Gift-giving with an eye on waste

Consumers can cut down on catalogs, and back retailers that pare down packaging

Christmas is the time for tinsel, cards, and those big beautiful packages. But all those holiday trimmings come at a cost to the environment. Once the presents are opened, there's a lot to throw away.

Packaging makes up about a third of what Americans throw away, according to some estimates. That's why some consumers and even a few businesses are seeking ways to keep holiday cheer from turning into post-holiday trash.

The movement is recent enough that many retailers and manufacturers haven't climbed aboard. "A lot of companies, unfortunately, are not looking to reduce holiday waste," says Eric Most, director of the solid-waste prevention program for Inform, an environmental research group in New York. Still, environmental advocates see encouraging signs from businesses.

One of the most recent moves comes from Norm Thompson Outfitters. In October, the Portland, Ore., retailer announced that after extensive customer testing, it had switched paper, using at least 10 percent post-consumer recycled content in all its catalogs.

"To our knowledge, Norm Thompson is the only mainstream catalog company to use recycled paper routinely in all of its catalogs," says Victoria Mills, manager of the Alliance for Environmental Innovation, a Boston-based project of the Environmental Defense and the Pew Charitable Trusts. "Their move to recycled [paper] could pave the way" for the entire industry.

Last year, companies in the United States sent out 16.6 billion catalogs, according to the Direct Marketing Association. That's 59 catalogs for every man, woman, and child in the United States.

And while retailers probably won't reach that record this year, thanks to postal-rate increases and the recession, the alliance and Norm Thompson estimate an industrywide move to 10 percent recycled paper would still save enough wood each year to meet the annual copy-paper needs of 18 million people.

"There are a lot of myths about recycled paper: costs more, doesn't print as well," says Derek Smith, sustainability manager for Norm Thompson. In fact, costs have fallen to about the same price as virgin coated paper and printing quality has improved dramatically, he adds. When the company tested response rates to virgin- and recycled-paper catalogs, it found that customers responded equally well.

Packaging offers another huge potential for waste reduction. Recycled paperboard is used for more than half the products on supermarket shelves - from cereal boxes to cake mixes.

But in other sectors, where the switch has come more slowly, certain products stand out, says Bruce Hammond, another project manager for the Alliance for Environmental Innovation.

Cartons of Colgate and Clairol Natural Instincts, for example, use recycled paperboard. True, toothpaste and hair color don't usually top Christmas lists, but other products packaged in recycled paperboard - Warner Bros. videos and DVDs, Hewlett-Packard printer cartridges, Kodak film boxes - might fill the bill.

Want to ship a gift to a loved one? Consider using UPS overnight shipping envelopes, which use at least 80 percent recycled paperboard.

It's just a first step, say experts.

"A lot of times, when people think 'environmental awareness,' they think of recycling - and really recycling isn't the key issue," says Mr. Most of Inform. "The key issue ... is waste reduction."

The US lags Europe in this area. In Germany, for example, supermarkets are moving to containers that can be reused dozens of times. Two months ago, Tesco, Britain's largest supermarket chain, began using German-made "bio-packs" that decompose when exposed to the elements.

On this side of the Atlantic, some retailers are moving to reduce excess packaging of the bulk items they handle. Six years ago, Target Corp. found that its employees were spending inordinate time getting apparel to its store shelves. Clothes would come in boxes inside other boxes, with each item wrapped in plastic and cardboard. So the company convinced its suppliers to reduce the packaging. Now some manufacturers ship clothes already hung on hangers. The initiative cut waste, as well as millions of dollars in labor costs.

One area still subject to debate is Internet shopping. It increases waste, because online retailers routinely use big boxes - and lots of packing material - to send small items. (Bulk shipping to stores makes more sense, says Most.)

On the other hand, driving a car to the store to pick up a book or piece of software burns energy, other experts argue. So consumers face tradeoffs.

Ways to cut down on the wrapping

Since retailers are moving to waste-reduction slowly, consumers have to take the lead in limiting the environmental impact of holiday shopping, environmental advocates say. Of course, many people already recycle items such as boxes and holiday wrapping paper.

Some other possibilities:

• Look for brands, such as Kodak, and retailers, such as Target, that use recycled paper and paperboard in their own operations. Don't know who's who? Start with the Green Pages online, sponsored by Co-op America (

• Bring your own bag to the store. Or if you're only buying an item or two, tell the clerk you don't need a bag.

• Buy in bulk, which usually minimizes the amount of packaging you'll be stuck with. And don't be shy about telling a store clerk to skip the extra wrapping. "When a retail store is packaging a product for you, we encourage consumers to say: 'I don't need that,' " says Eric Most of Inform, a New York environmental-research group.

• Urge catalog companies to use recycled paper. "When you're placing your holiday orders, it's the perfect time to say: 'I'd like you even more if you printed your catalogs on recycled paper,' " says Victoria Mills of the Alliance for Environmental Innovation, a Boston-based project. Better yet, cut down the number of catalogs you get by contacting the Direct Marketing Association at 212-768-7277 (or at

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