Many people wring their hands over excessive packaging (and it is outrageously abused and excessive) but the way to deal with packaging is not to ban it, since it serves a purpose. The Zero Waste way to deal with the excesses of packaging is to redesign packaging to be reusable over and over. This is the great advantage of a well-designed cloth bag being used to replace free plastic bags. Most of the cloth bags put forward are not even close to being well-designed. They are so primitive (nothing but two pieces of cloth sewn together with an added handle) that they don’t come close to replacing the cleanliness and other advantages of plastic bags. Bans don’t work. Intelligent design is what is needed.
Let us take as an example, the plastic bags that are universally offered to shoppers by supermarkets and others to pack up their purchases. These are as thin and light as technology can make them, while remaining strong enough to carry products. I won’t go into their problems here, but I take note that the environmental movement hates them and usually wants them banned for good reasons.
A cottage industry of making cloth bags has grown up to try to replace the plastic bags. They usually have a logo printed on them, two cloth handles and are sold cheaply at markets. For many purposes they do the job. But will they last more or less forever? Will they do everything that a package can and should do? One can design better ways to carry products home.
Your bag might want to keep frozen foods cold. It could have an expandable compartment with insulation. You might want to carry a lot of heavy items at once (you could use it for bulk items or at the hardware store too). It would be nice to have robust handles. But handles wear out. Can they be made to be easily repaired or replaced? People laugh at how long it took to put wheels on luggage. Ditto for bags. Why not have wheels, but make them easily slipped off and put inside the bag when not needed? And velcro closures? Which parts of a bag wear out quickly? The corners. Have renewable corner reinforcements. What happens if some overripe fruit is mashed inside? The bag needs to be washable. Or impermeable. That begins to sound like plastic. Why not? These bags are not going to blow around or fill up the ocean or poison sea life. They are designed to last a hundred years with upgrades. This is a good application for plastic, not a throw-away application. They don’t have to eliminate the simple cloth bags but can coexist.
As always, one key is standardization. Instead of having thousands of different designs for these bags, maybe a couple will suffice. Let the parts be interchangeable so that no one has to throw out some unit whose parts can no longer be replaced because one of the hundreds of manufacturers is out of business, as happens today.
Instead of conceptualizing today’s wasteful throw away society and its common throw away assumptions, let’s imagine a world in which customer bags (and all packaging) are the norm, are taken for granted. A common mistake that people make is to imagine that everything stays the same as today but we just put one improvement into the mix. No! Let’s be bold and think about what a conserving system would look like where all of the disposal assumptions of today are gone and replaced by products that are designed to last forever. Perhaps a standardized bag would be hung on a hook which moves along a checkout counter and as goods are checked out , they are put directly into the bag. Perhaps every car comes with a compact little lifter that hooks onto the handles of the (heavy) bag and pulls it up into the car. Let your imagination roam.
Other packaging can also do wonders once it is standardized. For example, elsewhere I have recommended carrying your own plastic containers for food, at a take out place or at a restaurant. An objection is often raised that people will naturally forget to carry their container with them, or be unable to. Here’s what standardization will do. Let every food serving place have its own hard containers available, which they use by charging you a small deposit. Let’s imagine that these containers are the norm. So they can easily put food into one of them. But then you may accumulate dozens, hundreds of these in your home. How do you solve that problem? Do you remember that these are the norm, and standard designs? That means you can bring clean containers back to any vendor and they can reuse them, because they are basically all the same. Any vendor can refund your deposit because he can use them too.
Because these containers are expected to have a long life of many, many years, they will not be made of soft plastic that easily scratches. There are tough, engineered plastics which are not used for today’s disposable or weak versions because their cost will not be amortized over a long life. When standardized containers are reused hundreds or thousands of times, they can be made of the best plastics. Another special property of such plastic may be that if a container is broken or smashed, the plastic is known to be able to be melted and reused. This is not true of most of the cheap plastics used today for weak, short term applications.
There are more special features that can affordably be built into these standardized containers because of their long lives. Knock yourself out designing still more features, always keeping high function in mind. Hint: how will the closures work? Can tops be interchangeable? How will vendors apply advertising? How about liquids?
One of the main arguments I put forward against bans is that they don’t solve a problem (the recyclers don’t care about this – they just lash out at the latest “defect”). Solving a problem requires an understanding of the function that needs to be served and then designing a way to satisfy that legitimate function.
Marian Nestle in her book Food Politics (2012) gives an apposite example from food regulation. She admits to being a bit naive when she earlier agreed to a strong recommendation by the US Dept. of Agriculture, a kind of ban in its effect on diet, that fat be removed from foods. The recommendation was released to the American public in this negative form. Just reduce fat, as though fat had no function in the diet. The effect on the American diet was explosive. Suddenly citizens and manufacturers both were looking for ways to implement this negative admonition.
What happened was that the manufacturers searched for new ways to fulfill the essential function of fat, which is to provide texture to food and to convey taste. They invented some artificial fat substances based on carbohydrates that felt a little like eating fat, but those never caught on. The main thing they did was to replace fat with sugar. Then they developed high fructose corn syrup as a huge new source of sugar and the campaign was on. Soda consumption went through the roof. Miss Nestle sees this as the beginning of the obesity epidemic. All because the USDA recommendations were negative – what is bad – rather than positive – what should we have instead. It is the same with a ban on anything that has a function, such as a plastic bag. Desperate, unconsidered measures will not yield good results.