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Question of the Week: What do you do to reduce or avoid “overpackaging” in products you buy?

2008 November 10

Each week we ask a question related to the environment. Please let us know your thoughts as comments. Feel free to respond to earlier comments or post new ideas. Previous questions.

Product packaging is crucial for protecting food or other items that we buy from contamination or damage. But packaging uses materials and resources that can affect the environment. When is enough enough? November 15 is America Recycles Day.

What do you do to reduce or avoid “overpackaging” in products you buy?


En español: Cada semana hacemos una pregunta relacionada al medio ambiente. Por favor comparta con nosotros sus pensamientos y comentarios. Siéntase en libertad de responder a comentarios anteriores o plantear nuevas ideas. Preguntas previas.

El embalaje de productos es crucial para proteger los alimentos y otros artículos que compramos de contaminación o daño. Sin embargo, envases, envolturas y embalajes utilizan materiales y recursos que afectan el medio ambiente. ¿Cuándo estos embalajes se convierten en algo excesivo?

¿Qué hace para reducir o evitar el exceso de envolturas y embalaje en los productos que compra?

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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61 Responses leave one →
  1. Marie Springer permalink
    November 10, 2008

    I use fresh fruits and vegetables instead of processed foods.
    I freeze broths from cooking to use at a later date.
    We use a distiller for water.
    We buy clothing from second hand stores and return usable clothing to them as well.

  2. Heinz Braun permalink
    November 10, 2008

    When purchasing items I do not make decisions based on packaging. However, when unpacking items I notice the amount of dead space in the box, and wish there was a way to write to the companies. However I realize that packaging has many aspects, Marketing, eye catching, getting something for your dollar, and protective purposes. It is a shame that we may buy a big box because it looks better, makes us feel like we are getting something and catches our eye. I of course try to recycle as much as possible. Sometimes what it is packaged in is dangerous, little plastic parts and bags, big staples for boxes and much more. I would think that packaging experts could save some companies alot of money. One’s that come to mind immediately is computer software, usually one inch thick box for a disc and a few pages of documentation. Many toys as well are superpacked. No child could ever get them open. Another are I see a huge waste of money is the ads inserted into newspaper as well as the ones delivered in the mailbox as bulk mail. When we should be looking at ways to reduce the amount of trees being destroyed many companies have gone paperless. It would be great if advertising could be paperless as well. Besides the majority of this stuff just gets thrown out.

  3. Michele Hanam permalink
    November 10, 2008

    I try my best to reduce the amount of packaging we use by not buying individually packaged snacks, vegetables, drinks, etc. I am very concerned about the waste of so much plastic, and I’m also concerned about the BPAs released.

  4. Robin Darnell permalink
    November 10, 2008

    I try and use shredded paper from the office combined with crumpled newsprint to decrease weight and add protection for fragile items. This is 100% bio-degradable and recyclable. Shredded paper alone add too much weight, but a mix of both make a good protective barrier for items being shipped. This also reduces impact to landfills and decreases tipping charges by reducing the amount of waste for pick up.

  5. Utah Chris permalink
    November 10, 2008

    Well…. we buy what is available on the store shelf at the price that most directly affects our pocket book and fits our family budget. If overpackaging is an REAL issue, then there should be a new federal department created to address it (Not the EPA).

  6. Kristin permalink
    November 10, 2008

    Where I can, I try to buy bulk items. While snack size packages are easy for packing lunches, I use small reusable containers to pack these items instead, filled from a bulk container. I also buy yogurt and cereal in larger containers.

  7. Beth O. permalink
    November 10, 2008

    In the produce section of the grocery store, I do not use a plastic bag for produce that comes with its own skin, i.e, onions, garlic, bananas. Also, I buy bulk grocery items when I can. I also carry my own shopping bags. My grocery store gives me a discount if I use my own bags.

