Environmentalists Set Sights on Packaging : Ecology: Despite the push to reduce solid waste, manufacturers are resisting pleas to cut back on overpackaging.


The compact disc is a small product in an oversized package, and that, according to environmentalists, is a big problem. With a 6-inch by 12-inch cardboard or plastic box a half-inch thick surrounding a disc that is only 4 3/4 inches in diameter and wafer thin, the CD “is a very clear example of an egregiously overpackaged product,” said Allen Hershkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The generous wrapping on newly purchased CDs is joining a torrent of cardboard boxes, plastic jugs and other disposable products that shoppers carry home every day and that inevitably finds its way to the nation’s landfills and dumps.

To environmentalists scrutinizing the nation’s store shelves, a large portion of the waste is excessive and unnecessary. Much of the packaging, for instance, serves only to make the products more eye-catching to consumers rather than to protect the goods from damage or spoilage.


Hershkowitz and other environmentalists and business representatives are working with a coalition of governments from the Northeast on ways to not just handle the waste destined for the landfill but prevent its arrival in the first place and to make sure it is nontoxic.

Called “source reduction,” their approach stands at the top of the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of strategies for attacking the growing glut of municipal solid waste. It is also attracting the cautious attention of a few consumer products manufacturers.

An early test of the “source reduction” movement can be spotted in the laundry products section of some supermarkets. Amid the looming rows of plastic bottles of Procter & Gamble’s Downy Fabric Softener and rival products are smaller, pink packages of the P&G; softener in concentrated form. Instead of buying an infinite number of plastic jugs and throwing them away, the customer can buy a single 64-ounce jug and an infinite number of smaller, paperboard cartons of concentrate, mix it with water and refill the plastic jug.

Using concentrates is one approach to source reduction that environmentalists are urging. Source reduction also means buying larger quantities, eliminating unnecessary packaging, buying returnables, buying products that can be repaired rather than trashed and donating items that are still usable.

“Unlike other waste management strategies that deal with the garbage once it’s been created--recycling, for example--source reduction is the only one that really goes to the root of the problem,” said Jeanne Wirka, a solid waste policy analyst with Environmental Action Inc., a national nonprofit environmental research and advocacy group based in Washington.

“In terms of shopping behavior, it’s all relatively straightforward,” said Wirka. “Don’t buy prepackaged produce. Buy larger sizes. Avoid individually wrapped portions.”

But, she said, “When you’re thinking ahead in terms of lifetimes of products, when you’re talking about durable products as opposed to packages, it’s a little more complicated. Things like rotating tires have an incredible impact on how long (tires are) going to last. Replacing disposable razors and pens with products which are longer lived is reasonable.”

Still, the challenge “is to change people’s behavior in a society where we’re not facing a scarcity of material resources. We’re facing scarcity of another kind--not just landfill space but a scarcity of environmental quality,” Wirka said.

In other words, can the public’s clearly expressed concern about environmental values overcome some deep-seated consuming habits and preferences?

“How do you change the system?” asked Tom Rattray, P&G;’s associate director of corporate packaging. “The system is that the public buys stuff and throws it away.”

And if consumers don’t buy the merchandise, companies won’t be motivated to produce the socially conscious packaging. P&G;, Rattray said, is “more than willing to put environmentally sound packages on the shelf, but it doesn’t do any good if nobody buys it and takes it home.”

One problem “is that these guys are hard to find,” he said, pointing to a small box of softener concentrate. The boxes are vying for attention against larger packages whose manufacturers traditionally use bulk to squeeze competing products off grocery shelves.

In addition, consumers who shop by looking at the unit price could be led to think that the concentrate

is more expensive. (The unit price for the concentrate is $4.31 per quart, compared to $1.85 per quart for normal softener product to which water has already been added. But when water is added to the concentrate to create the softener product, the price drops to $1.45.)

Surveys seem to indicate a consumer willingness to pay more for environmentally sound packages and products. But, said Paul J. Kaldjian, a senior staff member in the EPA’s municipal solid waste program, “Without fail, consumers also indicate either with their wallets or in these surveys that they want convenient things. Convenient often seems to win out.”

Regulators and lawmakers may need to redefine what is a socially acceptable level of convenience, he said. For example, “Right now, almost nationwide, littering is unacceptable,” said Kaldjian.

Another potential problem: Consumers may resist restrictions on the use of disposable products, seeing that as an infringement on their lifestyle. They need to consider the alternatives, said Kaldjian. “My experience tells me that if we keep up our wasteful ways, we’re sure to end up with a reduction in our standard of living,” he said. “I think there is a misunderstanding of the standard of living and what it means.”

Few manufacturers and retailers are likely to venture beyond their customers’ preferences, particularly if they aren’t sure that the marketplace will reward them for environmental good citizenship.

Some signs of change have emerged. In Canada, major record firms have voluntarily agreed to eliminate the CD “long box” in response to environmental concerns. The U.S. recording industry, however, has thrown up stiff resistance to even this seemingly simple step to reduce excess packaging. The industry here sees the CD’s current packaging as a major marketing device, according to Jim Murphy, executive director of administration and finance for the retailers’ association. In January, the National Assn. of Recording Merchandisers adopted a resolution objecting to any change in the package.

Retailers once counted on record albums for the same marketing service, said Murphy. “Americans are a nation of browsers,” and they exercised that propensity by flipping through albums. Customers looked at records to decide what tape to buy, he said. Now they flip through the long boxes of CDs for guidance, and the CDs, in addition to helping to sell tapes, racked up sales of $2.69 billion on their own in 1989 and are the fastest growing segment of the industry.

If packaged in something closer to their size, tapes and CDs would be too small for the kind of eye-catching graphics that help sell audio products, U.S. retailers contend. “In most record stores, it’s very hard to merchandise the tapes. That’s why retailers like the retention of the CD “long box,’ ” said Murphy. Another reason is that the long boxes fit neatly--two across--in the old record bins.

The size of the package also makes it harder to shoplift. “The environment in self-service stores is such that the CD is a very pilferable item if it is just in the “jewel box,’ ” said Floyd Glinert, executive vice president for marketing for Shorewood Packaging Corp. The jewel box is the clear plastic container that holds the CD itself. The industry has tested placing electronically sensitive targets on CDs to reduce theft, but no universally usable system has emerged, he said.

Glinert said his company is producing packages using recycled paperboard for some customers. Paul R. Smith, president of CBS Records Distribution, said CBS is using recyclable material and has put a window in the company’s mid-priced and budget-line CD packages reducing the amount of packaging by about a third, he said.

The long box may end up a uniquely American product. It is not used in Europe. But the American industry wants to retain it. “The higher the level of visibility we can achieve with our product, the higher profile we can maintain as a business,” wrote Sal Licata, president of EMI (USA) in a recent issue of Billboard magazine.

In the end, the business world may be moved to action by state regulators. Legislation to ban certain toxic materials in packaging has been introduced in six states, based upon proposals developed by the Coalition of Northeastern Governors, or CONEG.

The coalition also is trying to agree upon a uniform definition of “source reduction” and is looking at the feasibility of standard ratios of package-to-product size. “Industry is going along with these initiatives because the alternative to doing it is outright bans,” said Hershkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The real question about source reduction, according to P&G;’s Rattray, is: “Who needs to change? The answer is, everybody needs to change.”