Sometimes the most important part of a thing is the decision not to buy it in the first place.
At the grocery store the other day, I was in a hurry and thoughtlessly grabbed a couple of packaged noodle dishes because the picture on the box looked good. As soon as I got home, the noodles sat on my counter mocking me. I don't exactly wear a green halo, but I recycle, use canvas grocery bags when I can remember them, and try not to buy products that come in layer after layer of packaging like Russian stacking dolls.
When I opened the noodles, I was ashamed and appalled. The outer package was a cardboard box. Inside the box was a plastic bowl, with a plastic lid, both shrink-wrapped in a plastic sheet. Inside the bowl, there were -- count them -- four separate packages, two foil, two plastic, containing peanuts, noodles, sauce, and "vegetables" (some weird powder that looks nothing like any vegetable I know). To top it off, there was a tiny plastic fork. All this for 8 ounces of lunch.
Why do we buy these things? Do we really need the momentary convenience of a disposable bowl that will languish in a landfill for a thousand years once we're done with lunch? After all, since the product must be microwaved, most of us will be eating it at home or in an office, where it shouldn't be all that hard to find a real, washable bowl. Ditto the plastic fork. And why all the separate packages for the ingredients?
I've also noticed a disturbing trend in take-out food.
Take Applebees for example. The food is fine, but the packaging is horrible: Three-inch deep oval plastic trays as big as serving platters, covered in plastic lids, all packed in a giant paper bag, with forks, napkins, and little packets of salt and pepper. I like take-out, but geez...couldn't they at least use coated cardboard? More and more, I resist the urge to order out because I can't justify the waste.
When I came of age, casual drug use and sex were completely acceptable but wastefulness was a sin. I lived with parents who had been Dust Bowl and Depression babies and had experienced real deprivation. My own teen years coincided with gas shortages and President Jimmy Carter asking us to turn our thermostats down to 68 degrees in winter. I learned to turn the water off while I brushed my teeth and to rinse and reuse aluminum foil and baggies. I read books like The Population Bomb and Diet for a Small Planet-- which led me to become a vegetarian -- and The Monkey Wrench Gang, which made me fantasize about chopping down billboards that marred the landscape. We called it environmentalism, now shortened to the more colorful "green."
It may be pure nostalgia, or maybe guilt at my own backsliding ways, but it seemed like consumers had more of a voice back then, or more of an environmental conscience. I remember the public outcry against the plastic eggs that contained L'eggs pantyhose, which forced the company to start putting nylons in cardboard boxes. A few years later, public pressure persuaded record stores to stop selling CD's in those over-sized plastic "jewel cases." But somewhere along the way, in spite of all the talk about global warming and buying green, we seem to have become blase about wasteful packaging. The one exception is bottled water, which has recently gotten well-deserved scorn. But meanwhile, we keep dutifully buying salads in foam clamshells, tomatoes in plastic boxes, and toys that are wrapped more elaborately than an Egyptian mummy. Just today I bought some antacid. The box was twice the size of the bottle, which was 10 times larger than necessary to hold the pills it contained. Why? The answer, no doubt, is shelf space. A larger container is more likely to catch our eye as we pass by, pushing our grocery cart, which itself was designed to get people to buy more stuff.
At any rate, the saga of the plastic noodles has reminded me to be more conscientious when I'm shopping. Now, about those billboards.... Acetylene torch, anyone?
Links: Population Timb Bomb
Recipes for a Small Planet
The Monkey Wrench Gang
History of the shopping cart