  8. JohnInKY permalink
    November 10, 2008

    This is a stupid question. The purpose of packaging is to protect the product inside (from either shipping damage or shoplifting) and/or pursuade the consumer to purchase the product. A lot of time and money is spent by manufacturers and packagers to minimize the cost of achieving the goals of the packaging. Since packaging materials cost money, this is a stupid question……

  9. Utah Chris permalink
    November 10, 2008

    My family and I buy what is on the store shelf and aligns with our family budget. I don’t view this as a problem necessary for our government to solve. Consumers are savy enough to make their own choices just as the economics of the cost of packaging will drive good choices.

  10. mariben andersen permalink
    November 10, 2008

    I recycle packaging material – boxes, tissue, bubble wrap and popcorn to secure and send packages. We keep a stash of packaging materials from packages that we have received. I read that plain popcorn, the kind you eat can be also used but I have not tried it just yet.

  11. Utah Brain permalink
    November 10, 2008

    I agree with Utah Chris: “a new federal department” for overpackaging is a great idea. I can imagine that the rest of the taxpayers will also instantly see the benefits in setting up an entire new bureaucracy based on authorizing statutes, salaried employees, and federal budget allocations.

  12. c b schmidt permalink
    November 10, 2008

    I don’t think the cost of dealing with the trash created by some of the excessive packaging used is not passed on to the manufacturers so therefore they have little if no incentive to change. This is especially true since some of the packaging is meant to give them an advantage over their competitors.

    Since there is no incentive there, the incentive to change as consumers has to be one of stewardship. But given we are subject to financial limitation and to buy based on availability, sometimes we have no choice.

    My family and I recycle as much as we can because it is the right thing to do. I like using reusable containers for both beverages and snacks. I also try to use my own bags for almost all of my grocery shopping and I’m pleased to see some grocery stores giving an incentive to do that.

  13. Mike Eans permalink
    November 10, 2008

    Nothing. This is strictly a concern of the manufacturer as overpackaging wastes time and money, which few can afford to do. With the rising costs of shipping & materials, it would not make financial sense for a company to continue this practice. The only benefit a company gets from overpackaging its products, particularly for food items, is the perception by some consumers that they are getting more for their money. Also, many items that might appear to be overpackaged are actually not. Goods must often travel long distances and withstand rough handling during shipment.

  14. issyDC permalink
    November 10, 2008

    I think this IS an interesting question and given that packaging generates waste (that the industry doesn’t have to account for because it has left their hands) and since EPA regulates all this waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), it is a relevant topic for discussion.

    Our family, like many others have said here, buys larger sized items and portion out servings in reusable containers to avoid the individual snack size packages and their associated waste. We also use a water filter and reusable water bottles. We also try to separate out the materials so that we can recycle at least the paperboard in packaging. It would be great if the companies labeled the plastics so we would know if we could recycle them too.

  15. Helen permalink
    November 10, 2008

    I shop as much as I can from wholesale warehouses and local produce markets, avoiding conventional supermarkets as much as possible.

    The warehouses I typically shop at recycle the boxes they receive to provide to customers to carry out their purchases. At the produce market, after collecting the items in their trolleys or baskets, I have my own bag. I also buy bulk items as much as possible for freezing and use re-useable containers to separate out the bulk items into portions.

  16. ALD permalink
    November 10, 2008

    I try to buy items in bulk if they have them without packaging like flour, nuts at Whole Foods. I skip the bags for produce and use recycled fabric bags to transport home. I now take the same bags on all shopping trips which includes apparel, toys, hardware and so on. If there is a way to reduce the plastics being used in packaging, like Walmart using a corn base material for their plastic bags that would biodegrade, THAT WOULD BE TREMENDOUS.

    Plastics, glass, metal & paper goes to recycling. If there are gently used apparel, they go to GOODWILL.

  17. john permalink
    November 10, 2008

    I haven’t seen many alternatives in packaging offered. I would pay a bit more for non marketing driven packaging design.

