- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Green products come in green containers, right? Not necessarily.

Green products - like any other product - often are shipped in packages many times their size and sold in nonrecyclable, virgin plastic containers.

“You can buy something at a place like Whole Foods that is overpackaged,” says Lisa Wise, executive director of the Center for the New American Dream, a green nonprofit in Takoma Park. “We suggest that people think more creatively about how they buy things. Go to the farmers market. Use reusable bags. Buy in bulk. Avoid bottled water. … Think of how you can avoid packaging altogether.”

Sustainable blogger Colin Beavan says that at the core of the issue of green packaging - or the lack thereof - is that many companies are trying to capitalize on green products as opposed to green systems. In other words, they count on consumers not looking at the entire life cycle of a product, but rather just the finished product.

For example, a product could be organic but produced in China (long transport) and packaged in a virgin plastic bottle (brand new, energy-intense production) that is not recyclable (ends in a landfill).

“About 40 percent of what goes into our municipal waste stream is packaging,” Mr. Beavan says. “Which means about 40 percent of manufacturing is devoted to making packages.”

Avoiding packaging is easier said than done, however. Try buying yogurt without a package.

At Seventh Generation, a Burlington, Vt.-based company for green home products, the approach is two-pronged: Increase postconsumer - recycled - content in packaging, and, second, which is more long-term, work on in-store, package-free solutions.

“We’re going from 25 percent postconsumer content to 75 percent in our laundry and spray cleaner bottles,” says Peter Swaine, Seventh Generation spokesman.

The corrugated boxes used for shipping products to stores soon will be made of 100 percent postconsumer content, Mr. Swaine says.

Aside from being less taxing on the environment (by not using virgin plastic) the company aims to help create more demand for postconsumer packaging.

“We want to help create a market for recycled products,” says Reed Doyle, who does research and development for Seventh Generation. “So, when competitors want to know where we buy our recycled products, we’re the first to tell them.”

In the end, however, Joe and Jane Consumer are still left with - once the product is gone - a bottle that might not be recyclable. In the District, for example, laundry detergent bottles are not recyclable. Even when recycling is available, the process of turning bottles into sweaters, for example, is resource intensive.

“In the end, sustainable packaging is a bit of an oxymoron,” Mr. Doyle acknowledges.

And then we’re back to avoiding packaging altogether, but it’s not like buying yogurt without a container has gotten any easier in the past five minutes.

It is possible though, Mr. Beavan says. Some stores require that customers bring their own containers, creating a kind of “two-way relationship,” he says. One such place is the Good Food Store (www.goodfoodstore.com) in Missoula, Mont.

“People are beginning to experiment with the concept,” Mr. Beavan says. “But not the big-name companies.”

Not so fast. Seventh Generation is.

“We’re looking at things like in-store refills, but how do you balance that with consumers not wanting to bring their own containers?” Mr. Doyle says.

Turns out Mr. Doyle has a very good point. Marketing research shows that most people are not likely to go to such lengths to be green, says Scot Case of TerraChoice, an environmental marketing firm.

“There’s a big spectrum of green out there,” Mr. Case says. “There are the hard-core greens and the various light greens.”

The light greens are content with getting the green product and are not likely to worry too much about green packaging, he says. The hard-core greens, though, likely will look at the whole life cycle of the product, or what Mr. Beavan calls the “green system.”

“They’ll look at what raw materials went into producing the item, how it was shipped, if it can be recycled, and so on,” Mr. Case says.

But the hard-cores only constitute about 6 percent of all consumers. The lighter greens constitute about 20 percent of consumers. The rest - roughly 75 percent of consumers - are not even the slightest, lightest shade of green.

Even so, big companies are starting to take notice and are making green changes to their packaging practices, Mr. Case says, adding that even Walmart no longer sells mega 100-ounce plastic containers of laundry detergent, instead selling concentrated detergent in smaller containers. The trend will continue, he predicts.

“At this point in time they can get away with nonsustainable packaging and overpackaging, but as consumers get savvier, these companies will lose,” Mr. Case says. “We will see significant reductions in packaging.”

Mr. Beavan would like to see - but doubts it will happen - government regulations and takeback programs by companies, meaning the producer would take back the product, for example a computer, once it’s obsolete and pay either recycling or landfill tipping charges. Stonyfield Farm already has a takeback program in which consumers can return their empty yogurt containers for recycling.

Mr. Case, though, sees government-backed changes already on the horizon: “Both presidential candidates are talking about taxing waste. … That would have significant impacts on the packaging industry.”

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