A reporter's week as a trash-free warrior

A reporter investigates what it takes to forsake a trashy lifestyle

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.

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."

I did some research: Guys on Wall Street use the packaging industry to forecast ups and downs in the economy. Manufacturers can increase product sales simply by adding a little sticker here, an ergonomic ribbed handle there. Package designs are updated, on average, every two to three years. And I had no idea that it was possible to get a bachelor of science in packaging (course requirements typically include engineering and economics).

Ms. DeLana told me that cosmetics companies were the first to really understand the power of good packaging. Fossil and Swatch in the early '80s were quick to follow, with cool watch cases that were designed to be commodities themselves. Since then, many others have figured out that packaging is a key part of a marketing amd branding strategy. Lately, some experts pointed out, even fresh produce is benefiting. Without packaging, Tropicana oranges might have just as well been grown in my neighbor's backyard.

I hadn't ever really thought about it.

I needed to restock on cereal and yogurt, so I returned to the supermarket this time with the intention of buying.

I discovered EcoPac – a brand offering cereal in bags, with this advertisement: "Save 66 percent of the packaging." I was ready to load up my basket, but then I studied my choices more closely: "Heritage O's," "Millet's Rice," and "Meson Sunrise" – all of which looked quite wan and lifeless through the clear plastic. Only a few inches away: "Banana Gone Nuts," "Maple Pecan Crisp," and "Cocoa Bumpers," in traditional cardboard garb, with brightly colored drawings meant to suggest bursts of flavor. They did.

So I checked prices: EcoPac bags are $6.99 for 32 ounces, a better value for your money, but then again a large investment considering I'd never tried them. In the end, I walked away with a box of "Maple Pecan Crisp," chastened by my lack of willpower.

I also picked up three containers of serving-size fruit-flavored yogurt (the larger containers didn't come in fruit flavors), some asparagus (unbagged), four bananas (unbagged) and a carton of orange juice.

Halfway home, I realized a can of frozen orange juice would have been less packaging, less space in my fridge, more for my dollar. It was the first of a string of lapses.

I left my new, ecologically chic, blue-tinted, refillable 14-ounce water bottle from EMS on my desk as I headed out to lunch.

At the deli, I compounded my mistake by ordering chili, which came over the counter in a double cardboard bowl. But for the cold stare of the cashier, I may have considered handing one of the bowls back.

I gulped down my lunch, trying not to let the glistening water bottles in the refrigerator nearby seduce me. But the chili was extra spicy, and I ultimately succumbed to its sting. I allowed myself a glass bottle of pink lemonade and vowed to peel off the label later and use it as a bud vase.

If some environmentalists had their way, the burden of reducing packaging waste would shift from taxpayer to producer – rendering my lapses and insecurities about conspicuous waste-saving almost irrelevant.

At least 28 countries have laws to encourage manufacturers to reduce packaging. Under "Extended Producer Responsibility," as it's known, industry associations are responsible for recycling waste from their products, so they place fees on manufacturers to discourage excessive packaging. Germany was the first to pass such a law in 1991, and three years later, the entire European Union followed suit.

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."

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.

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