Better design, the key to reducing waste

Published Tuesday, February 3, 2015 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

Every now and then a book you read has a lasting impact.  For me, one such book was Cradle to Cradle, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.  Its subtitle – Remaking the way we make things – summarizes its key message: while poor design is responsible for much pollution and waste, better design could eliminate or at least greatly reduce waste.  These days, that’s particularly true for packaging.

Monstrous hybrids

Most of today’s packaging materials – from ice tea canisters to potato bags to tissue boxes – were designed to offer functionality and convenience at the lowest cost.  By those measures, most packaging performs very well.

However, many of those same materials were not designed with much consideration for the environment or for recycling.  Many are made from a combination of materials that may be recyclable or compostable individually, but not when combined.  That puts them into a category authors McDonough and Braungart call monstrous hybrids: materials that are difficult, if not impossible, to recycle or compost.

One may wonder: an ice tea canister is a monstrous hybrid?  Yes, because it’s a blend of cardboard and metal (or in some cases plastic).  To further complicate things, canisters are often lined with a thin layer of aluminum.  Good luck trying to separate those three distinct and individually very recyclable materials; no wonder such canisters end up in the trash.

Potato bags are made of compostable (not recyclable) paper – but most have a mesh window that is not compostable.  Tissue boxes are made of recyclable cardboard – but most have a plastic veil glued into the top to help them dispense better.  

That’s just the start.  Bread baked on-site in grocery stores often comes in plastic bags with paper labels stuck to them, or in paper bags with non-paper clear windows.  That plastic sticker on oranges and other fruit is not compostable.  Lettuce comes in bags made of recyclable plastic, but they’re closed with a strip of unrecyclable clear tape that is really hard to separate from the plastic.

And don’t get me started on single-cup coffee makers.  Even if manufacturers promise that recyclable k-cups are on the way, how many users will have the commitment, time and patience to wash them out, recycle them and compost the coffee grounds?  It’s ironic that the word keurig means neat in Dutch.

What to do?

The authors of Cradle to Cradle suggest that the key to reducing waste lies in better design.  In other words, in an ideal world, monstrous hybrids would be replaced by materials and packaging that are 100% compostable and/or recyclable.  

Some manufacturers are starting to recognize this need, and some products are being transformed.  For example, many envelope windows are now made of a paper-based material called glassine, so the entire envelope is recyclable as paper.  Earlier windows were plastic, and tended to foul up the paper recycling process.  And just last week, I learned of a chocolatier that has swapped its unrecyclable wrappers for new ones that are 100% compostable.

But until a full transformation of the packaging market takes place, the best each of us can do is separate monstrous hybrids, and then recycle or compost whatever can be recycled or composted.  That means removing the top and bottom of canisters (watch a simple how-to video at www.tinyurl.com/recyclecanisters); ripping the mesh window out of potato bags; and tearing the plastic veil out of the empty tissue box.  Thankfully, most recycling programs tolerate a small amount of contaminants for the times we forget.

And one last thought, directed toward those who design, manufacture and regulate packaging: it sure would be helpful if clear recycling symbols were placed prominently on all packaging, to help us all reduce – maybe even eventually eliminate – waste.