Shortly after the road turned to dirt, a sign greeted us, painted in the timeless yellow and brown style of so many erected by the U.S. Forest Service throughout the national forest system. “First Tract of National Forest,” it announced. It’s a woods I know well, full of conservation history, wild water, tall trees, big, beautiful black bears and small, secretive, scurrying salamanders. It was the first purchase under the Weeks Act of 1911, which permitted the federal government to purchase private land to protect the headwaters of rivers and watersheds in the eastern United States.
We had come for a family hike at a little-known trail to escape the captivity of the pandemic and take in some of the healing power of nature. Near the completion of our trek, after scaling the hills of the forest and sitting by waterfalls, my daughter snapped a photo of me with a towering poplar tree. Her twin brother, carefully selecting his stepping stones to cross the next creek, turned to me with a pointed question. “Why do you and mom work to protect the environment for your jobs, but you don’t DO all the things to protect the environment.” Ouch.
Defensively, I pointed out that we had put solar panels on our roof, ride our bikes, use recycled paper, grow an organic garden, etc., etc., but I also knew not to dismiss it, and that his sharp eyes were not lying to him. With the typical environmental IQ of a member of Generation Z, he saw places I could do more. (And without a doubt he also enjoyed a chance to give me a bit of a hard time.) I wanted to understand his question better, and asked him to elaborate. He asked specifically about using less plastic. He is aware of what it’s doing to our health and the planet. I thanked him and acknowledged he’s right. It’s true that I can do better to reduce my waste, and that our choices about how we live and what we consume do matter a lot.
But when considered thoughtfully, his question also reveals a persistent myth that shifts all the blame and responsibility to us as individuals and consumers. It’s a myth that is perpetuated by corporations that profit from resource extraction and consumer systems that distract us and allow business-as-usual to continue. It uses shame and puts the responsibility on the eco-piety of individuals who are forced to make hundreds of choices a day with limited information and few options.
It is a myth that presumes that all people, regardless of class and other social barriers, are equally responsible and equally able to act in environmentally friendly ways. It is a myth that presumes that we all suffer the consequences equally. The truth is that most people in the world — often bearing the brunt of the injustices from land exploitation, toxic waste sites, and pollution from all the waste — don’t have the luxury of these choices even if they are available.
We can’t achieve the change we need by eco-shaming, in other words using guilt and shame on individuals to promote sustainable behavior. Rather, to achieve the just and rapid transition that we need in order to protect our oceans, forests, and climate, and to tackle the paper and plastic waste crisis, we have to push for high level changes at the corporate and policy levels, where the real responsibility for designing, producing, and aggressively marketing this wasteful system rests.
We need systemic change, not just behavioral change.
As we are able, we should continue striving to make personal changes as consumers that will help the environment, and support companies who are doing things differently. But more importantly, this moment calls for us to act and organize as citizens. We must demand that our local governments enact policies and provide infrastructure and funding necessary for those changes, as well as demand changes from business-as-usual by corporations.
Within this decade, we need the cohesive action of individuals, governments, advocates, and corporations, on a host of issues, including the climate, resource depletion and waste issues from the explosion of paper and plastic packaging. We need innovation and leadership from the ones who have the influence, power, and resources to redesign the system. Entrenched companies are still attempting to shift the blame for their pollution to their customers.
This is why the Environmental Paper Network is working in partnership with plastic, toxics, reuse, and other campaigners in a growing global movement for accountability and for solutions on packaging. In early February, we will be launching SolvingPackaging.org as a resource to support this effort, and to spur action by companies, lawmakers, advocates, and consumers. Click on the link now to sign up to be notified about the launch.
These days, the problem of packaging and single-use products has become urgent, and has accelerated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Solving the packaging crisis is a key piece of the puzzle to a healthy, livable planet and a sustainable future and many of the solutions already exist.
Less than 10 percent of all the plastic ever produced has been recycled, and a mere 4 percent of that has been recycled back into products of the same quality as the original. When it ends up in oceans or scattered on land, plastic waste breaks down into microplastics, infinitely tiny toxic pieces that are ingested by species of all kinds, including humans, with untold health consequences. Both paper and plastics manufacturing are chemically intensive, energy-intensive, and require large amounts of water. Eliminating the majority of single-use products not required for hygiene and health care will help conserve irreplaceable resources.
More than half of the more than 400 million tonnes of paper consumed globally is used for packaging, consuming an estimated 3 billion trees a year, and the numbers are growing. The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly accelerated the use of disposable food serviceware, creating mountains of garbage, and serious human health concerns as almost all takeaway paper packaging is coated with unregulated, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), commonly added to make it resistant to oil, grease, and water. And the pandemic has rocket-fueled the growth of online shopping, which utilizes an astounding seven times the amount of paper per dollar of sales versus traditional retail. All that cardboard is now going to households, instead of central collection points at retailers, thereby increasing contamination of recovered paper in commingled containers and placing additional recycling responsibility on individuals and costs onto city governments.
But this is a crisis we can solve. Change is absolutely possible, because many solutions that allow for redesigning the system are already here and taking root. Here are just a few examples: Companies like Limeloop and RePack are pioneering reusable shipping packaging for online shopping, potentially saving billions of boxes. In San Francisco, Dispatch Goods is ramping up its service to provide safe, reusable takeout containers for restaurants, with similar start-ups coming online in other cities. Reusable coffee cup subscriptions from companies like Muuse, or Vessel, offer a potential path to saving billions of coffee cups every year.
In Santiago, Chile, the successful mobile refill vending service Algramo is providing a model for reducing waste from single-use products in low-income neighborhoods where people who couldn’t afford to buy products packaged in larger sizes ended up paying a “poverty tax” on smaller packages. By weight, small packages can cost as much as 50% more than the same product in a larger size, and the system leads to more waste. Momentum is growing and even some of the biggest consumer product brands are already getting on board, delivering their popular products in a reusable packaging system for home delivery through Loop. Stay tuned for more case studies in the year to come at SolvingPackaging.org.
There’s no time to wait. Here’s an easy way to start right now. A new, free app called Remark makes giving sustainability feedback to companies easier, faster and more effective. In just a couple minutes you can search and find almost any size business, click a few buttons to submit sustainability feedback, and you’re done. In most cases the company is compelled to reply and address the concerns. Best of all, users are part of a growing community that is making noise and a big collective impact. Give the app a try now. (iPhone only)
Thanks to my son, and with the advantages of my privilege, I will be keeping an even better eye on my own waste this year, and seeking out products and businesses that help achieve that goal. And thanks to our talk, we both agreed not to feel down or ashamed if we aren’t perfect. Instead we’ll be using our energy to lift our voice for a society designed for equity and sustainability, by joining others to call on companies to skip the staggering waste and move to reusables and no-packaging options, by writing to our elected local government seeking action, and by supporting the advocacy of groups working for conservation and climate justice.
It’s time to hop off the treadmill of false choices like paper vs plastic. It’s time for all companies and lawmakers to act on the packaging crisis. We hope you’ll join us at SolvingPackaging.org as we change the conversation away from the trade-offs of regrettable substitutions and to accelerating real solutions. See you there!