Paper Trail

By Jeffrey Kluger|Wednesday, November 01, 1995
RELATED TAGS: POLLUTION, NUTRITION
Who says America doesn’t make the best darned food anywhere in the world? I sure don’t.

On the whole, regional cultures need a lot of time to develop a cuisine they can truly call their own. Middle Eastern nations devoted hundreds of years to chick-pea R&D; before they were able to construct the first working falafel. France reportedly spent millions of francs on research into bakery products named after tiny crazed despots before finally inventing the napoleon. Italy is said to have convened hundreds of Foods With Suction Cups focus groups before concluding that people would really want to eat calamari.

For the United States, things happened a lot faster. In the 200- plus years since the founding of the country, star-spangled chefs have put together a national bill of fare that is the envy of the world. It was an inspired collaboration between domestic dairy farmers and NASA propulsion technicians that led to the first breakthroughs in aerosol cheese. It was a combination of nutrition science and extensive wind-tunnel research that resulted in the first Scooter Pie prototype. And what might not be possible for a nation that gave the world the Goober?

But if American foods are the envy of the planet, American food packaging is something else entirely. I couldn’t help thinking about the food-packaging problem recently when I stopped into a Manhattan coffee shop to order a cup of take-out tea. Manhattan coffee shops, of course, are no different from coffee shops in the rest of the country, with the minor exception that in coffee shops in the rest of the country the employees and the entrées generally don’t reach voting age in the same year. Nevertheless, if the food is not the local eateries’ strong suit, the hot drinks usually are--or at least I thought so until I took my tea home, drank it, and prepared to throw away the trash that came with it. Destined for the local landfill as a result of my decision to buy a single serving of tepid orange pekoe were:

one eight-ounce cup;

one plastic lid;

one used tea bag consisting of bag, six-inch length of string, two staples, and a festive Lipton tag;

one six-inch plastic stirrer;

three packets of sugar;

two nondairy creamers;

one wedge of lemon;

three six-by-eight-inch napkins;

one paper bag;

one cash register receipt.

Having always considered myself something of an environmentalist, I was stunned at this pile of beverage-related debris. What, I wondered, would the environmental impact have been if I had actually ordered food? Would a side of coleslaw have required Superfund clean-up legislation? Would a BLT have required the intervention of the EPA? All at once concerned about the question of food and trash--and hoping to avoid having to consult with the Sierra Club the next time I order a shrimp salad on toast--I decided to explore the packaging problem myself.

The practice of preparing food and then wrapping it for later consumption came along relatively late in human history. In the earliest, most savage days of primate ascendancy--an era in which people were dinners as often as they were diners (LARRY: BEST IF EATEN BEFORE THE PLEISTOCENE)- -no one had time to worry about packaging. When you’re stalking a lip- smacking wildebeest at the same time you’re being stalked by a puma, you’ve got other things on your mind besides freshness and portion control. Ultimately, however, when hunting gave way to shopping, and gathering was limited to 15 items or less so you could qualify for the express line, the way food was prepared--specifically, the way it was packaged and protected- -became more than passingly important.

The first real attempts at food packaging occurred late in the nineteenth century, says Lynn Scarlett, an administrator with the Reason Foundation, a public policy think tank based in Los Angeles that has espoused environmental issues. For a long time people living in towns and cities were in the habit of going to the local store and buying their pickles from pickle barrels, their crackers from cracker barrels, and all of their other consumables from similarly communal bins. Eventually, however, it occurred to marketers that they could keep food fresher longer if they broke these institutional-size portions down into family-size portions and had them wrapped and ready before consumers ever arrived.

For the most part, this early packaging was a primitive business, usually conducted right in the store, generally by hand, almost always by a man with the middle name Bob. With improved technology, however, came improved packaging, and by the end of the nineteenth century, hand wrapping had given way to the far more complex processes of industrial canning and freezing. For manufacturers, these innovations were a breakthrough, but for true gourmands, they represented a giant step backward. Green beans with the snap of Spackle and the taste of letterhead stationery are not necessarily what you want accompanying your trout amandine. But if vegetable lovers were distressed, environmentalists were apoplectic.

For centuries, Scarlett says, the business of eating did not contribute all that much to the waste stream--what was added was generally decomposable or compostable materials like corn husks and pea pods. All at once, however, a whole new range of largely nonbiodegradable materials began to be discarded at the rate of thousands and millions of tons per year.

