'' says Wirka.

``We certainly encourage people, when they have the option, to buy the product with less packaging,'' she says.

``The other thing for people to do is reuse the packaging that they do get,'' she continues. ``There's no reason to buy wastebasket liners if you can use those plastic shopping bags you get in the store. There's no reason to buy sandwich bags if you can just use the plastic bags you buy your apples in.''

Last month, Maine was the first state to pass a comprehensive environmental protection law that sets priorities, beginning with reduction of waste, followed by re-use, then recycling. According to Brownie Carson of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, reduction of waste may mean banning some packages, or putting a tax on others.

``Shoppers at the supermarket compare pennies,'' says Mr. Carson. ``If that 39-cent mustard costs more, say 42 cents, in a nonrecyclable, throwaway container, then they'll think twice.... We want them to see two things: I'm generating more trash, and the products are costing me more. The question really comes down to education - bringing it home to the people.''

But the packaging industry is concerned that a push toward source reduction will mean less safety in packaging. ``Packages have three functions to perform: protecting, preserving, and advertising,'' says John McDonald, director of environmental affairs at Continental Can in Norwalk, Conn. ``If the package can't do all of these, it's not doing it's job.''

Ed Fox, associate director of corporate packaging at Proctor & Gamble (P&G) in Cincinnati, says source reduction is critical to solving the solid-waste problem, and it's up to industry to take the first step.

``Source reduction by the packaging industry alone could take away 10 percent of the solid-waste stream,'' says Mr. Fox. ``It doesn't require any effort except the packaging industry to `get with it.'''

Several of P&G's detergent containers - Tide, Cheer, Downey - are made from 30 percent recycled resin; Continental Can and Plastipak Packaging Inc. manufacture these to P&G's specifications.

P&G also was the first manufacturer to announce a container made from 100 percent recycled, low-density plastic. The bottle contains Spic and Span, a household cleaner.

Fox says his company will continue to work toward an average reduction of 25 percent in all package categories - from bottles to diapers. Already its brands of diapers are half the thickness they used to be, which means that both diaper waste and diaper-box size are reduced.

If the packaging industry suffers a loss of business, suggests Fox, it should look to fill the growing markets for recycled products.

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