Book review of Paper or Plastic by Scott Carlson
Posted by S.L. on 6/25/2007
There are environmental causes that stir the emotions--the plight of whales and baby seals, the fate of redwoods, or the metastasis of suburbia. But Daniel Imhoff would point out that the most pervasive and fastest-growing environmental problem is so commonplace it's invisible: packaging. Styrofoam containers from a fast-food meal, the anti-theft blister packaging that encapsulates retail electronics, or the common aluminum can and plastic bottle are all part of a waste stream that composes some 300 pounds of garbage per person per year, headed straight from the shelf to the landfill.
Apparently mindful of the fact you can read only so much about polystyrene peanuts and polyethylene bottles, Imhoff has organized his book into punchy little essays, short case studies, and colorful charts that survey the extent of the packaging problem, along with a range of solutions that some companies are trying.
Imhoff points out that packaging is increasingly the product itself--a method corporations use to market feelings of familiarity, uniformity, or purity. To illustrate, he would have you consider evolution of the egg: It is nature's perfect packaged food source, with its container, the shell, being durable yet entirely biodegradable. For years, eggs came in molded paper pulp. Now the most expensive of them frequently come in molded plastic trays, derived from petroleum products. (Nature's Promise, which markets eco-friendly eggs, requests on its tray that you recycle the plastic packaging, even though few municipalities take such containers.) And lately eggs come as pre-scrambled "pasteurized real egg product," in capped cartons at premium prices--far removed from the simple egg. The packaging will be with us decades, maybe eons, after the egg has been cracked, scrambled, and eaten.
As its title implies, packaging choices for environmentalists are dilemmas, with few simple solutions: Would you rather bag your groceries in the products of clear-cut forests or petroleum? He holds up companies such as Aveda, the Minneapolis-based cosmetics company, as pioneers. Aveda worked to eliminate toxic or less-recyclable plastics from its packaging line, and strove for 100 percent recycled plastics in its containers, risking profit margins in the process. Other companies are experimenting with novel products, such as biodegradable plastics.
But even these are merely "less bad" solutions in a world full of packaging waste. Imhoff concedes that packaging offers a good deal of convenience and that making upright choices involves giving up some of that convenience. He recommends carrying a mug and a reusable water bottle, eating in instead of getting takeout, buying in bulk (which reduces packaging waste), buying from local farmers and farmers' markets, and toting around cloth bags. When the cashier asks the question in the book's title, Imhoff suggests, hand over a cloth bag and say, "Neither."
Envisioning a new environmental package design, by Dave Newcorn
Posted by Dan Imhoff on 12/1/2008
Since innovative thinking on ways to balance packaging and the environment is always in short supply, I was curious to see if Paper or Plastic: Searching for Solutions to an Overpackaged World by Daniel Imhoff would contribute something new. Though the book did indeed start out as a polemic against packaging, it quickly changed into a more productive--and provocative--course.
Imhoff, Executive Director of Watershed Media, reports on what is realistically possible in terms of the latest technology, from a new generation of zero-effluent mini-mills to the latest thinking in natural capitalism, eco-intelligence, design, and biomimicry, all as applied to packaging. (The biomimicry section alone will spur many ideas for the creative package designer.) Imhoff also covers the newest generation of bioplastics from a variety of suppliers, reviewing pros and cons of each material. Case studies show green packaging done right.
Also included: a comprehensive checklist for assessing the environmental impact of packaging before the designer makes a selection decision. The list includes attributes designers should keep in mind when selecting materials.
This is a well-written, fairly reported, attractively put-together book that deserves a place on the bookshelf of any designer or materials specifier. The 168-page trade paperback is available for $16.95.
Capsule review by Dave Newcorn, Vice President New Media, Summit Electronic Media.
Solid examples of innovative approaches
Posted by Adam Richardson on 7/2/2009
Paper Or Plastic is filled with excellent, detailed and inspiring examples of innovative ways to reduce environmental impacts of packaging. But the principles discussed in the examples extend beyond packaging, and as someone involved in product design, I found many ideas that I could apply to non-packaging efforts also. If you are in the realm of product development, this is a top-notch book to read.
It has its share of doom and gloom statistics, but for the most part the book is action and solution oriented, giving solid advice and approaches backed up by success stories. Many of these examples are from large, mainstream companies, and not the same old chestnuts that we hear about all the time at sustainability conferences or in magazines about niche companies -- valid ideas, but often not scalable to large companies.
The authors have clearly done their homework digging around in the bowels of large company supply chains. Some of what they talk about is not attention-grabbing headline-making stuff, but it is the necessary nuts and bolts of making steady improvements toward less environmental impact.