Let me paint a picture of what you think you see in the photo above.
My client thought she was doing the right thing by purchasing vintage secondhand housewares and decor to outfit a brand new household. The picture is a detail of a much larger pile, and it represents more than half a day of unpacking boxes and, more specifically, what was used to protect their contents. The vast majority of said contents were procured through an online marketplace that connects vendors and customers throughout the U.S.
From a purely environmental perspective, it makes more sense to buy used and keep items in circulation rather than requiring the extraction of resources to produce something brand shiny and new. But holy hell! The unintended consequences of a right-minded choice horrified her.
There were many many more boxes to unpack after the initial heap of innards was sorted. (More on this below.) The treasure hunt became more about the packing materials than about the actual things wrapped within. I began to take snapshots of boxes as they were opened.
A fairly familiar situation: a box containing fragile items encased in bubble-wrap was filled with white peanuts.
I was unsure of the function of the sheet of bubble wrap at the top of this box. Were the awful pink peanuts not enough? Note the large fragile object wrapped in large bubbles.
The mixed-media/material combos were quite varied. The folded random sheet of foam along the side of the box plus plastic pillows and crushed paper. Oh wait! That wasn’t crushed paper. It was kraft paper-backed bubble wrap. Damn. That’s not recyclable.
Thick sheets of crumpled paper double as an easily recycled protector and filler. In one instance paper plus an array of polystyrene blocks were used for lampshade protection. In an ironic twist, the shade suffered substantial damage from one of those blocks.
Someone used dense heavy bundles of used shrink wrap and plastic grocery bags as box filler. Amidst them were delicate items wrapped in previously unused padded envelopes. And how about plastic pillows plus a sprinkling of biodegradable packing peanuts?
I got all googly-eyed when I saw this gorgeous kraft paper padding. Biodegradable peanuts topped shredded documents. If it’s shred-worthy, it’s likely sensitive. Hmmm…
Air-filled plastic galore! First, a touch of humble paper with bubble wrap and pillows protect a piece of framed artwork. Second, look at that safety orange bubble wrap on top of the thick ravioli-like bubble wrap! This one got my attention for brightness.
The winner for most festive goes to this box. But why the top sheet of bubble wrap, too?
Just when I thought we’d seen everything, there’s one more.
My client made a point of saving a particular box for me that was opened on a day we weren’t working together. The morning of my return, while sliding said box across the marble-topped kitchen island, she asked me to guess the packing material used here:
After a curious glance and a brief pause, I asked, “Diapers?” “Adult diapers,” this mother of three replied.
She had opened one and found it to be so ridiculous, she wrapped it back up for my amusement. Deep within each was an excessively protected little bottle. The stopper for each was wrapped in a piece of green tissue paper and was contained within its respective diaper. Wow.
When all was said and done, then there was this reality: In many parts of the country, all that padding and stuffing would be shoved into bags and sent to landfill. Thankfully, we’re able to do things differently here in San Francisco.
I established collection bags dedicated to each of the following categories: paper, clean film plastic (i.e. plastic bags, deflated plastic “pillows”), polystyrene blocks, packing peanuts, clean mostly tape-free bubble wrap, and trash. Seven or eight large kraft paper lawn bags were filled with paper and smaller pieces of cardboard. Along with two 55-gallon bags of clean film plastic, these went to our local resource recovery company for recycling. The same company also accepts the polystyrene blocks which are converted “into ingots, which can be re-manufactured into door and crown moldings, picture frames, and side and deck board.” Three 55-gallon bags of peanuts were taken to a packaging store for reuse by their customers. Four 55-gallon bags of bubble wrap were delivered by my client to a local artisan whom I found long ago in an online neighborhood chat group. My client met the artist and learned that she shares excess packing material with other artists. Now she will stockpile future incoming material and has a place to take it for reuse. The small collection of padded envelopes was donated to the local creative reuse center.
Remarkably, the two large trash bags were outnumbered many times over by the gigantic bags of recyclable and reusable materials. Trash included used packing tape, plastic straps, excessively taped bubble wrap that was impossible to separate, a broken sheet of glass (carefully wrapped in cardboard, taped, and labeled “broken glass”), strips of protective foam, and not surprising, two adult diapers.
Lesson learned: When you have to shop, buy local whenever possible. Whenever you can avoid packaging of any and every kind. By reducing waste (even the truly recyclable variety), you make your life a whole lot easier. As the saying goes, less is more.
Happy Earth Day!