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Richer than ever, we're squandering more, too. And some of our best efforts
to think and act green are falling short.
Bob Lilienfeld Sunday, July 9, 2000
The economy is strong. Crime rates have dropped. Now, as any pollster can
tell you, the environment has crept up on the list of worries Americans are
losing sleep over.
A recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California and the David and
Lucile Packard Foundation found that Californians are so concerned about the
environment they are willing to tolerate higher housing and gasoline prices
to protect it. Seventy percent of state residents see environmental problems
as a threat to their health and well-being, with one in four characterizing
the danger as ``very serious.''
In the Bay Area, the environmentally correct routinely sort bottles, cans
and newspapers on garbage pickup day. We weigh whether we want paper or
plastic at the checkout stand and agonize over decisions like what type of
diapers to buy. We may even choose to shop on the Internet, believing that
e-commerce is a greener way to go.
Meanwhile, our increasingly affluent population is producing and consuming
at unprecedented rates. We can pat ourselves on the back because we're
recycling more than ever, but the fact remains that we're also producing
more waste than ever, especially in the areas of energy consumption, land
use and packaging. Ironically, even when we mean to think and act green --
by shopping on the Internet in order to save gas, for instance -- our best
It's sobering to think about the amount of carbon dioxide each car, truck
and SUV emits into the atmosphere. For reference, one gallon of gasoline
creates about 22 pounds of carbon dioxide, the gas most responsible for the
types of atmospheric changes that could lead to global warming. Let's say
you've got a big SUV that gets around 12 miles per gallon, and you drive an
average of 12,000 miles per year. The 1,000 gallons of gas you burn will
create 22,000 pounds -- 11 tons
-- of carbon dioxide.
Even smaller, fuel-efficient cars create a fair amount of carbon dioxide. A
car getting 30 mpg would need only 400 gallons to go those 12,000 miles but
would still create 800 pounds, or 4.4 tons, of greenhouse gas annually. Put
another way, each car creates its own weight in carbon dioxide every 4 to 6
Our reawakened love affair with big gas guzzlers is one reason we continue
to pump huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But an
overlooked contributor is that we no longer commute into the city as much as
we used to. In the 1970s, about 25 percent of people carpooled. Today, the
number is closer to 8 percent. A good part of the reason is that many of us
no longer commute into the central city, but now move from suburb to suburb.
There is no efficient and convenient way to do this, so we're forced to
drive, mostly individually, from home to work and back.
Now that gas prices are high, we have good reason to think about saving
energy and finding ways to do things differently. First and foremost, try to
carpool. Second, take public transportation when you can. Third, consolidate
your trips so that you can take fewer of them, saving time, money and
gasoline. And when you need to go out, exercise your legs, rather than the
gas pedal, by walking and biking.
Besides discouraging carpooling and use of public transportation, suburban
growth has harmed the environment in many ways. It has reduced the amount of
green space available for wildlife habitation and species diversity, which
in turn lowers an area's ability to absorb excess carbon dioxide and
generate oxygen. The more obvious and easy-to-spot damage includes increased
flooding, because there's less ground available to absorb storm water, as
well as lower air quality from smog and other pollutants.
One of the major causes of suburban growth has been the spiraling cost of
living in places like San Francisco and Silicon Valley. The Bay Area's
beauty and hot economy is a double-edged sword, since the strong desire to
live here has created an explosion in population growth, which in turn has
helped send the price of food, shelter and other necessities skyward. The
high prices have helped lead an exodus to suburbia.
These population shifts have taken a potentially environment-friendly
situation of many people living close together who can walk or bus to work
and turned it into an environment-unfriendly situation of many people spread
over a large area who must drive virtually everywhere.
Solutions to these issues include policies that encourage businesses to
locate, and people to live and work near cities. Also required is the
development of transportation and communications infrastructures that make
it easier and cheaper to commute into the cities rather than between
Americans are recycling trash and garbage like never before -- but the
tonnage of discarded waste has also started to grow after several years of
decline, according to a recent report by the Environmental Protection
One of the key culprits here is the amount of packaging we create, which
continues to not only increase, but is growing faster than the rest of the
garbage we generate. According to the EPA, packaging waste grew from 64.5 to
71.8 million tons between 1990 and 1997. In 1990, packaging accounted for
31.4 percent of household waste. By 1997, it grew to 33.1 percent of the
total. EPA estimates show these growth trends continuing through at least
If we're so aware of the need to use less, why is packaging waste still
growing? First, we are overwhelmed by all we have to do, and therefore wish
for more free time. Second, we are an insecure lot, and need to feel that
we're getting the most for our money.
