Too Much Packaging

I think I like the idea of a tax on packaging more and more. Not a punitive tax aimed at discouraging the activity altogether, like taxes on tobacco, but just enough to make people stop and think, “Do I actually need this particular bit of packaging?”


The latest incident that precipitated this was that I just bought a software package online. It arrived in a 9.5″x11″x4″ box. Inside the box was a 8″x9.5″x2″ box and a piece of cardboard, sealed in shrink-wrap by the retailer, as well as the receipt. Inside the second box was a CD-ROM and two slips of paper. Obviously, this represents a lot of wasted cardboard and plastic: a padded envelope would have been sufficient. (Yes, I realize that if I’d downloaded the program, there wouldn’t’ve been any extraneous packaging, but that wasn’t an option.)

It’s easy to see why the software company put the comparatively tiny CD inside a large box (with an extra flap on the cover): to make it big and impressive so it stands out on the shelf, and also to provide space to list all of the features of the program. Fair enough.

Of course, since this was being sold by an online retailer, neither argument applies: there’s no need to occupy extra shelf space (and in fact, the retailer might appreciate saving a bit of warehouse space), and since the customer will be choosing the software based on a web page, there’s no need to have lots of surface area on the box. So the software vendor could have just shipped a thousand envelopes to the retailer. But that would complicate the shipping process: they’d have to send big boxes to brick-and-mortar stores, and small envelopes to online stores. The software company has no real incentive to do this.

If, on the other hand, they had to pay a tax proportional to the size of the packaging, it might suddenly become worth their while to save cardboard. (I assume that in this case, they might calculate that the increased sales they’d get from displaying large boxes on store shelves would make up for the cost of the packaging. Though it’s worth remembering how the music industry abandoned long boxes, and the computer game industry has shifted from textbook-sized boxes to paperback-sized ones.)

Food is also often overpackaged. I’ve seen packages of cookies that contain bags containing individually-wrapped cookies. That’s a lot of trash!

Now, the obvious conterarguments are that a) extra packaging prevents the cookies from breaking, and b) if you’re putting them in your kid’s lunch, or handing them out for Halloween or Cub Scout meetings and the like, then it’s good that they be individually wrapped. Fair enough. But how much is that worth to you? How much more are you willing to pay for the privilege of generating that much more trash?

As I said above, this isn’t intended as a punitive measure, merely as an economic incentive to think about packaging and use fewer resources where possible. Presumably the tax would use different scales for recyclable and non-recyclable, biodegradable and non-biodegradable components (i.e., cardboard and plainpaper would be taxed at a lower rate than styrofoam and glossy paper). Presumably there’d be a periodic review, with input from, oh, I don’t know, the EPA and FTC.

I’m not against packaging, or even plastic. I’m against pointless waste.

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4 Responses to Too Much Packaging

  1. Troublesome Frog says:

    Hmmm… I don’t think it’s a particularly bad idea, but how does one measure packaging? I suppose that categorizing the material as you proposed and then weighing it would make sense.

    The recycling thing is interesting as well. We’d have to be pretty careful about what can be defined as “recyclable” given that it varies from community to community. Styrofoam is technically “recyclable” in that it can be reprocessed and turned into things that aren’t recyclable themselves, and I suppose it’s possible that a few communities do implement that form of reuse, for example. That doesn’t change the fact that in most places, Styrofoam is simply really buoyant garbage.

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  2. arensb says:

    Troublesome Frog:

    how does one measure packaging? I suppose that categorizing the material as you proposed and then weighing it would make sense.

    Yeah, that’s what I had in mind. It might also be necessary to see who generates what trash, though. That is, if a manufacturer sends a pallet with 1000 boxes of cookies to a store, which then sells them to 1000 individual customers, then the customer portion of the tax is calculated from the box and whatever’s inside it, while the retailer portion is calculated from the pallet. Then again, the calculations might work out to be fairly simple.

    And presumably the tax should be paid to the government by whoever decides what the packaging should be. In this case, the manufacturer.

    Styrofoam is technically “recyclable” in that it can be reprocessed and turned into things that aren’t recyclable themselves, and I suppose it’s possible that a few communities do implement that form of reuse, for example. That doesn’t change the fact that in most places, Styrofoam is simply really buoyant garbage.

    I suppose one practical way to handle this would be to do an annual survey of landfills and recycling centers, to measure what people actually do recycle, as opposed to what they can recycle. If people recycle styrofoam, the styrofoam tax will go down. If they throw cardboard in the trash, the cardboard tax will go up.

    Another question is, should this also apply to individuals mailing stuff to each other or not? I’m thinking of things like Christmas presents from Aunt Sue in Sioux Falls, as well as people buying stuff on eBay (the former is non-profit, the latter is for profit, another interesting distinction). Obviously, it’s a pain to impose this extra paperwork on people who don’t have an accounting department to deal with it.

    It’s possible that the volume of private packages is small enough that it’s not worth worrying about. Another approach might be to observe that, at least in my experience, most people reuse packaging: they’ll save boxes from earlier purchases and send their packages in them. That is, the tax has already been paid on the box, and since it won’t wind up in the landfill twice, it shouldn’t be taxed a second time.

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  3. Troublesome Frog says:

    One of the things that amazes me most is the custom of wrapping presents. There’s an entire industry which has factories that create paper whose sole purpose in life is to be torn up and thrown away. It all strikes me as a tremendous waste. I used to wrap gifts in newspaper, but since we went to a “Secret Santa” format and give gifts anonymously to only one person, that’s a bit of a giveaway.

    Encouraging efficient packaging is definitely a good idea, though. I would also be interested in seeing recycling programs expanded beyond just the things that can be recycled profitably. The fact that only 2 of the 6 classes of plastic that have the little recycling logo on them can be recycled in most communities is a shame.

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  4. arensb says:

    Troublesome Frog:

    One of the things that amazes me most is the custom of wrapping presents.

    Oh, yeah. I’d forgotten about that. Wrapping paper is a pretty good test of my thesis, though. It definitely falls under the category of things that generate a lot of trash. At the same time, I’d be willing to pay an extra 5-10% for wrapping paper, because I think the presentation (no pun intended) is worth it.

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