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No. 2210:
Packaging and Waste

Today, we take out trash. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

It took longer than it should've, but my wife finally trained me to take my proper role in getting trash to the curb each week. Part of that means separating newsprint and plastics for recycling.

Empty neighborhood trashcansWe Americans recycle only a quarter of our trash. The Germans and Dutch recycle around sixty percent. Now writer Jessica Marshall points out that (like crime or drug use) the waste problem has an upstream and a downstream side. We need not only to get rid of it, we should also ask how to generate less in the first place.

One major part of our waste is packaging. Marshall leads us into this amazingly complex problem with self-mocking humor. She decided one day to avoid buying any packaged goods. She managed to do so with bread, beans, and lettuce; but, alas, she eventually needed toilet paper and light bulbs. 

Beyond protecting goods, packaging eases handling -- like those shrink-wrapped six-packs of liquid goods you may've wondered about. And much of it is done to advertise and dramatize goods -- like shrink-wrapped coconuts Marshall found in one store. Or the grocer who found that individually wrapped potatoes sold better. 

As Marshall looks at packaging, she finds herself entangled in a vast skein of compromise. So she decides that energy costs might provide the best way to begin sorting the problem. She finds, for example, that it takes over 6000 Btu's of energy to make an aluminum soda can, and less than a third of that to produce the soda. 

Packaging bread takes only seven percent of the energy needed to bake it. Still, bread could go straight into our grocery sack. Energy costs of wrapping steak are tiny compared with energy costs of raising cattle. Steak is vulnerable and the penalty is small -- better to wrap it. We do more good by getting soda from a tap. 

So we move on to the downstream environmental costs of packaging. Some packaging can be recycled -- paper, aluminum, glass and steel. Some, like the polystyrene around our new printer, needs special recycling facilities. Some packaging is pure trouble. We don't have ready means for recycling paper that's been impregnated with plastic -- milk and juice cartons, for example. 

Compromise is ever-present. Should I provide a polystyrene cup or pay labor costs for washing ceramic. Should I subject the future to the greater penalty of non-biodegradable materials or the lesser one of heating water and dumping soap into the sewage system?

Packaging is a 150-billion-dollar-a-year business. And even there we find a mix of motives. So much of it is driven by present profit and cost. Still, many packagers do rise to the challenge by seeking out more benign materials. So what is my role? 

Well, I should be looking for products with less packaging; I should be recycling what can reasonably be recycled. But better packing materials are needed, along with less-damaging means for protecting and handling goods. The two things we really need are heightened awareness -- and good engineers.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

J. Marshall, Packaging Unwrapped. New Scientist, April 7-13, 2007. pp. 37-41. 

To see what I found on my last trip to the supermarket CLICK HERE.

There goes the garbage

(photos by JHL)