Welcome to Green Boot Camp

Welcome to Green Boot Camp blog, a 52-week program to help you become a greener you in 2008. This is the companion blog to The Lean Green Family (formerly Suddenly Frugal).

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Week Eight--Packaging Decisions

Last week we talked about changing habits with regards to reusable shopping bags. This week we're staying with this notion of shopping as it relates to product packaging. For now I'll be focusing on the kinds of packages you might find and the choices you can make in the grocery store.

For example, when I was a kid, nearly every condiment in the supermarket came in a glass bottle. These days, not so much. On a recent food-shopping trip, I wanted to see how much I could avoid items in plastic. Why? Because I now know that it takes a ton of petroleum to make plastic. Also, while recyclable, not all plastics end up getting recycled.

I'll tell you, it wasn't easy finding glass containers once I started looking for them.

Did you know that most ketchups no longer come in a glass bottle? In my mind ketchup should be packaged in those almost beer-shaped glass bottles like the one from the classic Heinz commercial where someone tips a bottle of ketchup on its side and waits patiently for that thick and delicious ketchup to land on a burger. I can still hear strains of Carly Simon's "Anticipation" running through my head as I type this. Even diners rarely carry glass bottles of ketchup. No, on this shopping trip I had to settle for one of those flip-top, shaped-for-you-refrigerator-door bottles of ketchup. Thankfully, you can still get mustard in glass bottles. I was able to stock up on glass bottles of both Grey Poupon and my supermarket's generic yellow kind.

Staying in the condiments' aisle, you're likely to be able to choose glass bottles for your vinegar, pickles and olives but not your salad dressing. Like special toppings on your ice cream or flavored syrup in your milk? U-bet still sells its chocolate sauce in a glass jar but Hershey doesn't. Smuckers continues to keep most of its jams and jellies in glass jars (I'm partial to the sugar-free strawberry preserves for my morning toast) but its ice cream sauces tend to come in plastic.

Over in the dairy aisle, I'm reminded that I grew up with milk in glass bottles--and not because we had a dairyman who came to deliver milk to our house. Where I grew up, we had the forerunner to the convenience store, and it was called Dairy Barn. It was always a small storefront shaped like a red barn (silo and all) with a drive-through "door" on each side of the building. We would buy our milk from Dairy Barn, and bring the glass bottles back when we needed more milk. Dairy Barn didn't refill the milk on the spot--I'm sure they sent our used bottles off for a good cleaning--but they did give us new glass bottles of milk to take home for the week. What a brilliant way to bring reduce, reuse and recycle--and with something as simple as milk. I've always wondered whatever happened to Dairy Barn, and it turns out that there still are Dairy Barn locations on Long Island, where I grew up. Our green and busy world could use more stores like this all over, not just on Long Island.

Anyway, back in the diary aisle, I know you won't find milk in glass bottles in most supermarkets, though you might find orange juice in a glass bottle. While good for recycling purposes, some studies have shown that orange juice loses its nutrients when it's not packaged in an opaque container.

Now of course there is the debate that while plastics come from petroleum, glass is heavier and bulkier for shipping. That means that glass might cause companies to use more trucks--and therefore more gas--to transport these products from production to the supermarket aisle. I wish someone would come up with a petroleum algorithm that lets consumers like me determine which is the lesser of two evils--the plastic packaging or the heavier glass containers? If you've got that formula, please let me know.

Glass versus plastic isn't the only packaging debate that might be raging inside of your head as you green your grocery shopping habits. There is also the plastic versus cardboard conundrum. I'm thinking about things like laundry detergents.

I'm thrilled that many more companies are using recycled plastic for their liquid detergents--and concentrating these detergents so that they have to use smaller packaging overall (you can read my Continental Magazine story on green packaging here for more on that). At the same time laundry companies that use cardboard boxes for their powdered detergents are also using recycled paperboard for their packaging. So its win-win all around in the laundry aisle, assuming that you can recycle both plastic and cardboard with your trash. Unfortunately, I can't. My recycler doesn't take cardboard or paperboard of any kind. That means for me, plastic is often my eco-friendly choice for detergent because I'm not forced to throw it out. However, whether or not Allied Waste actually ends up recycling these plastic jugs on their end is beyond me.

I understand that everyone has got to shop, and you don't always have the greenest choices at the local supermarket. But once you become aware of what you could be choosing, I hope you'll discover that you don't always have to bring home items which packaging has to end up in the trash. Ideally, it should all be able to go in the recycling bin.


Krista said...

We always try to buy the largest size available because I think recycling 1 large container is better than 3 small. I hope I am right!

Michelle said...

One thought about the detergent...I've read somewhere that liquid detergent is mostly water,and therefore, you get a better deal with the powder--more uses for the weight of the package, even if you can't recycle it (though it could be composted, I think). A truckload of powder detergent is supposed to do more loads than a truckload of liquid. Or at least that's the rumor.

Angel said...

Just to let you know you never know where things you recycle really go. I live in a small town but, we are lucky enough to have a recycling program. We recently found out that the town has to pay to have glass recycled. Our town had a small budgeting problem recently and decided they could not afford to have the glass recycled so someone on the town council had a great idea. Most of our town is dirt roads. At the end of the winter most of them need to be redone and need more material. So the town began mixing crushed glass into the mix they use on the dirt roads. Most residents were very angry because they did not crush up the glass very well and their were huge chunks of glass in the roads. They were also using ceramics too. I know this because when they re did our road we had half a dinner plate at the end of our drive way.
They other brilliant plan they had was to pave the entire road to the dump in just crushed glass!! very colorful just don't slip and fall!! so you never know how things are being reused!!

kristin said...

I would add that ideally all of your packaging could be reused. Shop bulk, when available, and reuse your packaging each time.