Many Germans adore barreling down autobahns in luxury cars, delightfully burning through fuel like terrestrial rockets. It seems like a contradiction, but they also behave as if recycling were second nature to them. Living in Germany as the spouse of a U.S. soldier at the turn of the century, I fell in love with the recycling system, which included almost everything but diapers and kitty litter. The country is truly a world leader in this area.
The first time I bought shoes using my toddler-level-German, the cashier asked if I wanted the shoebox. I hesitated. Am I misunderstanding? Does she want to keep my box? Evidently, some shoe retailers like to confiscate shoeboxes and reuse them. After all, you don’t need the box at home, so it makes sense to relinquish it before you’ve even left the store. The plastic bag was another issue that had to be addressed since there was a charge for that. As I exited the store, I felt more like a shoplifter than a paying customer, with the shoes tossed nakedly into the back of my kid’s stroller. Let’s fast forward to America twenty years later, where sustainable packaging is starting to catch on.
Now that our laptops are shopping carts and dogs everywhere have given up barking at postal workers, we’ve become a nation surfing on waves of plastic air pillows. Grocery stores that used to accept things that municipal recyclers won’t – like plastic bags, shipping envelopes, and bubble wrap – have placed a moratorium on their collection programs due to COVID. For the same reason, many stores also ban reusable totes.
Neurotically, over the last nine months, I’ve amassed a monument in my garage of packaging plastics, bread bags, and cereal box liners, and I’m probably not alone. Not until the stockpiling of my unrecyclables did I realize the quantity I was generating. When supermarkets begin to accept items again, these piles are going to create quite a tsunami.
We’re all familiar with the dilemma of plastic in oceans harming aquatic life. Of course, reducing consumption is ideal. Before the pandemic, another planet-friendly habit was to shop locally and bypass the need for big boxes and cushioning. This is still an option for those willing to make masked forays into public places. But post-pandemic, millions of people will continue flocking to Amazon and other large retailers. These companies have it within their power to act as the vanguard of packaging innovation. It would be wonderful if consumers sent them the message that they’re ready to move on. Unrecyclable plastics are so 20th century!
In line with Prime Minister Modi’s promise to ban single-use plastic in India by 2022 – a measure which has now morphed into a public awareness campaign – Amazon has adapted its shipping materials in India to help mitigate the country’s urgent trash crisis. Many products are mailed out in their original boxes, eliminating the Amazon box. Paper fillers and pillows have replaced plastic cushions and bubble wraps. Mailers are being designed to be plastic-free. If it’s possible to provide shipping like this abroad, then there’s hope for us here.
Perhaps, like Modi, our leaders can nudge companies in this direction. Green packaging options are increasingly plentiful in America. Still, it doesn’t help that the plastics industry is tied closely to the petroleum industry, which is unfortunately subsidized by taxpayers. Faced with the growing popularity of electric vehicles, the petroleum industry seeks to expand markets for its plastics. In our present economy, some sustainable packaging may be more expensive than plastic counterparts. But it’s a no-brainer that sustainable options are much less costly as far as ecosystems are concerned. And shoppers are beginning to demand and expect biodegradability.
Sometimes large retailers allow buyers to choose how quickly their packages arrive: in most cases, our choice to be patient translates into a smaller carbon footprint. Sure, it would be great to have an item arrive on my doorstep today or tomorrow, but fifteen minutes ago, I didn’t even know that I wanted this thing. So is it really that urgent? As adults, we can break ourselves from the addictive nature of instant gratification. We can mindfully choose the option that delivers our loot to us using the least amount of energy.
Amazon offers advice on recycling some of its fussier packagings, but the real challenge is getting people to go through the extra steps to discard something. If it can’t be thrown into the regular recycling bin, it will probably end up in the trash stream. Some customers have had success requesting that Amazon mail their packages with minimal shipping material. After fifteen minutes of scouring Amazon Prime for enrollment in guilt-free shipping, I surrendered and entered the customer service area. Chatting briefly with a robot, I soon reached a human. She assured me that she would make a note on my account to package without plastic when possible. Now I’m tempted to order wine glasses to see how they’re packed.
Sites like Amazon, Walmart, and Target should offer a conspicuous option, right next to the shipping options, where one can request green packaging. Although that shouldn’t cost more (and someday will likely cost less) than petroleum-based packaging, if these sites want to charge extra for eco-friendly air cushions in the box, so be it. If given the option, many people would pay extra – even if they are caving to social pressures. Companies gradually realize that the recyclability of packaging can make or break the decision to buy an item for some consumers.
With Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the slew of holiday discounts raining down on us, take a moment to think about the planet. The next time you’re shopping online at one of the big retailers, let them know your preferences, and maybe collectively, we can effect change more quickly. And good luck with that compressed bundle of toilet paper overwrap that you can’t bear to toss into the landfill. If you get tired of looking at it and have time on your hands this holiday season, make art!