Thursday, December 9, 2010

How do You Decide on Packaging? Comparing Plastic and Metal. And Paper. And Back to Plastic

By all means please keep commenting on the previous post-- we'll take comments until next Tuesday, and then do our draw (I know it's a very tiny thing to give away, so I'm very grateful for the conversation.) South Africans, you can comment too because I can bring the bag to SA in January. Or people from anywhere, because there's the American Postal Service.

A random photo of our orchid, for inspiration

That said, I also wanted to move the conversation along to a related topic: We’re faced with seemingly endless choices about paper or plastic, plastic, aluminium or glass, and so on and so on. The best choice is “none of the above”, like the way that Joyce wraps Christmas gifts in cotton drawstring bags. That said, we’re faced with packaging every day. And the choices we make do matter. I wanted to demystify some of these choices for myself.

Bags at the checkout counter: I’m getting a lot better at remembering my canvas bags, but when I forget, I either try to go without a bag or I ask for a paper bag, because I need at least one paper bag every two weeks for recycling our mail. This makes sense in my world because Watertown recycles paper separately, and you need to put paper in a paper bag or tie it together. The city of Boston now has large blue recycle bins where you can put all recyclables, including paper-- so for those of you living in neighborhoods that do that, the choice is a little more obtuse. In some supermarkets there are plastic bag recycling bins, so you can also just reach in and grab a few bags for your groceries that day. Paper is a renewable, recyclable, compostable resource, whereas plastic is not.

I’m running out of plastic grocery bags, which I use for trash, and I had an idea to pick up some from the recycling bin at Target or Market Basket. I’m not at the point where I feel comfortable with our main trash can going entirely without a bag, because I can’t trust myself to wash the trash can out as it gets colder (which seems like an essential part of going without a plastic bag).

Aluminium, Plastic and Glass
Aluminium is much, much easier to recycle than plastic. Plastic is man-made: a bottle can never be a bottle again. It has to be broken down into tiny little plastic pellets and turned into something non-recyclable. So while it’s still important to recycle plastic, there’s no endless, closed loop. The end destination is always the landfill, even if it takes longer to get there. I found this website to be a helpful resource: “According to the EPA, in 2008, the U.S. generated about 13 million tons of plastics in the municipal solid waste (MSW) stream as containers and packaging, almost 7 million tons as non-durable goods, and almost 11 million tons as durable goods. However, the overall recovery plastics is relatively small – 2.1 million tons, or 6.8 percent of plastics generation in 2008.” 6.8% just doesn't seem like enough.

Aluminium tins/cans/metal are much more recyclable than plastic. According to the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), recycling metal results in:
• 105% reduction in consumer wastes generated
• 97% reduction in mining wastes
• 90% savings in virgin material use
• 86% reduction in air pollution
• 76% reduction in water pollution
• 74% savings in energy
• 40% reduction in water use
I was trying to wrap my head around these statistics, because a lot of U.S. metal is actually exported to China, and doesn’t that seem dodgy? The choice is also complicated by Bisphenol A lining on tin cans.

Glass is reusable and recylable.
It’s probably the best choice, when you have it. If you can get glass that you can reuse and recycle in your own home, so much the better.

It’s still hard to wrap my head around all these choices, but here’s how I’m thinking about them for our family, and a few thoughts for yours:
1) The ultimate goal for us is to eat from scratch and minimize packaging of all kinds. This goal makes sense because we're hoping to have a mix of simplicity and minimalism (and to be healthy, and to learn how to waste less.)
2) Don’t drink bottled water. This is the number one easy change you can make for both the environment and yourself.
3) Don’t drink soda/fizzy drinks. If you do:
Use a reusable container for fountain soda
If you only drink in small quantities, buy cans not plastic bottles.
If you drink in large quantities, you could either buy the larger bottles or buy cans.
4) Breastfeed, don’t use formula. Unless you have to, in which case try to use formula stored in glass. Which I realize is expensive, so I’ll get off my high horse....
5) Avoid foods that come in a can. Eug and I have two places we use canned food:
Canned crushed tomatoes or whole peeled tomatoes.
Once every two weeks or so, cream of mushroom soup for chicken pot pie.
I’m hoping in the next few years I’ll learn to can my own tomatoes, in glass. It’s just not a super high priority yet. We’ve only been doing chicken pot pie for a couple of months (since I first learned how to make a basic crust), and so the cream of mushroom soup is the last thing standing between us and totally-from-scratch chicken pie. Trader Joe's cans are BPA free, so you can feel better about getting canned foods from them.
6) Keep reusable bags of all kinds, everywhere. In the car, as you exit your home. Make the reusable bag the easy choice. Where you can, keep reusable produce bags, as well as tupperwares or small bags available for deli and bakery trips.
7) Make change slowly (unless you’re an overnight change kind of person, in which case ignore this advice). The goal is make changes you can hold to for a lifetime.


CB said...

Hey, what's your itinerary like in South Africa? I'll be in Stellenbosch the last week of January, if there's any chance you're passing through Cape Town; I'd love to meet Noah :)

Concrete Gardener said...

Caitlin, that would be great! We're in Cape Town the whole time, actually! We'd love to see you.