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.