Plastic packaging almost perfectly represents what Bastiat talked about when he compared our tendency to observe the easily seen and known effects of something and to disregard the unseen effects. When you read a piece on “Sustainability” you will often see references to “mountains of plastic trash”, an overwhelming amount of twist ties, bags, and bottles. And the imagery is real – imagine hundreds of millions of people purchasing these packages every day and sending them to landfills each and every day.
I’ll reserve a discussion of landfills for a future post (again since my Eco 238 students will have a quiz question on it). But consider very briefly for a moment the common claims about packaging. That it wastes resources. That is means more trash. And that it means lots of stuff in the landfills. Let’s consider just one of those claims today, the first one.
Why is it that people believe deeply that companies are out to screw them with every chance they get? Seriously – did you ever open a cereal box to be disappointed that it is not filled up to the top. An old friend of mine Harry Landreth likes to remind me that candy bars are smaller today than they used to be in the past. So, if companies are so stingy about how much real product they provide you (which is of course costly) then what leads us to believe that they wish to provide “extra” packaging? Maybe the packaging companies themselves want us to use lots of packaging … but then again so too do lots of companies. Just because a company wants me to buy a tricycle does not mean my house is going to be overrun with them.
But in terms of wasting resources think of what packaging can do (and has done). If you were to purchase products without packaging, you undoubtedly will have to make more trips to the store. I have not done the back of the envelope yet (I encourage one of you to do it) but I imagine that it would take just one or two extra trips to the store in a car (say 4 miles round trip) each year to overturn any possible environmental benefit of using less packaging (if there is less benefit). Furthermore, the use of packaging dramatically cuts down on the resources used and wasted. For example, famously for every 1,000 pounds of chicken packaged in your supermarket, there is about 17 pounds of plastic and styrofoam packaging associated with it. Now, because this packaging happens to occur in industrial processing facilities and not in your home (where you got chickens with no packages) we are able to convert 2,000 pounds of “waste by-products” into other useful products that home users would inevitably have to throw away. Or consider famously how much environmental damage you would do by squeezing your own fresh orange juice rather than obtaining it pre-packaged from the stores.
By the way, if I see any trend in a store these days it is to presenting more and more products without packaging even has packaging may be on the rise. (Extra credit question for readers – how much packaging has made its way into landfills in the last 30 years by weight as compared to how much has made it in by simple count?).
In a future post we’ll consider the health benefits of packaging. That should matter for the environment, no? After all, aren’t humans part of the environment? Isn’t the reason we care about using up resources or landfill space the impacts it has on human health and well being?