Our frenetic lifestyles make spare time scarce and therefore precious. To
compensate, we demand that products provide high levels of convenience. We
want our foods precooked, preportioned and pre-plated. We want other goods
and services to be prepackaged, prearranged and precisely measured. And
we're willing to pay a premium price to get all of this.
Unfortunately, with more convenience comes more packaging, and lots of it.
Think about how much material is thrown away after serving individual frozen
dinners and prepackaged lunches, for example. And if you serve an entire
family this way, the waste can easily fill up a small trash can.
Think of mini-bags of Goldfish. Junior sizes of yogurt. Kool-Aid in little
bottles. All of these come with as much packaging as product: little bits of
food in little packages, put in bigger packages that are then over-wrapped.
Think of Happy Meals. Look at the colorful box! Inside is another colorful
box filled with french fries. And another colorful wrapper with a hamburger.
There's also a cup filled with soda and covered with a lid. Of course,
there's also a little toy, wrapped for your protection. If you're eating at
the restaurant, why can't they just put all that stuff on a tray?
At grocery stores, you're increasingly likely to see fresh food sold in
specific portions and packaged plastic containers. Suppose you have a recipe
that calls for shallots. You need only one or two. Can you buy one or two?
No. The store insists on packaging a dozen together. Yes, they sell more
shallots. And yes, you throw more stuff away -- the container and the 10 or
11 sorry-looking shallots that rotted in your refrigerator three weeks
later. Ditto for zucchini, squash, corn and other veggies packed this way.
In addition to convenience, our need to feel that we're getting what we paid
for makes packaging a potent tool for marketers and retailers.
Take toothpaste, for example. The product -- the toothpaste
-- is basically the same from brand to brand. For marketers, the trick is to
get us to buy their product, and preferably, to pay more for it than we
would for anybody else's. How do they accomplish this? Some genius comes up
with the idea of dispensing toothpaste in pump form. Consumers fall for the
-- a fancy package dispensing the same old product -- without stopping to
consider that the old way of dispensing toothpaste not only worked just as
well as the new way, it generated less waste.
Perfume is another good example. Take off the cellophane and open the
cardboard box. Reach in and grab the smaller ``presentation box.'' Take off
the top of this box and see the tiny bottle of fragrance nestled in a
felt-coated cardboard or plastic holder. Odds are you spent a fortune --
mostly for the packaging and advertising that got you to pick this brand in
the first place.
Computer software is a notorious example of bigger is better. Inside that
big box is a slab of cardboard or foam. Wrapped inside is a little bitty CD
or disk. Why the big box? To charge you a big price.
There are some simple things you can do to reduce waste while still saving
time. In many cases, these suggestions will save you money, as well. For
example, let's say your kids are off to day camp tomorrow, and you have to
go shopping for lunches. The first thing to do is buy large-size, rather
than single-serve, bags of items like carrot sticks, celery, cookies and
pretzels. Second, pick up some reusable Ziploc-style bags. Third, as soon as
you get home, break these down into smaller sizes and store in the Ziploc
bags. When it's time to pack lunches, most of the work will already be done.
There are also ways to overcome the big-is-better syndrome, too. Take
software, for example. Many companies now make their products available over
the Internet, as well as through stores. You can download and install the
software directly from Web sites and keep manuals on your hard drive rather
than on your bookshelf. The result? No packaging at all.
Our real environmental problems are due to the ways in which increasingly
affluent, ever larger populations produce and consume food and energy and
make use of land. Recycling is great. Keep doing it. But it's also time to
find ways to consume less and to make better use of what we have.
GOOD THINGS DON'T ALWAYS COME IN SMALL PACKAGES
Excess packaging is not only on the rise, it's growing faster than the rest
of the garbage we generate. That's because many of the items we consume come
with as much packaging as product. Here are a few examples of particularly
wasteful packaging, as well as some alternatives.