Then, as now, the destination for most such waste was the local dump. In the popular perception, dumps and landfills are pretty predictable places, consisting of mounds of debris made up largely of glass, paper, and the occasional missing labor leader. But landfills are much more complex than that. The principal component of municipal landfills, representing fully 20 percent of the 200 million tons of new garbage discarded each year, is yard waste--mostly grass clippings, raked leaves, and wood from pruned and felled trees. After that come corrugated boxes and shipping material, followed by all kinds of durables, such as furniture, appliances, and toys. Trailing all of these, but making up close to a not inconsiderable 15 percent of the landfill mass--as much as 30 million tons a year--is food packaging.

The food waste content of landfills breaks down pretty clearly along materials lines, Scarlett says. About 3 percent is made up of bottles; jars represent 3 percent; plastic jugs are about .4 percent; steel food cans are 1.5 percent; aluminum cans are about 1 percent; and paper, including all manner of prepared-food packaging and restaurant take-out wrappers, makes up the rest.

It was only in the mid-1980s--with the simultaneous increase in designer foods and single-member households--that the problem truly began to explode. When I finished school and entered the working world in the early part of that decade, most of the struggling professionals I knew subsisted chiefly on take-out fast food. Where I lived, fast food meant hoagies, and hoagies meant the regional restaurant chain Blimpie. In a culture that values truth in advertising, Blimpie was commendably true to its airship namesake, offering portion sizes so huge they could accommodate cold cuts, cheeses, onions, peppers, and a complement of more than 30 transatlantic passengers. A few years later, however, such dietary excess began to fall out of fashion, with the introduction of what was known as nouvelle cuisine. Nouvelle cuisine--which comes from the French nouvelle, for Don’t you wish you had a hoagie? and cuisine, for So do we--was an austere style of dining that featured few calories, little fat, and tiny portions made up principally of sautéed electrons. Despite the miserliness of its menu, however, nouvelle cuisine caught on with single urban professionals, and that presented a problem.

As people became more health conscious, Scarlett says, manufacturers responded by marketing more and more prepared, healthful foods in portion-controlled containers. Since most of the people who ate this fare were unmarried, portion control meant single portions. When two unmarried people live in different homes, every dinner hour can mean twice as many single-serving meals and twice as much waste. Multiply this over a city full of singles and you’ve got a lot of debris.

Making matters worse, even as portions became smaller, the relative size of the packaging used to sell them became steadily larger. Anyone who ate so much as a single candy bar in childhood discovered early on that it was not wise to trust packaging, since no matter how generous the wrapper made the candy inside seem, once you opened it up, the promised Three Musketeers would be down to just a single swordsman, the advertised Mr. Goodbar would evidently have been replaced by his brother, Mr. Eating Disorder Bar. Over the years, this seemingly deceptive practice appears to have been carried over into most processed foods. According to Scarlett, however, in many cases such packaging is less a cynical attempt to mislead hurried shoppers than an honest attempt to satisfy government regulators.

As manufacturers have been required to include more and more nutrition information on their packaging, Scarlett says, they have discovered that there’s a functional limit to just how small that packaging can be. If they want to give consumers all the information they’re required to give them, a package as small as the product itself sometimes just won’t do the job.

To be sure, this does not mean that the food industry bears no responsibility for the packaging problem. If there’s anything that gets the environmentalists’ free-range, hand-raised, grain-fed goat, it’s the business of multiple packaging. In theory, one thin layer of wrapping ought to be sufficient to protect most perishables, but rare is the consumer hungry for a helping of processed food who hasn’t had to hack first through shrink-wrap, then through a box, then through Cryovac before finally getting to the plastic tray that holds the product itself. As something less than a clotheshorse, I have never really tried to master the art of layering, but when my potpie does the job better than I do, even I become uneasy.

No one has ever been able to agree 100 percent on just what constitutes excess packaging, Scarlett says, but in the 1970s, the EPA tried. Generally, it defined excess packaging as any material that is not absolutely necessary for storing a product, protecting its shelf life, or communicating essential information.

Relying on that somewhat forgiving definition, there are surprisingly few products that truly go beyond the packaging pale. This doesn’t mean, however, that there are none at all, and Mark Murray, head of the nonprofit environmental group Californians Against Waste, has made it his business to keep track of the most egregious offenders. Heading Murray’s worst-dressed food list this year--and for several years--is Oscar Mayer’s popular Lunchables. The Lunchable is an embossed tray of processed food, such as cheese, crackers, and salami or bologna, plus a tiny knife for turning all these raw materials into authentic freestanding canapés. In the case of most processed luncheon meats, of course, it’s not precisely clear where the food ends and the rugged, nonbiodegradable packaging begins, but even accepting Oscar Mayer’s definition (hint: the packaging is the part without the sliced olives), Lunchables still has quite the environmental impact.

Everything about this product is overpackaged, Murray says. The plastic tray that holds the food is completely nonrecyclable; the tray is then shrink-wrapped in equally nonrecyclable plastic and is in turn packaged in a nonrecyclable box. All this is to deliver a supposed lunch that is actually more of a snack.

