You might think, after writing for, say, eight plus months on a topic like “garbage,” you might run out of things to talk about.
Well, no. In fact, there’s so much to write about, sometimes I feel kind of breathless. I have little piles all over my office of bizarre objects waiting for me to investigate them- a detergent sample, a plastic coated paper raisin container, a broken wire coat hanger.
I try to keep a list of questions and ideas on my desk, which generally takes the form of forty million little bits of paper and post-its and envelope backs. Among the many notes to myself:
- What is the difference between biodegradable and compostable?
- Investigate what to do with: Broken glass? Burned out light bulbs? Plastic produce netting? Hard plastic with no numbers?
- Don’t forget to tell the Red Solo cup story!!
- Why aren’t plastics infinitely recyclable?
- What about “food recycling” (food cupboards)?
- Look into history of grocery stores??
Today I’m thinking a lot about packaging. Of course, even for folks who order in the mail a lot, the pandemic has upped the game tremendously. Stay home! Just order everything!
Ordering more through the mail means more packing material, and soooooooo much of packing material is problematic, either because we think it is unrecyclable, is inconvenient to recycle, or it is actually unrecyclable.
But today what’s striking me is not so much the question of whether the shipping materials are recyclable, as how wasteful companies tend to be when shipping items to customers. I’ll give you an example.
These days I try to buy all my clothes at consignment shops, however I do draw the line at underthings. So I ordered a bra and some underwear from Natori, hoping that the priciness would indicate these items would not only be of high quality, but would last a good, long time.
You can imagine my surprise when a box the size of a small microwave oven arrived at my doorstep. Did my underwear really require a box big enough to house an entire family of napping cats?
But it got worse. Because when I opened the box I found a veritable class on packaging science. Each item came in its own separate plastic bag, inside of which was the item on a clear plastic hanger and featuring a hang tag with two layers of paper and a layer of plastic, attached with… more plastic.
Of course it’s clear that this is part of an overarching system that probably includes shipping to actual stores, where they appreciate things like hangers and price tags, not to mention plastic bags to keep product clean and sanitary. What I’m saying is, this particular plastic, in this box, at my house, had served no effective purpose whatsoever. Most people in our culture would probably have tossed all of it into the nearest trash without much thought, because that’s what we’re conditioned to do. And that plastic, then, would be delivered to a landfill where it would give off harmful chemicals that would then try to make their way to the local community’s groundwater.
And it would do another thing too.
That stupid plastic bag and plastic hanger and plastic hangtag would outlive all of us.
So I’m trying to see that THIS plastic is meets a better fate, but it isn’t easy. Here’s my plan:
- The plastic bag will be dropped off at the supermarket plastic bag recycling bin, to be turned into outdoor decking by companies like Trex.
- The hanger, which incidentally wins for the smallest recycling triangle I’ve ever seen, will go into single stream recycling.
- The paper part of the hangtag will get burned in our fireplace. The transparent plastic part will get added to our next Terracycle “plastic packaging” box which we pay to get recycled.
- The Swift Tack (which is the name for the plastic that attaches a hang tag to a garment) will go into my jar labeled “Plastic Doohickeys.” I have yet to figure out what to do with all that stuff. Maybe a macaroni-based art project.
On Natori’s website, under a section called “Natori Gives” you’ll find a listing a of many charitable organizations that Natori supports that “empower women, and fight racism and structural inequality around the world.” But all of those issues aren’t islands; they interrelate one with the other… just as environmentalism interrelates with issues of social justice when landfills and incinerators are placed in low-income communities and those of people of color. And women’s issues, racism and inequality have everything to do with this scenario: they are all connected.
I’m not blaming Natori as much as using them as an example of an overall system that needs rethinking. Surely there is a way around plastic hangers and plastic bags. Surely, there is a way to make sure customers receive clean, hygienic products without so much waste. We just need to make connections between these different issues we say we care about and then actually make real change to address them.