Today, we take out trash. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
It took longer than it should've, but my wife
finally trained me to take my proper role in getting trash to the curb
each week. Part of that means separating newsprint and plastics for recycling.
We Americans recycle only a quarter of our trash. The Germans and Dutch recycle
around sixty percent. Now writer Jessica Marshall points out that (like crime
or drug use) the waste problem has an upstream and a downstream side. We need
not only to get rid of it, we should also ask how to generate less in the first place.
One major part of our waste is packaging. Marshall leads us into this
amazingly complex problem with self-mocking humor. She decided one day to avoid
buying any packaged goods. She managed to do so with bread, beans, and lettuce;
but, alas, she eventually needed toilet paper and light bulbs.
Beyond protecting goods, packaging eases handling -- like those shrink-wrapped
six-packs of liquid goods you may've wondered about. And much of it is done to
advertise and dramatize goods -- like shrink-wrapped coconuts Marshall found in
one store. Or the grocer who found that individually wrapped potatoes sold better.
As Marshall looks at packaging, she finds herself entangled in a vast skein of
compromise. So she decides that energy costs might provide the best way to begin
sorting the problem. She finds, for example, that it takes over 6000 Btu's of energy
to make an aluminum soda can, and less than a third of that to produce the soda.
Packaging bread takes only seven percent of the energy needed to bake it. Still,
bread could go straight into our grocery sack. Energy costs of wrapping steak are
tiny compared with energy costs of raising cattle. Steak is vulnerable and the
penalty is small -- better to wrap it. We do more good by getting soda from a tap.
So we move on to the downstream environmental costs of packaging. Some packaging
can be recycled -- paper, aluminum, glass and steel. Some, like the polystyrene
around our new printer, needs special recycling facilities. Some packaging is pure
trouble. We don't have ready means for recycling paper that's been impregnated with
plastic -- milk and juice cartons, for example.
Compromise is ever-present. Should I provide a polystyrene cup or pay labor costs
for washing ceramic. Should I subject the future to the greater penalty of
non-biodegradable materials or the lesser one of heating water and dumping soap into
the sewage system?
Packaging is a 150-billion-dollar-a-year business. And even there we find a mix of
motives. So much of it is driven by present profit and cost. Still, many packagers
do rise to the challenge by seeking out more benign materials. So what is my role?
Well, I should be looking for products with less packaging; I should be recycling what
can reasonably be recycled. But better packing materials are needed, along with
less-damaging means for protecting and handling goods. The two things we really need
are heightened awareness -- and good engineers.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
J. Marshall, Packaging Unwrapped. New Scientist, April 7-13, 2007. pp. 37-41.
To see what I found on my last trip to the supermarket CLICK HERE.
(photos by JHL)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.