Fast on Lunchables’ plasticized heels is Kool-Aid Bursts, a six- pack of six-ounce fruit-flavored drinks intended for the preteen crowd. As a rule, I’ve always been suspicious of the entire Kool-Aid product line, believing that any beverage that comes in colors first spotted on a 1967 Eric Clapton poster is best avoided. Murray, not surprisingly, sees things differently, arguing that Kool-Aid’s problem has less to do with what’s intended to make the product potable than with what’s intended to make it portable.

Instead of providing just one 36-ounce bottle with just one lid, the manufacturer markets six 6-ouncers with six lids, he says. All the bottles and tops are nonrecyclable, and all come in a cardboard box that is then shrink-wrapped. This is way too much waste for the amount of drink that’s being delivered.

The answer for shoppers tired of buying as much plastic as product, as much beverage as box, is to begin putting their collective foot down and quit choosing the offending brands. The sooner manufacturers see that it is the less-dressed brands that make it off the shelves and the overdressed ones that get left behind, the sooner they’ll start stripping them all down to their packaging essentials. Already, Scarlett says, environmental groups are noticing progress. In the 1960s, she says, it took 164 pounds of metal to make 1,000 soda cans. Now with thinner, lighter cans it takes 33 pounds. The Coors brewery has been milling its cans so as to trim one one-thousandth of an inch from the top and bottom--a tiny amount that saves thousands of pounds of material per year. The Cryovac brick packs in which ground coffee is now sold generate barely a tenth of the waste of traditional coffee cans.

Of course, even if every food manufacturer showed this kind of environmental awareness, the food waste problem would not be solved. At the same time the processed-food industry is being called on the environmental carpet, the restaurant industry is continuing to litter all over it. After my experience with my environmentally unsound cup of tea, I returned to the same neighborhood coffee shop to see if the waiters and cooks were just as profligate with the packaging in their other orders. Choosing what I hoped was an obscure seat at the counter, I took a few minutes to watch the kitchen staff work, and I marveled as I often do at the clipped, spoken poetry of short-order shorthand. Pistol, I recalled, is kitchenspeak for pastrami; whiskey means rye bread; whiskey down means rye toast; May I help you? means You planning to take a long-term lease on that seat or you actually wanna order something?

Obligingly, I asked for a tuna sandwich to go and then watched, with mounting alarm, as that order and about half a dozen others were prepared and packed. Lined up side by side near the kitchen pass-through were a series of institutional-size boxes containing packets of salt, packets of pepper, napkins, straws, and packets of melba toast. As each bag of food came from the kitchen with assembly-line speed, it was stuffed with a generous handful from each box, topped off with a plastic knife and fork, and then sealed with a staple and a cash register receipt. In just the ten minutes I was there, I conservatively estimated that the coffee shop went through hundreds of packets of salt and pepper, dozens of pounds of paper, and enough melba toast to reshingle a modest home. What was behind this waste? Why would any business be so extravagant with its extras?

For the most part, Murray says, the philosophy of restaurant owners seems to be that it is better to overdeliver than underdeliver. Customers put a premium on speed, and when 15 commuters are waiting in line for a take-out breakfast, workers don’t want to stop to ask if they want butter or jelly with their bagel and how many napkins they expect they’ll need. Instead, they just grab a handful of everything and throw it all in the bag.

From the standpoint of coffee-shop owners this is a sensible thing, but from the standpoint of consumers it ought to be another matter entirely. Do we really want future archeologists who go digging in landfills to define our epoch by the geologic marmalade layer just above the Cretaceous Era’s iridium layer? Should the Bronze Age and the Iron Age really be followed up by the Molly McButter Single-Serve Margarine Age? Murray says no and believes that steps can be taken to improve things dramatically.

As with supermarket trash, Murray says, consumers hoping to help curb restaurant trash need merely remember to say no. Coffee-shop owners may not take the time to ask if you really need four napkins with a Danish, but you can certainly take it upon yourself to leave three on the counter.

Scarlett and Murray both believe that through a combination of consumer action and environmental initiative, food waste can indeed be controlled, if not eliminated. For me that day won’t come soon enough, because as soon as we’ve solved the problem of packaging quantity, perhaps we can tackle quality too. Do the Green Giant people really believe that a clover-colored man in an arugula tunic is the best way to sell frozen vegetables? Are the Campbell’s folks really sure they want their product represented by two vaguely menacing Teutonic children wearing Bavarian lederhosen? (Mmm-mmm, France!) Has the Gorton’s fisherman ever really looked at that hat? If the trash we discard today is one of the ways our generation will speak to future generations, I’d just as soon Betty Crocker not do the talking.
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