Hey Mr. Green,
I know that buying individual packaged items such as pudding, applesauce, or juiceboxes is bad when purchased at a normal grocery store, but is there any environmental reason not to buy these items at a discount grocery store that sells out-of-date items or slightly dented containers? Wouldn't these items just be thrown out otherwise? —Brinton, in Lititz, Pennsylvania
There’s no great harm in purchasing such discount items, though the fact that they are often heavily processed, refined, and suffused with additives might be reason enough to avoid them anyway. In the long run, you might save more money by purchasing foods that are simpler, more wholesome, and minimally packaged. For some useful advice on Better Eating Through Simplicity, see my “10 Ways to Eat Well” in Sierra.
Of course not all food packaging is bad, for the obvious reason that it preserves literally millions of tons of food that would have gone bad and gotten dumped. The real problem with food packaging is too little is recycled, too much of it is not recyclable, and there is a wretched excess of it. For example, we’re still only recycling about 30 percent of plastic beverage bottles, while many types containers are either made of non-recyclable material or contain such a jumble of if that they can’t be economically recycled. And tro we really need all those teeny-weeny one-serving bags and boxes marketed in the name of America’s patron saint, Convenience?
Packaging as a whole accounts for about 30 percent of our 243 million tons of municipal waste, to which food packaging contributes about half, according to the Institute of Food Technologists.
But it’s not just the food packaging. Our waste stream has swelled steadily over the years, from 2.66 pounds per person in 1960 to 4.34 pounds today, of which 1.46 gets recycled, retrieved, or composted. If our quality of life had improved correspondingly there might be some justification for this proliferation of rubbish, but it’s hard to see any serious improvement in that department. The fact that we operate twice as many garbage trucks as city buses is an indicator of this folly. The fact that generating this prodigious waste adds to the Gross Domestic Product is a cold comfort indeed. I keep wondering if we’ll ever figure out environmentally gentler ways to beef up the GDP than to pile up more refuse or create more and bigger jails, casinos, gas guzzlers, trophy homes, bombers, malls, coal mines, parking lots, hog-manure lagoons, and tar-sand-oil-extraction ruins. Maybe the economic geniuses who dreamed up those theories to justify the hedge funds and derivatives that wrecked the economy can repent by turning their attention to some alternative paths to prosperity.
Meanwhile, kids, let us at least remember our 3 Rs: “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.”