Amazon’s packaging

Big corporations take a lot of flack from the environmental movement and for good reason. They’re antithetical to the “act local” movement and generally don’t think global either, apart from those aspects of the globe that affect their profit. On the other hand, large companies can do a lot of good by virtue of their bulk. What better way to get a multinational to do the right thing than to have another multinational push them into it.

The packaging Amazon no longer usesAmazon’s recent “Frustration-Free Packaging” initiative is a case in point. Lots of products are sold encased in cardboard and plastic. Worst are the plastic clamshells that are not only impossible to remove, but are dangerous as well. In a retail outlet, there’s some benefit to having packaging that shows off the product. For a mail-order business like Amazon, that just doesn’t make sense.

“Frustration-Free Packaging” is Amazon’s answer. They convinced several manufacturers to pack some of their best-sellers in much simpler (recycleable) cardboard boxes. Of course, Amazon’s primary concern is that the new packaging makes the experience much more enjoyable. Their The Great Unwrap Race video shows that well (and it’s pretty funny, so take a look).

Regardless of their ultimate motive, there are some serious environmental impacts as well. According to Amazon’s open letter, each newly-packaged toy pirate ship uses less materials: 1,612 square inches of cardboard, 178 square inches of plastic, 36 inches of plastic-coated steel wires, and two plastic fasteners. And, of course, none of that will have to be shipped, so there’ll be some space and transportation advantages.

It’s a great idea and I’m glad Amazon is taking the lead. I just wish more of their “frustration-free” products weren’t just plastic junk themselves.

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Girl Scout Packaging Update

RecyclingIn other news, I got an e-mail back from the Girl Scout cookie company about my packaging complaint. Here’s what they say:

Dear Megan:

Thank you for contacting us to learn what our company is doing to help protect our earth. We share your interest in our environment and give environmental concerns a very high priority.

Today, almost all of our cartons are made of 100% recycled fiber. Most of the recycled material is made up of a mixture of newspaper, office paper, cardboard and printed waste paper from publishers and printing companies. Our cartons are usually accepted by recycling facilities which accept magazine or mixed paper. The plastic trays are all polystyrene 6 (PS 6) and can also be recycled. The recycle symbol is printed on all trays with the exception of Tagalongs due to a lack of space. The Tagalong tray does have the PS6 printed on the bottom.

We have also developed a waste management/recycling program at our company. Through this program we have recycled millions of pounds of paper, wooden pallets, and scrap metal as well as thousands of gallons of used motor oil. In addition, we ‘recycle’ waste food (food that does not meet our high quality standards) by sending it to food processors and farmers for use as animal feed.

We appreciate your support of the Girl Scouts in your community!

Sincerely,

Joanna K. Grennes
Sr. Manager Consumer Communications
Consumer Affairs Department

Pretty cool! A little on the generic side but a lot better than when I called Planters to find out if the inner lid on their cans of cashews are recyclable and they said “most of our packaging is recyclable in most communities.” Now I know for sure that the Tagalong packaging is recyclable in Bloomington so I feel a little better about eating them. Yay Girl Scout cookies!

I also feel better knowing that my voice was heard. I will keep this letter in mind as motivation to spend a little time writing letters to businesses, politicians, and the editorial staff of my local newspaper. And maybe some day I will get a response from Steak N Shake about my suggestion that they offer a veggie burger so I can eat something there besides cheese fries and milk shakes, as tasty as they are.

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Confession of a convenience addict

I admit it, I’m a fan of convenience. I’m the guy that Slow Food hates, the one who eats PB&J well into his twenties (and counting). I do eat at home a lot but that’s mostly because I’m cheap. If there were a restaurant that were as cheap as eating in, I’d probably eat there every day.

Since there isn’t, I do the next best thing. Many of my lunches are microwave meals. Sometimes, it’s good stuff like soup from good chicken stock or frozen homemade lasagna. Other times, pickings are slim and I return to my collegiate habits. At times like those, I head right right to the noodle bowls. Yeah, ramen is cheaper (and I do make it occasionally, with added veggies and half the “flavor”) but there’s something satisfying about tossing some hot water into a bowl and coming back just minutes later for a delicious noodle dish. Of course, I’m easy when it comes to noodles so ‘delicious’ might be an overstatement.

The only thing keeping this from being the perfect lunch crime, apart from the very real threat of sodium overdose, is the packaging. I can’t very well pretend to Maggie that I’ve been good when there’s a styrofoam cup leering at her from the drying rack.

Cue Annie Chun’s kung pao noodle bowl. Instead of the plastic wrap some of the noodle bowls have, it’s got nice, recycleable cardboard. Even better, the packaging says that the bowl is biodegradeable! After my coworker Ian told me about them, I walked down to Kroger to check them out. Normally, they’re $3.20 which is pretty steep for eating in, but they had a special offer of $1.60, which was pretty good. I took it as a sign and grabbed one.

