Do We Need All These Bags and Bottles? : Garbage: We need to go to the source to make a real dent in our mountains of trash. That means getting rid of a lot of plastic and packaging.

Louis Blumberg and Robert Gottlieb are the authors of "War on Waste: Can America Win Its Battle With Garbage?" (Island Press).

Reducing garbage at the source: It means decreasing or even eliminating the use of such things as supermarket bubble packs, throwaway cameras, burger containers and plastic grocery bags that clog our landfills. It's a concept that everybody professes to love but few follow.

Cities, counties, states all claim that it occupies top priority in their garbage management plans. Even Gov. Deukmejian, no booster of the reduction concept, has signed legislation giving lip service to its prominence. But, despite the hoopla and the rhetoric, source reduction remains a waste-management stepchild, a strategy that policy-makers and even environmental groups have done little to implement or rally around.

Why the contrast between rhetoric and reality? The idea behind source reduction, after all, is quite simple: Don't make as much trash in the first place. But source reduction may also require public decisions about what gets produced and what doesn't--a taboo subject, especially for industries such as plastics and packaging. Packaging accounts for one-third of all garbage generated, and plastic is both the fastest-growing packaging component and the least available for reusing or recycling. Yet these industries conspicuously omit any mention of source reduction when talking about garbage-management solutions. Instead, they keep developing new products, such as the squeezable plastic ketchup bottle or throwaway plastic baby-juice bottles (in seven varieties), creating more rather than less garbage.

The concept of source reduction is not new. Twenty years ago, packagers and plastics industry representatives held a conference aimed at heading off calls for government intervention as the first signs of our current landfill crisis began to appear. Ten years ago, a high-level presidential work group explored a range of possible garbage reduction programs but failed to reach consensus, given the continuing opposition of industry.

Today, source reduction is making a strong comeback. Neighborhood groups have translated their fierce opposition to nearby landfills and trash-burning plants into a call for action. These groups, derisively called Not In My Back Yard, or NIMBY, movements, have been at the forefront in pushing cities to ban products, pursue new regulations and develop economic incentives to reduce waste at the source. They have forced politicians to include source-reduction proposals in debates over what to do with garbage.

The most visible and contentious of these proposals involve banning certain products. As Barry Commoner noted, halting use of a particular product such as DDT or lead in gasoline can produce the most direct and substantive results in improving the environment. Today, communities around the nation have initiated product bans on polystyrene fast-food containers, other plastic foam goods, plastic soft-drink cans and other products.

Another approach involves regulation. Ordinances designed to regulate the size and composition of packages, the first of which was developed by the state of Minnesota, can become a key tool. Bottle bills, especially those that seek to make bottles reusable instead of merely recyclable, are another form of waste regulation.

The third area of reduction proposals uses financial incentives and penalties, particularly to discourage the use of virgin (as opposed to recycled) materials. Federal subsidies that allow the sale of virgin timber from national forests at below-market rates, for example, could be removed. Extraction taxes on virgin materials from mining and forestry could be introduced.

Even though these programs are generally still at the talking stage, the threat of source reduction, particularly product bans and product regulations, has led to some initiatives on the part of industry. Proctor & Gamble, the world's largest consumer products company, has been particularly sensitive to these developments in Europe, with its powerful environmental movement. For instance, it is marketing a new package for its liquid fabric softener that could reduce its packaging content by 85%. A "refill pouch" contains liquid concentrate that consumers dilute themselves, reusing the original container.

P&G; in fact has admitted that the packaging industry could achieve a 30% overall reduction in packaging content, which would make a major dent in the garbage problem. But the industry will not move in this direction unless forced to by government intervention, public pressure or both.

The source-reduction approach requires a re-evaluation of our throwaway production system. We must all address not only what we discard, but where it comes from and what we can do about it.

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