    I have called the post office to try and get junk mailed stopped. They won’/can’t. I take all the junk stuffers in my bills, and send them back with my payments.

  18. john permalink
    November 10, 2008

    I may be a stupid question, and I may be a stupid person.

    But I have little need to most of the packaging. I don’t want the bag inside the box, I don’t want the product insert in the pills, I don’t want the sales inserts tge Sunday Paper, I don’t want the free phone books, etc.

    I don’t think the question proposed any gov’t intervention….you answered the question asked…you don’t think it is an issue.

  19. Lynn Tarnowski permalink
    November 10, 2008

    I only buy “naked” foods. We eat a minimal amount of processed foods thereby reducing the amount of potential packaging. I purchase my herbs, spices, and flavorings at a co-op where I bring reusable containers. When going to the grocery store, I bring my own bags and challenge the grocery packer to fit all of my groceries in the bag(s) I’ve brought with me as I don’t want any more plastic bags.

  20. Lynn Tarnowski permalink
    November 10, 2008

    I work part time in a college dining hall that uses the plastic, plant based cups. However, it is my understanding that unless these plant-based items are placed into a compost pile and not relegated to the regular trash going to the landfill, they are just as bad as the plastic (non-plant) stuff. Whatever happened to paper cups?

  21. Lynn Tarnowski permalink
    November 10, 2008

    When I was a college student back in the late 70’s, my mom used to send me care packages in which she used hot air popped popcorn for the packages. It was great because we could eat the packaging too!

  22. Marcus permalink
    November 10, 2008

    You can cut your junk mail in about half by sending a postcard to the Mail Preference Service, Direct Marketing Association, PO Box 643, Carmel, NY 15012. Include your complete name, address, zip code and a request to “activate the preference service”. It’ll take a few months to kick in, but for the next five years this will stop mail from all member organizations that you have not previously ordered products from.

  23. german permalink
    November 10, 2008

    I would suggest to eliminate the plastic utensils and bags as much as possible. In my country, Venezuela, plastics is becoming a serious problem. The wrapping papers, containers and bags used to protect foods shall be made of organic disponsable materials to be recycled after its use. Also this idea should be funded by the Great Food and Supermarket Chains.

    In my country Venezuela, as it`s the case of most countries of Latin America, plastic is becoming a serious issue.

  24. Blake permalink
    November 10, 2008

    I agree with a couple responses that often packages that seemed ‘overpacked’ need to be to survive the transit from overseas, across country, etc. As a current inspector and previous package handler for a major shipping company there would be a gamut of broken and useless products as opposed to the ‘overpackaging’ waste if packaging practices were reduced. Which makes you think that the push for supporting your local community is all the more important. Wouldn’t take much packaging to protect items that you purchased if you bought items that were grown or manufactured locally. To answer the question, we buy locally and in bulk (bulk mainly to save $ not packaging waste)

  25. Lee Ann permalink
    November 10, 2008

    I hate to see fruit pre-packaged in plastic ‘clamshells’ – each apple sitting in a bubble. This prevents me from re-using my plastic produce bags, and the cloth bags that I also use. So, I avoid those products and buy as many items ‘loose’ as I can.

  26. Jacqui permalink
    November 10, 2008

    I buy things in bulk. Often, when you buy things pre-bagged, you are paying an extra dollar or two just for packaging. Not only did 89-cents-a-pound beans and rice save my life when I was a starving student, but I also made zero trash, as I reused the bags every time!

    Also, I shop at the farmer’s market. Whole foods sells avocados imported from Mexico for $4 each. The farmer’s market sells avocados for $3 per pound. Farmer’s markets can sell produce more cheaply because local farmers don’t have to pay for the fossil fuels involved in trucking produce from great distances. I’m not really down for paying out the nose just to pay Whole Foods’ gas bills.

  27. Jacqui permalink
    November 10, 2008

    You can write to the companies and you should! You’re the only thing they care about: the consumer!

