Monday, July 20, 2009

This is not really my field, but maybe someone will read it.

I am not the most environmentally conscious person on the planet, but I try not to create too much excessive destruction. I carry net grocery bags in my purse. I don't leave more than one light on at a time. I've been trying to shut the hot water off whenever I'm not specifically using it. I only use the air conditioner for a few minutes at a time, and feel guilty while doing it.

I do generate trash, though. My recycling pile is full of packaging, mostly plastic: bottles, wrappers, baggies, whatever. There seems to be no end to it. A big part of the problem, of course, is that I'm a lazy so-and-so and don't bother to cook very much-- I eat far too much processed food. But even fresh vegetables often come in a plastic box.

There's definitely a recycling system here, and a lot of people are pretty good about separating the recyclables from their regular trash. Sometimes I even try to keep the plastic and cardboard bits separate, like I'm supposed to. (Okay, I totally would do it at home, but it's hard to take the system here as seriously when our drop-off point is a haphazard pile of garbage underneath a tree.) I'm not sure how good the system is, or how much of the stuff we hopefully put out can even be recycled, but it's better than nothing.

Still, I'd rather not generate the trash at all. Why don't manufacturers focus more on refills and reusable packaging?

I'm not talking about "refills" like you can buy in the store now-- new cartridges for your pen, or plastic pouch of laundry detergent you can put into your bigger container at home. The average "refill" package contains almost as much plastic as the original. Worse, all of the packaging is thrown away as soon as the contents are dumped into the old container. I'm talking about a real refill system: collecting, sterilizing and reusing the containers that already exist, rather than using more resources to make a new one.

With the current attention on our (vast) environmental problems, I wonder why reuseable packaging hasn't taken off. Is it a vested interest of the plastic manufacturers? Is it too much trouble to set up the infrastructure? Those are the two reasons that spring immediately to mind. For the first, there's no answer except to vote and demonstrate and stay informed, as with any political problem. For the second: everything's got to start somewhere.

For a good refill system to work, packaging should be durable, easily sterilized, and (eventually) recyclable. You'd need some kind of collection-and-exchange system-- maybe even something like the way milk bottles used to be reused. Some refills-- nontoxic products in small packages-- could probably even be done at the same store where the products were originally sold. I hate throwing away empty pens, for example, because aside from the ink there's nothing wrong with the pen. They're made to last for years, but are useless in weeks or days. How much technology can possibly be involved in refilling a ballpoint pen?

We already have a refill system for propane tanks: take the empty tank to the store and trade it for a full one, paying only for the gas and the service. Buying a new one every time would be wasteful and stupid, when the old container is perfectly good and can be reused for years. Why not use the same attitude when designing smaller things?

Our culture admires the shiny and new. You can't have a consumer economy without a consumer base that likes to buy things. Many people would probably be reluctant to use a system like this at first. There's no reason, though, why a few companies couldn't try it with a few products-- a kind of novelty for a while, until the idea caught on. Government subsidies could help them with the setup costs. When the infrastructure was built, I imagine a refills system would catch on pretty quickly. How much cheaper is it to sterilize and relabel an old bottle than to make a new one? The old dairy companies had it right.

There is endless room for this. It could be adjusted for almost every product. Shampoo, ketchup, nail polish, whatever: turn in the empty bottle, get a full one at a lower cost. It would be even easier for something like a produce container: just design a sturdy basket that could be dunked in boiling water befor new plums (or whatever) were loaded into it.

There is nothing but possibility here. There is no argument, except for immediate convenience, that could make disposable packaging seem like a better idea. (Although if some packaging were made immediately biodegradable, I might change my mind on that one.) I wonder what company will be the first to start experimenting with this.

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