-- Little bitty drinks packaged in paperboard cartons and covered with
shrink-wrap. How about making Kool-Aid from concentrate and serving it in a
-- The ultimate convenient school lunch. An outer paperboard box, with a
plastic tray inside. Most items inside are prepackaged. Far more packaging
-- All the ingredients in one plastic single-serve package. How about
putting some peanut butter and jelly on crackers and putting the crackers in
a reusable container?
-- Oh, those teeny little cans! Single-servings mean you get as much can as
you get food. Buy larger cans and cover with foil. Better yet, buy dry food
and add your own water.
-- Inside this package are a few carrots in one pouch and some dressing in
another. Pack carrots in reusable Ziploc bag and put dressing in a small
reuseable container instead.
-- Nice-looking bottle. In a nice-looking paperboard box with a see-through
plastic window. No other cold cream needs a box. Why this one?
-- Snack packs are just a little bit of food packed in a bag, put in a box
and shrink-wrapped. Save money and resources by buying a large bag and
putting one serving in a Ziploc.
-- Tiny cups of yogurt held together with a big paperboard container. Why do
you need the paperboard? And why not buy large sizes of yogurt and divvy
them up yourself?
IF YOU WANT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
The more we recycle, the better we feel. The better we feel, the more we
justify consuming -- especially if we're going to recycle. But you can't
recycle the most important thing we consume: Energy. It takes energy to fuel
the factories that create products, to get the products to the store and to
melt down or otherwise recycle products. So while it's great to recycle,
here's a list of things you can do to cut down on the consumption of energy.
-- Choose a place to live that reduces the need to drive
-- remember that transportation is responsible for about one-third of energy
consumed in the United States.
-- Make your next car more fuel-efficient -- especially you SUV drivers.
-- Consolidate trips. Going to the west side of town? Think about everything
you can do while over there, rather than making separate journeys.
-- Buy secondhand. More and more people are discovering the joys and value
of buying all sorts of used stuff. This means that items last longer,
reducing the need to produce new ones. And whole new stores are catering to
these needs. There are used computer stores, sporting goods resellers,
outlets for children's clothes and used CD stores popping up all over the
place. So before you buy new, do the following:
1) Check the yellow pages for stores that buy and sell the used items you're
looking for, and search the Internet for sites selling ``pre-owned items.''
2) Consider trading unwanted items you have for something else. This keeps
your old stuff in circulation and out of the landfill. Clothes are a good
example, since we get tired of them long before they actually wear out.
-- Share. Why buy stuff if you can share it? Talk to your neighbors about
jointly purchasing things you all need but only use occasionally. Examples
include lawn mowers, hedge trimmers and other lawn and garden tools.
-- Compost yard wastes and grass clippings. Cut the grass with a mulching
mower to save time and resources while reducing waste. Since mulch acts as a
fertilizer, you save money and reduce the amount of chemicals that seep into
ground water and aquifers.
-- Water the lawn in the early morning or evening, not during the heat of
the day. This way, water will soak into the ground instead of evaporating.
-- Improve the efficiency of home appliances, heating and cooling systems by
dusting off coils and cleaning or changing filters.
-- When birthday invitations arrive, try making the gift wrap yourself out
of newspapers, magazine ads, etc. Also, consider buying gifts that are both
thoughtful and consumption-reducing, like tickets to concerts, movies,
skating rinks and sporting events. Gift certificates to local book, record
and clothing stores also ensure your friends choose something they really
want, and thus won't end up throwing it away.
-- Spend less time in front of the TV and computer. Not only will it save
energy, but it might bring you closer as a family.
-- Use the library. It's a great source for magazine exchanges or checking
out the latest video or CD. You can even borrow a book there for free.
-- Thinking about buying something? Try the 30-Day Rule. If you still want
it 30 days from the first time you saw it, chances are it's something to
really consider purchasing. Waiting the 30 days helps eliminate impulse
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle Page 1
-- Stephanie C. Davis - BFA, MPA Experienced Professional of Healthcare & Non-Residential Waste Programs
Waste Reduction Remedies sm A Multi-Waste Stream, Multi-Material Waste Management Company
1497 Hopkins Street #2D Berkeley CA 94702-1201 Telephone: 510/527-8864 Pacific Time Fax: 510/526-6218 (MUST INCLUDE MY NAME & TELEPHONE #) E-mail: ScD18@WasteReductionRemedies.com
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