  28. Kim permalink
    November 10, 2008

    There is a sustainability movement for packaging. There is a company that produces the board used for packages out of 100% post consumer material; therefore no trees are used. The printable area is in limestone and water based inks are used. Many companies are making packaging design more dense to increase number/area and decrease shipping fuel cost. Many plastic applications can be replaced by corn based compostable products. The large corporations should get pressure and/or rewards to use these types of products. Consumer education would help promote awareness and demand for such products.

  29. Hayduke permalink
    November 11, 2008

    It is difficult due to the markets available and many of the conditions that previous posters have noted such as protecting the product from shipping and consumer convenience. There are specific improvements in the last few years that are making the consumer choices easier.

    1) The advent of concentrated laundry detergent. Most laundry detergents now come in 2x or 3x concentrates. Kirkland (Costco) now mass produces an affordable vegetable-based laundry detergent in 2x concentrate.

    2) Redesign of the plastic gallon milk container to improve packing and storage to reduce transportation costs.

    3) Refillable ink cartridges.

    4) The focus on local goods.

    5) Recycled laundry bags and store credits.

    6) Corn-based food containers that can be composted.

    I have a family of four. I note on garbage day that I have a 95 gallon trash can that is 1/3 full while two adjacent same sized families are filling two such cans 3/4 full. Some of it is attributed to poor recycling and composting practices, while a majority of it appears to be poor purchasing decisions.

    Where I struggle is in the battle between convenience and responsibility. Take kids school lunches for example. It is so-o-o easy to purchase the little fruit cups, juice boxes, and prepared foods and simply have the kids throw everything away at the end of lunch. The corollary is to buy in bulk and use small reusable containers, utensils, thermos, etc. In theory this method is great, until the kids throw away the containers and lose their thermos.

    Toys are another crazy example. If I buy a Barbie doll or Littlest Pet Shop toy for my daughter I can plan on spending 15 mins opening the multiple layers of plastic packaging and throwing almost all of it away. Meanwhile, if you purchase an American Girl doll as an example. It comes in a tight fitting cardboard box with a small plastic “peephole” to show the dolls face. I can recycle over 90% of that packaging. The packaging has more to do with presentation than protection. In the Barbie example, the packaging could be made from cardboard printed with the contents illustrating what is inside. In this way, the packaging could be substantially smaller and also be nearly 100% recyclable.

  30. Michelle permalink
    November 11, 2008

    At home, I simply make the best choices I can, buy larger sizes if at all possible, those with recycled containers, etc., reusable bags when shopping, naked fruits (in other words, I give it some thought).

    At work we receive a lot of books in boxes. I simply try to recycle the boxes and reuse what we can, donate boxes to anybody who will take them. I am simply amazed at how a book or two will be sent in a larger box with oodles of paper to pack.

    It would seem to me that the government could step in and provide some legislation, etc., maybe take over the shipping industry and how they do it. This needs to be more socialist and then maybe business would reuse, do things differently instead of everything being all new and shiny, printed names on the box, etc. cause this to me is the ULTIMATE in wasteful!!!!!! Disgusting.

  31. Goffinet McLaren permalink
    November 11, 2008

    I totally agree with you. I refuse a plastic bag from every shop that uses them. I bring my own bag for all shopping. I am very disturbed by the amount of plastic that is carelessly released into the environment. Beaches are strew with plastic. Birds and sea mammals , thinking that a nicely colored plastic bag or toy is a jelly fish either smother because of it or choke to death.
    We humans have become inadvertent killers of wild life!!

  32. Melanie permalink
    November 11, 2008

    This topic stirs mixed emotions for me. Unfortunately, regardless of the importance of environmental impact, during these difficult financial times, the thoughts of “friendly” packaging are not in consideration. For many families, especially in poor, rural, struggling areas like the one I am from, keeping food on the table or the utilities on is the main objective.

