Fight back against over packaged products

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What should you do when confronted with over packaged food, toys or other products? Three strategies to help make a difference

We all have a packaging horror story. For example, I recently opted for the “green choice” and boarded the train to Montreal from Toronto. All was going well, environmentally speaking, until I succumbed to my hunger and purchased a snack from the food cart. After all, how unsustainable could a little hummus and crackers be? Judging from the packaging it came in, the answer is very.

Picture this: Hummus in a plastic tub with a plastic, peel-back lid; crackers sealed up tight in another kind of plastic; and both of these were then packaged inside a molded clam shell-style plastic container, which was slipped inside a cardboard sleeve. The only redeeming feature was the #1 (signifying it was made of PET plastic), so I knew it was recyclable. But that was beside the point. All the packaging didn’t seem necessary in the first place.

This wasteful encounter really got under my skin, but what was I to do about it? Call up the CEO of the company that had produced my snack pack? Speak to customer service at the train station? Pack my own lunch?

I called up Rod Muir, waste diversion and climate change campaigner for the Sierra Club of Canada, certain he would have the answer. His response surprised me: “I don’t think residents should have to concern themselves with this issue. It should be legislated,” he said. “But while we’re still being forced to do [make choices] because of our politicians, then by all means use packaging as a decision-making factor when you’re buying.”

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Muir is leading a campaign to send a firm message to Canada’s decision-makers, in particular Minister of the Environment Jim Prentice and Minister of Industry Tony Clement: Slap a mailing label on any improper packaging that comes your way and drop it in the mail box. It’s free to mail anything to a Member of Parliament. “Get two guys in office having this stuff flooding in and we might get changes made,” said Muir.

What would constitute sound waste policy for Canada? Muir and the Sierra Club are advocating for four things:

  1. Reduction. Simply put, there’s too much packaging out there, and most of it is purely marketing. It’s designed to give the consumer the perception of greater value when they’re buying a product, said Muir.
  2. Standardization. Muir said he can walk into a hardware store to buy screws or bolts and find the same products packaged in three different plastics: PET (a relatively “good” plastic that’s recyclable), PVC (a bad plastic that’s toxic to the environment) and a third kind of plastic that’s simply not identified. “What we need is standardization of packaging,” he said, because “it makes it easier to recycle.”
  3. A ban on PVC, otherwise know as polyvinylchloride.
  4. More recycled content. “There are plenty of second- and third-generation uses for plastics. For example, a pop bottle can become a peg pack, then a peg pack can become polyester fabric,” says Muir.

Other ways to send a message

But, while we wait for our politicians to act, there are a few other strategies you can use to send a message about wasteful packaging:

1. Skip snack packs or 100-calorie servings, which tend to be highly packaged. Instead, buy in bulk and pack your own.

2. Leave it at the retailer. Muir doesn’t hold out much hope for this strategy, saying people have been advocating it for years, but it can still be one weapon in your arsenal. In fact, some companies are actively encouraging consumers to leave the packaging at the door—all in the name of then environment. London Drugs, a westcoast drugstore chain, encourages shoppers to drop off packaging for recycling at the customer service desk.

3. Vote with your dollar—a couple of ways. If you don’t like a product’s packaging, skip it the next time you’re shopping and buy another brand. “If two comparable products that you’re looking to purchase are otherwise completely comparable, use packaging as the deciding factor,” said Muir, but even he acknowledged that that’s often easier said than done.

So another strategy is to support retailers that have a packaging reduction plan in place. More and more of them are cropping up as retailers rush to green their image. For example, Wal-Mart uses a packaging scorecard to rank manufacturer’s use of packaging. The company’s ultimate goal is pretty modest: a 5 percent in packaging by 2013. More recently, it introduced a packaging feedback form where customers can report products the stores carry that they feel are inappropriately packaged.

Dell is another company that is cutting down on packaging. It has a “3C Strategy,”  which stands for cube, curbside and content. By 2012, it aims to reduce packaging volume by 10 percent, increase the post-consumer recycled content of its packaging by 50 percent, and ensure that 75 percent of packaging is recyclable—at the curb.

Do you have a packaging horror story—or a strategy to dodge excess packaging? Tell us about it.