Saturday, March 22, 2008

Wasteful Packaging

This past week, I had plenty of opportunity to rant and rave at the wastefulness of commerce. Sure, capitalism is supposed to eliminate waste and make everything more efficient, but that can sometimes take a back seat to expediency. Waste, to an engineer, is anathema. To an environmentalist, it is a cardinal sin. In this rant, I am referring to packaging waste.

Allow me to elaborate. I recently ordered a copy of TurboTax from, because it is that time of year again. I am not a particular fan of TurboTax - it is not a superlative program in terms of ease of use, they have a nice racket going in terms of the state packages, it's overpriced for what it does (year after year, 95% of the program is identical), and the sweetheart deal they (and just about every other tax prep software) have with the IRS to charge fees for E-filing is nothing short of corrupt. But, it does the job, and I prefer it to doing it by hand.

But I digress. For years, TurboTax has been packaged in the standard-sized software box. The size of this box is a holdover from the days from software consisted of a stack of floppy discs and a thick printed manual. For at least the last five years, this has been entirely superfluous. Software today is just one optical disc. Printed manuals disappeared a decade ago. The size of a software box, however, has largely stayed the same. Maybe they like the large canvas it provides to catch your eye on the shelf. On the other hand, when buying software online, the size of the box and the canvas its provides to marketers is likewise superfluous.

The good news is, however, that TurboTax has this year changed their packaging to put the disc into a DVD case - much smaller. Amazon, however, hasn't seemed to have gotten the message. When it arrived in the mail, this DVD case arrived in corrugated cardboard box measuring 12x9x4 inches. Think about that. Take a DVD off the shelf, and set it on a letter-sized sheet of paper, now project a height of four inches. That's about the size of the box that this disc came in. What is more, the case was shrink-wrapped to a 8.5x11 sheet of cardboard. I was speechless at the example of absurdity and waste sitting in front of me.

I contact Amazon about this. I informed them how ridiculous it was to use such a large box to send something, essentially, the same size of a DVD movie - which Amazon has optimally-sized boxes for. Packaging and Shipping has to be one of their largest costs, especially since I didn't pay them anything to ship this order, so you would think they would try to use as little material as possible. The response I got was a form email, probably chosen by some heuristic algorithm that examined keywords in my email (I doubt any human eyes other than my own ever read it), that really didn't even come close to addressing the issue. But, if my package arrived damaged due to a packaging error, I know exactly who to talk to. reminded me that their packing materials are recycleable, but that's hardly the issue. It is better to not use something in the first place than to use and recycle it.

So, that's story number one. Story number two relates to the holster for my iPhone. So that the sound can exit from the bottom of the phone and reach my ears (like when the phone rings), the bottom of the holster is a woven plastic mesh. All well and good, except that the mesh started pulling away and fraying almost as soon as I bought it. Now, six months in, I start to worry that my phone is going to slip right out the bottom. I count myself a decent tinkerer, and Hilary can tell you plenty of stories of items long past their useful life that I obstinately refused to give up. But, this time, I didn't see a good way to fix this do-hickey. Thankfully, the device has a lifetime warranty, so after a brief phone call, a replacement was in the mail.

That replacement arrived this morning. It's the small black thing in the above image. Yet another example of wasteful packaging. This holster is hardly larger than my iPhone itself, yet it, like so many other consumer products these days, comes with a tremendous amount of packaging to ensure that it looks pristine on the shelf - contained in a perfect volume of crystal. At least it wasn't an unopenable plastic clamshell. But, rather than wrap this bullet-proof bit of packaging in some paper, or even a manilla envelope, to speed it on its way to me, they felt that it needed a whole stack of plastic peanuts and, you guessed it, a large cardboard box. My broken holster will get far less nice treatment. Even if it were intact and had a long usable life ahead of it, I doubt I would have done more than shove it, unadorned, into a padded envelope.

Now, when it comes to commerce-by-mail, the amount of packaging is hardly the full story of environmental impact. There is the shipping involved, which is usually cross country, and goodness knows how much manufacturing. But, suffice to say, whether I drive down to a store and buy something, or else order it online and have it arrive a week later (I usually opt for the slower shipping - I can deal with delayed gratification, and I'm too cheap to shell out for 2nd day), the item eventually arrives in my home. Is it better to have the item bulk-shipped with thousands of its brethren 98% of its long journey, housed in a climate-controlled asphalt jungle of a mall, then the last few miles in my car? Or is it better to have it bulk-shipped 66% of its journey to a warehouse, then individually packaged in a cardboard box with the mail for the remaining 33%? I guess it's bad any way you consider it.

Maybe next time I'll prepare my taxes by hand, and sew a holster for my phone.

And speaking of packaging waste, don't even get me started on the bag-packing habits at the local supermarket!

1 comment:

Kate said...

I have to jump in here. Remember the book I sent you a week or two ago? I had it all set to mail in the thin cardboard mailer. Wouldn't you agree it would have been FINE? But when I got up to the USPS counter, the postal worker insisted that it wouldn't be secure in there, and more or less before I could talk it through with her... there was a line, as well... she pulled one of those tyvek mailers from behind the counter, wrapped it around the book, and sealed the whole damn package up! Seeing that the damage was done at that point, I could only express to her that this was a wasteful practice and that I would have liked the opportunity to try an alternative of my own choosing. She slapped the payment sticker on practically snarled for the next customer to come through. "efficiency" one, planet zero.