Cutting Down on Packaging

Treehugger: 4 Radical Solutions to Packaging Waste“Recycling means you’ve failed. You’ve failed to reduce and reuse.” — Gary Hirschberg, CEO Stonyfield Farms

If recycling means failure, there’s a whole lot of fail going around at my place. The recycling bag is like the cauldron of plenty. Empty it, wait a few days, and it’s full again. True, recycling is better than tossing, but it’s still not good that we generate this much.

Here’s an abridged list of what was in the recycle bag this week:

  • Life cereal box, flattened
  • Tom’s of Maine toothpaste box, flattened (why does it need a box when it has a tube inside?)
  • Tresemme extra large conditioner plastic bottle (which took me over a year to use up and was bought pre-cosmetics safety freak out)
  • Recycled toilet paper roll, flattened
  • Plastic organic milk jug
  • Oikos plastic yogurt tub
  • Three aluminum cat food cans (rambunctious foster kitten ate a lot)
  • One ripped plastic bag that can’t be reused and came from my parents
  • This week’s grocery circulars, which I don’t look at anyway
  • Voter mail, which I looked at for approximately .5 seconds
  • Flattened cardboard mailing box
  • Last Sunday’s Chronicle newspaper

Not horrible, but clearly we could be doing better. I sat down to think about how we could reduce our recycling output and came up with this list. It doesn’t address everything in our recycle bag, but it’s a start.

  • Buy in bulk products that won’t go bad (or that you can use up before they go bad) like dish soap, laundry detergent, vinegar, kitty litter, recycled toilet paper. It’s cheaper and you’ll cut down significantly on packaging.
  • Make packaging a consideration in choosing what to buy. If it has more than one layer of packaging, look for another option. Avoid single-serving anything.
  • BYOC (bring your own container) whenever possible. Whole Foods sells shampoo, conditioner, and liquid soap in bulk, as well as milk in returnable glass jars, and a whole lot of bulk spices, grains, flours, and nuts.
  • Use less. You don’t actually need that much dish soap/shampoo/toilet paper/whatever. The longer your supplies last, the less often you’ll need to buy replacements.
  • Make more of your own food and cleaning supplies. Packaged food means, well, packaging. And making your own cleaners out of vinegar, baking soda, and lemons will cut down significantly on the number of plastic-bottled cleaning agents you buy.
  • Buy less new stuff. Not only will you cut down on consumer demand that drives manufacturing, you’ll also be spared a new onslaught of styrofoam peanuts, plastic, and cardboard.
  • Order less stuff online. Mailing anything larger than a letter requires boxes, padding, and tape. You can and should reuse packing supplies as much as possible, but reducing is always better. 
  • Reuse old newspapers as kitty litter bags. Or cancel the subscription, although I think good writers and interesting articles are worth supporting. Maybe subscribe online?

What do you think? Any other suggestions for cutting down on packaging waste?

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by karen on 10/20/2010 at 11:24

    What a great way to put it! I always said that recycling program gives people a false sense of being ‘green’ because they think they continue to consume because they can recycle afterwards. But, it is hard to ‘reduce’ especially when you live no where near a store that sells bulk, for example.

    I have to say though, your recycling bin is not the worst.

    One key thing people can do is to learn to cook from scratch. No store bought mixes or sauces. No processed foods. If people can cook from scratch, they can certainly reduce a lot of packing materials.


  2. Posted by Emily on 10/21/2010 at 05:24

    Well said! Another question is: which of the items in your recycling bin can be reused and how? Plastic yogurt containers (the big ones with lids) are good for storing leftovers and plastic milk jugs can be saved and used for bringing water on camping trips.

    Junk mail is a terrible waste. If you happen to receive catalogs in the mail, you can call or go online to cancel the subscriptions. I was speaking with a postal worker once, though, and he said that if it wasn’t for junk mail, he wouldn’t have a job.

    I see you have a torn plastic bag in your bin. Do they recycle plastic bags in CA? If so, that’s great! I know that they no longer give out plastic bags in many places and make reusing bags mandatory. This is awesome. I reuse cloth bags at the grocery store, but occasionally I get plastic bags from the corner store, which I reuse as trash bags. Buying brand new plastic bags for storing trash is a total waste. I also hate it when people put leaves from their yard into new plastic bags.


    • Heh. It’s cute the way you assume I go camping. Much as I hate to admit it, I don’t care for the discomforts and inconveniences of sleeping under the stars (or in a tent). Yeah, that kind of girl.

      I don’t receive catalogues, but I do get a whole lot of non-profit mail (thanks for selling my address to other non-profits, WWF!) and have more address labels than I know what to do with. I wonder if there’s a way to get off their lists; I’ve already chosen the charities I want to support, and there’s not much room for any new ones in my budget, so their efforts are in vain.

      The leaf thing IS silly. That’s nice future mulch you’re throwing away!


  3. Well, I’m kind of happy that the recycling bin is the only one that is full every time we get a chance to put it out – the landfill rubbish we generate is pretty minimal! Having said that, part of the reason the recycling box fills up is because the food waste container goes in there – cooking from scratch involves a large amount of veg peelings each day, then there’s my coffee grounds to contend with. 😉 We’re not in a position to compost at home, so sending that stuff off to feed the local allotments is a good thing.

    As for how to cut down on it, reuse is the key. Plastic bags get used multiple times, if only to keep papers dry when travelling to and from work. Water bottles get washed and refilled until they become a health hazard. Plastic pots get used for storing food, especially in the freezer – I tend to cook dried stuff in bulk then freeze some for another time. My boyfriend is slowly learning what gets reused! I don’t really think about it since I’ve been doing it for so long, so having to instruct someone else forces the issue.


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