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EARTHWATCH : Hold the Wrap : Consumers can send a message to companies by leaving excess packaging at the store.

January 03, 1991|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you're seeing your neighbors' trash cans (and maybe your own) overflowing with packaging from all the gifts we've been exchanging lately, you know that means the landfills will soon be glutted with the stuff. It got me thinking about packaging in relation to the environment, and because it's "that time of year," I made some New Year's resolutions.

I can't give up everything I should. But I can give up the wrapping. Read on and I think you'll want to join me in this '90s-style virtue: resistance to packaging. "Please take it out of the packaging for me" will soon be the new environmental slogan.

I started asking for this service during Christmas shopping. I wanted to try the idea out myself before writing about it.

It's happened already a few times, said the people at Toy-R-Us in Ventura. They claim they have passed the word back to the manufacturers that people are asking for less packaging. We are not talking about Lego sets or shrink-wrapped tiny railroad cars. But do bats, balls, tennis rackets and giant stuffed animals really need to be in giant cardboard boxes? We rewrapped the stuff with The Times comics and a rock poster I got at the office. As wrapping paper for an eco-gift, it was a hit.

But where I've really resolved to change my ways is at the food market. Packaging represents an average of 20% of every retail dollar we spend. Period. If you buy fish at $6 a pound, all done up like a see-through mummy lying on a little bed of soggy plastic sponge, you're paying as much per pound for the liquid and the plastic as you are for the fish.

I got wise to this when I bought cold cuts from the deli counter and had them weighed on a single piece of wax paper. The food was fresher and I avoided paying steak prices for plastic wrap and foam . . . which then aren't dumped into the landfill.

Over in the produce section, stroll by the prepackaged fruits and veggies to the choose-your-own kind. Green beans and cherries are already too expensive for you to be paying for a taped-up, waterlogged cardboard box besides. Of course, bagged oranges or apples may be cheaper than self-selected--and the bag itself is not an environmental offender if you recycle it along with your plastic shopping bags (Ralphs and Thrifty offer such a service).

What really makes this New Year's resolution worth keeping is the message it sends the grocery chains. J. Walter Thompson, the ad agency, has told the chains that four out of five consumers polled are willing to pay a 5% differential to beat back the packaging glut.

I say there are more ways to pay that differential than just with nickels. Here's an example. Kids' boxed juice drinks. Lunch box stuff. With the straw taped on and everything. I mean everything is taped on. And laminated. And bonded. And banded. And heat-sealed. And foil-wrapped. And plastic-dipped. The Fort Knox of packaging. All this for Kool-Aid! I say buy a cardboard carton (or recyclable or reusable jar) of O.J. and--just once--a six-pack of those plastic screw-top fruit drink bottles. The kids get six junk food highs in exchange for bringing home the empties each time. You wash and refill them with your own O.J. or A.J. or G.J. OK? Using packaging to fight packaging. Or how about a revival of that good old artifact, the Thermos bottle?

The point is, it's up to us to fight the packaging war. Several mail-order companies, who were sent a message by their environmentally conscious customers, have forsworn the use of plastic foam "peanuts" in their packaging and are using recycled shredded paper instead. You too can make a difference. If you think a product looks overpackaged, it probably is. Try making a statement by peeling off at least one layer of packaging at the checkout counter. And if you have a list of New Year's resolutions, try adding this:

Packaging Resolutions for 1991:

* I will demand less packaging and I will get my way. As a customer, I am always right.

* I will always remember that packaging can cost the same per pound as the most expensive product in the store.

* I will reuse containers so they don't end up in the landfill.

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