Hey Mr. Green,
Is it better to buy dry cereal in boxes (with waxed paper liners) or in large plastic bags? Although the boxes are recyclable, the liners aren't. At least, I think they aren't. –-Jeanne in Fayetteville, West Virginia
Here’s the old “paper or plastic” question in a new guise. The plastic bag requires far less total energy to manufacture and recycle than the paper box and its liner, while generating less pollution and waste. And, as you say, the liner is not recyclable.
But I have some issues with any packaged cereal, regardless of the content of the container’s character. (Though I do recognize that cereal boxes can have redeeming social and cultural value. They can be quite educational, featuring historical figures, athletes, and even environmental education. Like any halfway intelligent kid, I greatly enjoyed perusing cereal boxes, some of which actually awakened my itty-bitty enviro consciousness because they featured nice, colorful cards portraying birds, along with ornithological information about the individual species!)
Here’s the problem: People complain to me that they cannot afford organic food, and yet they are willing to shell out a hefty amount of money for cereal. For example, my price check for packaged oatmeal from name-brand producers showed a cost $2.14 to $3.54 a pound at the local supermarket, depending on the size of the box. But I can get oatmeal in bulk for 99 cents a pound and take it home in a reusable bag. So this simple product can cost two or three times as much just because it comes in a package. For the more highly processed cereals, the difference is even greater. One famous brand of oat cereal costs over four times as much as the bulk oatmeal.
What all this reflects is how the food industry cleverly positions itself between consumers and farmers in order to reap profits. At this point in history, oats are selling for $3.06 a bushel (32 pounds), or about 10 cents a pound. So the packaged product can cost up to 40 TIMES AS MUCH as its raw material. As the late, great agricultural muckraker A.V . Krebs lamented, the 8-cent charge to the retailer just to handle the coupon in the box exceeded the cost of its most basic ingredient. (Krebs’ The Corporate Reapers remains an agricultural classic.) The food industry, like others that exploit natural resources, thrives on cheap raw materials, while the primary producers get squeezed out of business by monopolies. The monopolies (or, technically, oligopolies) keep farm prices low, a situation that has only worsened over the years. In 1950, the farmer received an average of about 50 cents of every dollar consumers spent on food. Today, the farmer gets less than 20 cents out of that dollar. The proliferation of highly processed, costlier foods makes this possible, often with unhealthy results. These are the obvious reasons why it’s best to get back to the basic and favor minimally processed, minimally packaged foods.
Microwave popcorn is my pet peeve in this regard. For a critique of this loathesome product (and valuable suggestions for environmentally righteous eating), see http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/200611/tenways.asp One correction, however: I report that George Washington died from a fatal case of quinsy after riding around inspecting his plantation in bad weather. Historical scholars inform me that the great man did not perish directly from the quinsy, but because his doctor overdid that common and now discredited practice of bleeding the patient. A classic case of iatrogenic excess.