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Pack it right.

Pack it Right

Should you ask for paper or plastic bags at the checkout counter? Should you get your milk in cartons or plastic jugs?

If you don't think about these questions, perhaps you should. A typical American produces about 3-1/2 pounds of trash every day. Most of it goes to landfills.

But what happens when the landfills become filled? By the year 2000 that's exactly what will happen to more than half our municipalities.

About half of what we throw away is packaging. So what we buy--or don't buy--can make a difference to the environment, as recycling expert Jeanne Wirka explains in an interview celebrating Earth Day.

Jeanne Wirka is a nationally recognized authority on plastic packaging and solid waste. The Magna Cum Laude graduate of Harvard University is a policy analyst with the Environmental Action Foundation in Washington, D.C. She recently spoke with CSPI staff scientist Lisa Lefferts about how to shop with the environment in mind.

Q: How can shoppers have the gentlest impact on the environment?

A: Avoid excess packaging, choose packages that are recyclable, and recycle them.

Q: It seems like most people are better at choosing good packaging than recycling.

A: That's true. When many peanut butter manufacturers recently switched from glass to non-recyclable plastic jars, I started getting calls from people who were upset. "What do I do?" they asked.

The first question I asked them was: "Do you recycle your glass jars?" Many said they didn't. Yet they still were bothered by peanut butter in plastic jars. Well, if you're not going to recycle the glass, it doesn't make a whole lot of difference which you buy. They'll both end up in a landfill.

Generally, we encourage people to think about the recycling options that are available to them. If they can choose their products based on packages they can recycle, and can get those packages into the recycling system, then they can have a real impact.

Q: What can and can't be recycled?

A: Almost anything can be recycled. What makes something recyclable or not is whether it is [economically] worth it.

Q: Are you saying that if you can't recycle, it doesn't matter what you use?

A: Not exactly. I encourage people to buy products in recyclable containers, even if they can't recycle. At least that sends a message to packagers that there is a strong market for recyclable packages. It also helps recycling systems to get set up.

Q: How can you find out what's being recycled in your area?

A: If the recycling program is run by your municipality, there's generally a hot-line number. If not, try calling your state recycling coordinator or the Environmental Defense Fund [1-800-225-5333]. You can also look under "recycling" in the Yellow Pages.


Q: Which is better at the supermarket checkout counter: paper or plastic bags?

A: The best thing is to bring your own reusable bag (see page 15). If you don't have your bag with you, then choose either paper or plastic, depending on which you can recycle or reuse.

But if you're going to throw them both away, it's not clear which is better. Is there less environmental impact from chopping down a tree and turning it into pulp and paper and then a bag, or from taking oil out of the ground and turning it into a plastic bag? We don't know yet.

The paper and the plastic industries have done some studies. Remarkably, each shows that its product is best. We should know more next spring, when the Council of State Governments completes what we hope will be the definitive study.

I sometimes take the plastic bags at the supermarket because I use them at home for my garbage. And that means that I don't have to buy trash bags.

Q: Isn't there anything better about paper?

A: Paper bags can be made from recycled material. But at this point, not many of them are. There may be a time when we can make plastic bags from recycled plastic, too. But right now, no one is doing it.

Q: What about the new "degradable" plastics?

A: They're a big hoax and a waste of money. In fact, we've called for a boycott of them. A degradable plastic, like most garbage, is probably going to end up in a landfill, and landfills are designed to minimize the rate at which waste degrades. What's more, degradable plastics are hindering plastic recycling. Some plastic recyclers have stopped recycling bags because degradable bags get mixed in and cause problems.


Q: What's the best thing to wrap my lunch in?

A: A reusable container with a lid. That's because over its lifetime it's going to displace a lot of disposable products, and that's what you want.

Q: But can't you recycle aluminum foil?

A: Yes. In fact, it's the only kind of sandwich wrap that you can recycle. A lot of recyclers who take aluminum will take foil. But if you're just going to use it once and throw it away, then wrap with something else, because the process by which we make aluminum is damaging to the environment.

Q: Should we buy canned or frozen vegetables?

A: Use cans, if you can recycle them. [Canned vegetables generally have fewer vitamins and more sodium than frozen vegetables.--Ed.] If you're looking just at the frozen-food section, you still have options. A pound of peas in a plastic bag probably generates less waste than two 8-ounce boxes of peas that come with paper wrappers. And since both will end up in a landfill, that's important.

A rule of thumb is that the most food in the least packaging is best.

Q: But the little box of peas is just paper. Can't it be recycled?

A: Recyclers don't like paper that's been contaminated with food. It's the next big technological problem that needs to be solved.

Q: What about packaged microwaveable foods?

A: Avoid them. Something like good old-fashioned Green Giant frozen spinach is perfectly microwaveable. All you need is your own dish. The idea that you need a separate tray or dish or a special bag in order to microwave is a marketing gimmick.

Generally speaking, the amount of packaging in microwaveable products is huge compared to the amount of food the packages contain.

Within the microwave world there are variations of ridiculousness. Campbell's Souper Combo [Food Porn, NAH, March 1989] has an outer box, then a tray inside and a plate for the sandwich and a bowl for the soup, both with lids. It's a level of disposable packaging that is just ridiculous.

But then there's a [relatively good] product like Budget Gourmet, which you serve right out of the package.

Q: What about fresh produce?

