This story was first published on February 28, 2020. Julie Grant was awarded a 2021 Golden Quill from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania for this story.
Most things we buy today are wrapped in plastic, shipped in cardboard, and protected by styrofoam, but as more people become concerned about packaging, businesses are stepping in to provide alternatives. Still, some experts don’t think buying greener products will solve the world’s trash problems.
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The Struggle of Eco-Conscious Consumers
Madelyn Miller has been bringing reusable bags to the grocery store for decades, way before it was cool. Over time, she’s seen an increasing amount of plastic on store shelves.
At her home in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, she searches around the refrigerator, “Here we go, my ricotta — I love ricotta cheese,” Miller said, pulling out the plastic tub. But she doesn’t always feel good when she buys ricotta, cottage cheese, or yogurt. “Almost the entire dairy aisle is full of plastic containers,” she said.
Miller worries that these plastics are creating a waste stream, much of which can’t be recycled. Plus, they’re made from fossil fuels, so their production contributes to climate change.
She does what she can to discourage its use. As she was getting ready for a recent trip to California to visit her grandchildren, she wanted to bring them something, so she bought a membership to the zoo, because she said, it won’t wind up as plastic pollution in the ocean.
“I think it’s terrifying,” Miller said. “What we’re giving to our children is a legacy of sea animals. They’re ingesting these plastics, it’s killing them.”
But to prepare for her trip, she stacked twenty small plastic containers of cat food on the kitchen counter. She knows it’s more packaging than necessary, but it’s convenient.
“For my neighbor who’s coming in to help feed the cats, it makes it easier for her. Plastics make life easier,” she admits.
Movement Toward Greener Packaging
New markets are opening up for environmentally-friendly packaging, as market analysts predict a five year growth of $70 billion for packaging that uses less energy and more recycled materials.
For consumers, just Googling “alternative packaging,” brings targeted ads for things like toothpaste tablets sold in a glass jars, liquid soap in a cardboard box, and toilet paper rolls wrapped only in paper.
Tom Szaky, CEO of a company called Loop, has been working with big brands like Tide detergent and Häagen-Dazs ice cream to redesign their packaging. “So for example your ice cream container now moves from being coated paper to double-layered stainless steel that is beautiful, reusable and more functional,” he said.
People can buy these products at certain stores, in certain markets, or they can order on Loop’s website, and have them delivered in a special tote. Once the products are used up, people put the empty containers back in the tote, to be picked up and returned to Loop.
“We clean it and provide it back to these manufacturers who refill them and around they go again,” he explained.
Szaky said Loop is providing the convenience people are used to, without the disposability that can harm the environment.
“This approach,” he said, “…we think is the silver bullet to get a large number of people to move away from a throw-away single-use lifestyle.”
Loop is adding new products to its line every couple of days, according to Szaky. Loop is currently available in Paris, and some northeastern states including Pennsylvania.
“I absolutely agree that that is a fabulous idea,” said Sarah Taylor, when she first heard about Loop. She’s a professor of environmental policy at Northwestern University, and author of a recently published book, “Ecopiety: Green Media and the Dilemma of Environmental Virtue.” Its main theme is that we can’t buy our way out of problems like trash and climate change.
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
Taylor says people get obsessed with small decisions. She knows, because she’s always asked about pressing personal choices, like, “So what do I do with my cat litter?” she laughed. “Should I use the plastic bags from the grocery store because I’m using them for my cat litter?”
Taylor doesn’t want to be misinterpreted, she supports trying to buy ecologically-sound products. But instead of beating ourselves up about using a few plastic cat food containers, we should focus on the bigger picture. “The climate clock is ticking, it is ticking. So where is our action going to be more effective?” she asked.
Taylor’s pushing for a focus on policy changes, like the plastic bag bans in Europe, some Asian countries and US cities. These changes are what she thinks will shift markets toward greener options.
“I would say banning single use plastic would then support companies like Loop, or companies that provide these kinds of reusable packaging, so that they don’t have to fight the consumer culture upstream,” Taylor said. “They don’t just have to market to the eco-virtuous.”
Because what’s really virtuous, according to Taylor, is pushing companies to make it easier for all consumers to do less damage to the environment.