Annie Chun’s disappointing kung pao noodle bowlIt seemed to good to be true and, to my chagrin, it was. Disappointment, thy name is Annie Chun. Inside the cardboard box and the biodegradeable bowl were four plastic packets of food and spices. I’m also not convinced that the “biodegradeable” bowl would actually biodegrade in a landfill, which makes it effectively plastic. The bowl’s website is more of an ad for Annie Chun’s charity than information about the bowl so I can’t tell.

There’s not much point in replacing the styrofoam cup with a “biodegradeable” bowl if you then add in as much plastic as you saved. I wish the microwave meal people would take a cue from the mac and cheese boxes. With just a cardboard box around noodles and a small plastic “flavor packet,” there’s very little packaging and all of it recycleable.

After mentioning my throught to her, Maggie upped the ante by suggesting that I create my own microwave meals out of bouillon cube “flavor packets,” frozen veggies, and rice noodles. At $0.99 a pound, the noodles are cheap, the frozen veggies almost as much, and bouillon is even less, so the frugal Dr. Jekyll in me definitely approves.

We’ll see how my convience-driven Mr. Hyde feels when I try it out!

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Five tips for reducing packaging

Time to Buy Girl Scout Cookies!Crinkle.  Crinkle.  Rustle.

“Maggie, are you eating cookies?”

Curses!  Foiled again, by the excessive plastic packaging that is separating me from my beloved Girl Scout cookies!  I started in Girl Scouts when I was six and was an active participant all the way through college and even led a troop for a couple of years so I’m a big supporter of the cause and I’m also admittedly addicted to the cookies (especially Tagalongs and Samoas).  Alas, I am not a fan of the packaging.  Usually I would choose not to buy a product with this kind of unrecyclable, unnecessary packaging but we all have our weaknesses.  I did visit the Little Brownie Bakers website to file a request that they make their packaging more recyclable.  It didn’t feel like a very powerful step but if enough people comment on the packaging, they’re bound to change it.

For items other than Girl Scout cookies, here are some tips for reducing packaging

1. Buy in bulk using your own containers.  There are a couple of smaller grocery stores in Bloomington that offer a variety of foods in bulk bins.  There are lots of grains (rice, oats, flour) and dried foods (fruits, nuts, spices) but also items such as peanut butter, dish soap, and laundry detergent.  Of course, it doesn’t make a lot of sense if you’re filling up plastic bags and throwing them away, so I’m getting better about packing up my canning jars and tupperware containers to refill them.  (It also tends to be cheaper).

2. If the packaging is ridiculous, don’t buy it.  I have been volunteering at Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, one of our local food pantries, and they get a really interesting variety of surplus food.  Last week a big shipment came in of South Beach Diet Chicken Salad Lunches.  Each little box contained a plastic spoon, a plastic bag of croutons, a plastic dish of chicken bits, a plastic packet of salad dressing, and a tiny plastic container of jello.  It was ridiculous.  This is the kind of item I find easy to avoid.

3. Contact the manufacturer about unnecessary packaging. I honestly believe this is the way to get manufacturers to change their ways.  Consumer demand, folks!  It’s supposed to play an important role in our market-driven economy!  Make your voice heard!

4. Bring your own reusable grocery bags.  I have an embarassingly large collection of tote bags, mesh bags, drawstring bags, backpacks, and other cloth containers for holding things but darn it, they’re incredibly useful!  I do occasionally get the odd look from grocery baggers but I have learned to smile sweetly and thank them for helping me support the environment.  I also try to take my own plastic bags to the produce department to bag things like lettuce that are often soaking wet.  (I’ve also found that the bags worth washing out and reusing hold up a LOT better than the ones they tend to give you.)

5.  Buy the big box.  Will and I recently joined Sam’s Club so we can stock up on cheap food in large quantities.  It goes against the grain a bit for me since I’m a big fan of supporting local businesses and quality food.  However, I believe it can be a good choice for us both economically and environmentally so we’re giving it a shot.  (We would have preferred Costco but there is not one in Bloomington.)  The two main challenges are finding products that really do have less packaging (as opposed to the big box of cereal that is in fact many smaller boxes of single servings all packaged together) and finding products that meet my criteria for nutrition and sustainability.  (There’s also the fact that buying the giant bag of Chex Mix does not in fact save money or packaging volume if you go home and eat the entire thing in one serving just like you would with a small bag.)

And a bonus tip….

6. Grow your own, for the ultimate reduction in packaging. I’m getting ready to start some seedlings for a little herb garden on our deck and maybe a couple of tomato plants.  I’ll keep you posted.

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