A: Try to avoid packaging altogether. Of course, in some cases you can't. It's difficult to buy ten tomatoes, for example, without using a plastic bag.

Just stay away from pre-packaged produce. You know: four tomatoes on a tray wrapped in plastic. When it comes to produce, just about any packaging is overpackaging.

And, the plastic produce trays are often polystyrene.



Q: What's wrong with polystyrene?

A: Polystyrene is made from styrene, a very toxic and possibly carcinogenic chemical. The process by which polystyrene is produced results in a huge amount of hazardous waste.

Q: Aren't those clear plastic containers that are used at take-out salad bars also made of polystyrene?

A: Yes, they are. And so is Styrofoam. The take-out, fast-food, convenience-food packaging world is a real tough nut to crack, because the whole premise is convenience. Short of having salad bars that allow you to re-use the containers--and I don't think that's going to happen--there's not a whole lot I can recommend. I have been to some salad bars where you can use an aluminum tray with a cardboard top. But usually you have no choice.

Q: Other than polystyrene, are there any plastics to watch out for?

A: Yes. Polyvinyl chloride [PVC], which is a huge contributor to toxic pollution. Supermarkets package their meat, fish, and poultry in polystyrene trays, and then wrap them in PVC wrap. Reynold's Wrap is also made of PVC. Saran Wrap is made from polyvinylidene chloride [PVDC], a close cousin of PVC which is just as bad.

If you can, go to the deli counter and get them to cut the meat for you and wrap it in freezer wrap. Some deli departments use molded pulp trays, which are better.

Stores use PVC instead of polyethylene wraps [like Handi-Wrap] because polyethylene allows oxygen to get through, which turns the meat brown. PVC is the only packaging resin that completely keeps oxygen out.

PVC is also the clear plastic that some bottles, especially those used for oils and imported mineral waters, are made of.

Q: What about fast foods? Are some chains better than others?

A: In theory, chains like Burger King, which use paperboard boxes that could be recycled, are better than places like McDonald's, which use polystyrene. The problem is that no one is recycling the paperboard.

Of course, the best solution is to reduce waste in the first place.

Someone at McDonald's told me that the ratio of eat-in versus take-out customers is about 50-50. So if McDonald's didn't give polystyrene wrappers to people who ate in the restaurant, it would cut the problem in half. There's no need to keep your hamburger warm if you are just going to walk over to a table and sit down before you eat it.

We encourage people to put pressure on McDonald's to get rid of half the packaging they currently use. If you are going to eat in a fast-food restaurant, I suggest you go to one that doesn't use polystyrene. That means, among others, Burger King, Roy Rogers, and Wendy's. But even they use polystyrene for their salad containers.

Q: What about polyethylene, which those plastic milk jugs are made of?

A: You might be surprised to hear this, but you're better off buying your milk in those jugs than in cartons--if you recycle the jugs. A lot of people have complained that milk cartons are being replaced by plastic. Well, the plastic milk jugs are eminently recyclable. In places that have plastic recycling, polyethylene is the second thing recyclers target--soda bottles are first.

The problem with the cartons is that they are made of paperboard which has been coated with polyethylene, and you've got to separate the two materials before they can be recycled. It becomes too costly, so no one bothers. Like everything else, the carton will go to a landfill and stay there forever.

The best thing to do is find a dairy that will deliver in refillable bottles. [For a free list of these dairies, write to Greenpeace's Shelley Stewart at 4649 Sunnyside Ave. North, Seattle, Washington 98103]

Q: Aren't margarine and yogurt tubs made of polyethylene, too?

A: Most margarine tubs are high-density polethylene, which is recyclable in many parts of the country. Nobody is recycling yogurt containers, which are polystyrene or polypropylene.

Q: How about eggs?

A: Go for the molded pulp cartons, and not the polystyrene ones. Pulp cartons are generally made from 100-percent recycled paper.

Q: Snack foods and cereals?

A: "Grey is beautiful." That's a slogan the American Paper Institute uses to promote packages that use recycled paper. Recycled boxes are grey or tan inside. The insides of non-recycled boxes are white. Also, many recycled boxes now use the "Recycled" logo on the outside.

Q: Canned juice concentrate versus juice in cartons or jugs?

A: Concentrate. When you buy juice in cartons or in big, thick, high-density polyethylene jugs, you're using a lot of packaging for the extra water--water you can add to the concentrate yourself at home, using your own container.

Q: What about those aseptic packages that don't have to be refrigerated? Lots of juices and some milks come in them.

A: They're made of multi-layers, and can't be recycled. What's worse, they're displacing more recyclable containers like cans and glass.

Q: But aseptic juice containers are perfect for kids' lunches. What's the alternative?

A: A thermos. Also, some schools have recycling programs, so kids can take their juice in aluminum cans.


Q: It sounds like the more things you reuse, the better. Right?

A: Not necessarily. The only way that reusing reduces waste is if a reused item replaces something that we would otherwise purchase. If you bring your plastic bags back to the store instead of getting another bunch, that's reuse.

We are not going to solve the waste problem by rinsing out our jelly jars and using them to store our buttons.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Center for Science in the Public Interest
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:interview with recycling expert Jeanne Wirka; food packaging & environmental considerations; includes information on how to tell certain companies you don't like their packaging
Author:Lefferts, Lisa
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Article Type:interview
Date:Apr 1, 1990
Previous Article:Microwave breakfasts: rise and dine.
Next Article:Cows on drugs?

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