    With the holidays approaching, many mothers like myself are having a difficult time compromising. As Hayduke mentioned, the packaging differences between a Barbie and American Girl doll are quite substantial. However, a Barbie can be purchased for less than $ 10 while an American Girl doll starts at about $ 100. For someone who is torn between a holiday gift for their child or groceries, the environmental concerns of the wrapping becomes null-and-void.

  33. Mackenzie permalink
    November 11, 2008

    I’m pretty sure you’re right, because landfills are anaerobic. Oxygen is needed for decomposition. In anaerobic environments, they won’t biodegrade/decompose like they would in a compost pile.

  34. Celia permalink
    November 12, 2008

    I won’t buy laundry detergent that is packaged in a plastic bottle, regardless of the concentration. I wish all laundry detergent packaging would have a recycling score so that I could compare the carbon footprint of plastic laundry containers to the carbon footprint of cardboard laundry packaging…that way, I’d be better informed on my decision!

  35. Celia permalink
    November 12, 2008

    That’s a really neat idea, Lynn. Funny how people think the green movement started in the 2000s. If anything, I think it might have been a bigger and certainly newer trend during the late 60s and early 70s (we called it ecology, of course). My friends and I collected enough aluminum cans for recycling (maybe 7 cents per pound) to take a trip to Washington DC (halfway across the country). Truly–we paid for the entire trip this way.

  36. Lisa permalink
    November 12, 2008

    I recycle as much packaging as possible and I also buy in bulk where it is feasible. A lot of the packaging in non- food items is to reduce shoplifting. One solution I just saw on the worldchanging website was that offers frustration-free packaging with items in recyclable boxes with none of the crazy zip ties and plastic metal twisty things. The beauty of this is that it not only appeals to those who are interested in recycling and reducing packaging but also to people who go crazy trying to open an item.

  37. I know this one. permalink
    November 12, 2008

    Packaging as I know it is based on the concept of shelf space. Companies like to have the most shelf space, for visual reasons, so they make their product packaging large. It’s Shelf Bill Boarding.

  38. Diane permalink
    November 14, 2008

    I think that manufacturers should be responsible for taking back their packaging; only then will they look for more ways to reduce unnecessary paper and plastic. This concept works well with old tires, where the retailer must accept tires that are replaced with new products, thereby reducing the number of tires that are disposed of in gullies and ditches. Why not have some creative thinking to replicate this success?

  39. Susanna permalink
    November 14, 2008

    I leave the unnecessary packaging at the store. After buying cereal, for example, I’ll leave the box and take the bag. It’s especially fun to do this at Walmart, where they specialize in ridiculous packaging.

  40. Neil from Canada permalink
    November 14, 2008

    Excellent Question. Many thoughtful replies. Without more individual action and some complimentary leadership, nothing will change. The cost of managing waste is always paid by the consumer (directly or indirectly) and we are too willing to pay.

    Sadly most of us don’t think about how these problems manifest themselves through ever increasing taxes, our degrading environment, as corporate bailouts and incentives. Most of us are good at complaining. Many of us pass it off as an annoyance. Others think these costs keep the economic engine working.

    If the people responding to this blog were running the show there would be no problem. Too bad we’re a minority at the moment. To all who cared enough to write in, thank you. Keep up the fight.

  41. Anonymous permalink
    November 14, 2008

    Unfortunately, a large part of the reason why companies will use a”one inch thick box for a disc and a few pages of documentation” and toys packed so that “no child could ever get them open” is to deter shoplifting. If the packaging is large/cumbersome, it is more difficult for a shoplifter to hide it on their way out the store. If the package is difficult to open, a shoplifter will be less able to remove the product in the store without being detected. It shouldn’t be that way, but companies want to make sure that their products are on the shelves for you to purchase and not in some shoplifter’s trunk.

