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Don’t Box Me In: How to Reduce Packaging Waste

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That container of yogurt I ate for breakfast, the cardboard box that held the books I just ordered, and the bags I used to buy my produce today all ended up in the garbage. It’s all waste, and we know it’s not good; such careless consumption clogs landfills, raises packaging costs, and uses up valuable resources and energy. But how do we cut the junk? 

That’s a Load of Garbage
According to the City of San Diego’s Environmental Services Department, we throw away only approximately one-third of the garbage we generate immediately after we make purchases. There’s more waste we don’t even see, because that one-third accounts for only the primary packaging, when there are really three kinds:

1. Primary packaging is what we handle as consumers.

2. Secondary packaging is the term used for the larger cases or boxes that group quantities of primary packaged goods for distribution.

3. Transit packaging refers to the wooden boards, plastic wrapping, and containers that load, transport, and unload these goods.

So for, say, one container of yogurt, there’s a lot of hidden junk.

Consumption with a Conscience
The first step in reducing packaging waste is not to bring it home with you. Thanks to sites like Treehugger, Care2, and Green Options (to name just a few), companies and consumers with the common aim of ditching the debris are finding each other and doing good things. 

The United Kingdom especially is setting the trend here. Unpackaged, a store in London, encourages customers to bring their own containers or purchase reusable containers for a discount. And the Co-operative Group, a democratic business model in the UK that offers comprehensive services to its four million members, reduced more than forty thousand tons of waste in 2007. 

Here in the United States, our corporations are doing their part, too. Amazon launched its Certified Frustration-Free Packaging program in November 2008 to save shoppers the hassle of dealing with blister packs, bubble wrap, and unnecessary boxes. The reduced carbon footprint is really more a happy side effect of this initiative, but I’ll take it. Reviews on Treehugger and The Consumerist pan Amazon’s claims that it offers better packaging, however, so this idea might sound more appealing than its reality. 

Where companies drop the ball, some governments are taking action. The Netherlands, for example, instituted a Waste Fund in 2007, which it financed with a carbon tax on packaging. The fund helps to pay for the separate collection of household packaging waste, while the tax encourages businesses to reduce their waste and consumers to recycle more. Throughout Europe, the Green Dot program, part of the European Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, requires companies to report the amount of packaging waste they generate and either recover it from the European market or pay a license fee to join a nonprofit program, like the Green Dot scheme, that contributes to recovery and recycling. More than two dozen European countries currently participate in this program. 

Buy Wisely, from the Bottom Up
Until we get something like the Green Dot scheme going in the United States, it’s mostly up to us as consumers to shop carefully and abstain from buying unnecessary packaging. While it’s true that we do need some packaging for our health and safety, to prolong shelf life, and to deter theft, most manufacturers overpackage their products and charge you for it. Look for alternatives, and if you can’t find companies near you that meet your needs, here are some other not-so-trashy tricks: 

  • BYOB. According to, we use one million plastic shopping bags per minute. Don’t be a statistic—bring a tote bag. And that goes for produce, too. You don’t need to use those handy-dandy plastic bags just to weigh your apples, because you’re going to throw them away the minute you get home. 

  • More Is Less. Avoid single-serving items that are overly packaged; buy in bulk instead. Better yet, head for the bulk bins of your local health-food store for grains and nut mixes. Larger quantities are generally discounted, too. 

  • Speak Up. Build good relations with local vendors and request that they avoid using excess packaging. Write letters to large companies asking the same. Consumer demands drive the market, so demand less waste. 

In general, just think about the life span of what you’re buying before you actually buy it. Do I really need six six-ounce yogurt containers that will eventually end up in the trash (or even the recycling bin) when I can buy one thirty-two-ounce container of the same yogurt instead? It’s like going on a diet: you’ll begin noticing all the areas in which you’ve been grossly overindulging yourself. 

Thinning Out the Trash
The next time you go to the supermarket or order something online, pay careful attention to how much of what you purchase ends up in the garbage; you’ll see that it’s quite a lot. Then see what you can do to change that. It’s also quite a lot.


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