A few years ago, some women in India got discouraged by the amount of packaging they had to take home when they bought a product. They spoke with a store owner, and when no satisfactory response emerged, they simply removed the packaging and left it in the store. Their point was to shift the responsibility of recycling the packaging back to the store owners. People around the world are showing they like being hands-on at the store. Entire supermarkets in Germany have zero packaging. In New York City, new stores are opening that allow shoppers to fill their own containers with the store’s products. The Marks & Spencer chain in England is experimenting with package-free food.
Check out our own local version, The Ozone in Red Hook, NY–a sustainability resource and education center. Among other things, it offers bulk cleaning products, personal care items, herbs, olive oil and essential oils.
Currently, when we get most products home, it becomes our job to dispose of the plastic wrapping, the boxes, the bottles that manufacturers and producers use often for their convenience. It’s not surprising that recycling numbers are very low—around 14 percent.
The best fix is to address packaging at its root and not wait until it becomes a disposal problem. Happily, designers are coming up with solutions to reduce packaging waste. Engineers have created edible water containers, and a newspaper has recently adopted a potato-based wrapping instead of plastic film for its news bundles. Fruit and vegetable growers are considering ways to eliminate the plastic stickers that make problems for composters.
Consumers can take several actions. We can search for brands that have already considered their impact on the global trash stream and buy them. We can write to companies asking that they remove some or all of the packaging from a product we like to buy (does your toothpaste really need a paper box around it?). And we can switch to bulk-buying stores, bringing our own containers and refilling them ourselves.
Some of these suggestions can seem cumbersome and potentially more costly, and real solutions do need to be widely accessible and affordable to significantly reduce waste. While engineers and design departments work on solutions, we can begin by being aware: aware of what we buy and how we dispose of, re-use, and recycle packaging. We know that companies have a bottom line, and the line is drawn by us, the consumer. Companies do respond to us and to the crises of climate and pollution.
If Starbucks can address the ubiquitous sightings of their green straws in oceans worldwide by discontinuing them, it is clear that we are the bottom line. We are asking for solutions to our world pollution crisis. Since 15 percent of what you pay for a product is for the packaging, we could eventually come away with extra change in our own pockets.