  42. marketshopper permalink
    November 14, 2008

    I regularly go to farmers’ markets and bring along bags (paper and plastic of various sizes and varieties) and “clamshells” that I am recycling from other sources, even from some of the farmers, into which to place the individual produce purchases; all are then placed in one or more of the several fabric bags I bring. Why would the farmers be using clamshells? Well, in season, raspberries, for instance, are very fragile and the farmers want their product to survive to (and past) purchase – and I even more so when I travel home from the market in the subway at rush hour! When the farmer has set out berries in paperboard boxes, I repackage in my own clamshells and return the farmer’s box directly. It will take me an hour to get home, so I sometimes bring my insulated lunchbag to hold the berries. If we have bought highly packaged food at a supermarket (and, occasionally, that does happen), I continue to use the containers until they give out.

    But how can I deal with the plastic mailer bags in which my prescriptions arrive, mailers that are not recyclable in my neighborhood but that the pharmacy claims are? I wait until I have a reasonable number, and, maybe, throw a few other plastic mailers in, and send them all back to the pharmacy for ITS recycling program. Today I sent a box of aseptic packaging (milk and juice cartons, for instance) to Tidewater Fiber, because our city has decided it’s not feasible to include such packaging in its recycling program. (I did provide the city with information so it could look into this issue.) I cannot blame it; if my household, which tracks its aseptic container use (but is not large), does not achieve the minimum household average, it’s unlikely that people less inclined to recycle will include enough for the city to afford to start and continue the program.

    It is important, however, for people like issyDC, who repackage from larger containers (and we do some of that, too) to pay attention to necessary hygiene when reusing containers, and to be certain to disinfect water bottles and not leave opened bottles at room temperature, etc. That’s one of the ways in which we are not as practiced as our grandparents!

  43. Karen permalink
    November 16, 2008

    Hillarious. Brilliant. I like it!

  44. Karen, NY permalink
    November 16, 2008

    I skip the little plastic produce bags at the market and I bring my own reusable bags.

    I bought sheets that were packaged in a reusable drawstring cloth bag made of the same material. This allowed me to feel what the sheets would be like. Now I have a new reusable bag and some pretty fantastic sheets!

    Those who take the “not my problem” kind of stance and rely on manufacturers to package things in the most cost effective and environmentally considerate way have never worked in manufacturing.

    Making a small packaging change can be a huge investment for a company. Manufacturers decide whether to make changes based on the return on investment – or how long their cash will be tied up in the investment and unavailable to the company to pay bills.

    Changing packaging requires an engineer and sometimes modification to, or replacement of, existing packaging machinery, plus certification of the packaging to show that it meets Department of Transportation regulations when applicable.

    If the purpose of the packaging is advertisement, you can bet that reducing their footprint was not their primary consideration when they designed the package.

  45. ANNETTE NAJJEMBA permalink
    November 16, 2008

    I live in Uganda. Here polythen is largely used for parking. However not much has been done to sensitise our communities on waste management. It’s a commonsight to see plastics and polythen fly over towns in my country. It makes me sick. I have started an organisation – women for the enviroment (WFE), targeting women as key players in the fiht for the enviroment . We sesitise women on waste management and the dangers of global warming. However, we are often times challenged by our low income, that we fail to do much. Does your organisation give support to younger eniromental organisations?

  46. Sam permalink
    November 16, 2008

    Do we really need a new federal department to address overpackaging?? That seems a little excessive, especially given how oversized our government already is.

    I agree that most people will not prioritize packing over price when deciding between two similar products, but I think a lot of people choose convenience over price and the environment. For example, instead of buying individual yogurts, I buy a large carton and take it with me in small tupperware containers. It’s better for the environment and better for my pocketbook.

  47. the man permalink
    November 16, 2008

    anaerobic is a funny word

  48. the man permalink
    November 16, 2008

    but then they will throw all of there unwanted plastic bags away. when you get them you can reuse them as trash bags or take them to a recycling center.

  49. the man permalink
    November 16, 2008

    bulk items are good because you don’t have to go to the store tha same item for a while

  50. the man permalink
    November 16, 2008

    you can hunt so you don’t have to buy over packaged meat at the grocery store

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