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Paper or Plastic

(article, Daniel Imhoff)

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h3. From Chapter 1: "In Packages We Trust"

Increasing our reliance on packaged goods makes it possible for us to export the costs and impacts of production to faraway places. It also plays the role of divider and conqueror, transforming us from loyal regions of bulk-buying citizens into a world of more than six billion individually targeted, single-portion consumers. Rather than develop relationships with familiar producers and counter clerks, we interact with packaged goods.


h1. About the book and author

The co-founder and director of Watershed Media, a nonprofit publisher, Daniel Imhoff specializes in issues related to farming, the environment, and design. Paper or Plastic explores the modern packaging industry and offers solutions ranging from better design to simple recycling tips.

Excerpt reprinted with permission of Watershed Media and Sierra Club Books (2005).


"The central role of packaging in American culture," writes popular culture scholar Thomas Hine in [%bookLink code=0316365467 "The Total Package"], "has been to replace human relationships, which are ambiguous, time-consuming, unpredictable, and emotionally taxing, with expressive but less demanding containers."

Reliance on industrially produced, faraway commodities has also helped to foster a faith in the packaged commodities and a mistrust of unprocessed essentials, such as tap water and fresh foods. This spreading fear of a contaminated environment has spawned legions of buyers of bottled water, pasteurized egg and dairy products, and irradiated meats and seafood.

Packaging can be highly misleading, however, erecting a barrier between the consumer and product history that is difficult to penetrate. Single-serving water bottles emblazoned with panoramas of glaciated alpine peaks don't have to disclose that the water did not necessarily come from a mountain spring or pristine wilderness area. Or that two gallons of water might have been expended in the filtering process for every gallon that ended up in the seldom-recycled containers.

Cheerful selling copy on coated paperboard cartons doesn't have to reveal that cut-up and frozen "free-range" chickens could have lived their lives in near-total confinement, regardless of what the colorful graphics and words suggest. Buyer be aware.

[%image feature-image float=right width=400 caption="Most disposable water bottles get tossed, not recycled."]

With the exception of purchase and consumption, we become completely divorced from the process of producing goods, from the impacts associated with raw-material harvest and procurement, from those who made them and under what conditions, from the habitats affected along the way, as well as from the many intricate levels of assembly and transportation required to manufacture and distribute a final product.

In his outstanding essay "The Whole Horse," Wendell Berry writes:

bq. To the extent that we participate in the industrial economy, we do not know the histories of our families or of our habitats or of our meals. This is an economy, and in fact a culture, of the one-night stand . . . In this condition, we may have many commodities, but little satisfaction, little sense of the sufficiency of anything. The scarcity of satisfaction makes of our many commodities, in fact, an infinite series of commodities, the new commodities invariably promising greater satisfaction than the older ones . . .

bq. The global economy institutionalizes a global ignorance, in which producers and consumers cannot know or care about one another and in which the histories of all products will be lost. In such a circumstance, the degradation of products and places, producers and consumers is inevitable . . . But in a sound local economy, in which producers and consumers are neighbors, nature will become the standard of work and production. 

bq. Consumers who understand their economy will not tolerate the destruction of the local soil or ecosystem or watershed as a cost of production. Only a healthy local economy can keep nature and work together in the consciousness of the community. Only such a community can restore history to economics.

Following Berry's logic, we must begin to see our purchases and their packages as part of larger economic and cultural systems. And, ideally, a package should be viewed as an inherent part of its product, rather than separate from it. That is, a biodegradable wrapper on an industrially produced fast-food item won't absolve that product's questionable human health and environmental hazards. And an overnight airmailed courier package will still be seen as a luxury with consequences to air pollution and global warming, even when it arrives in an envelope made from 100 percent recycled newsprint.

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