Wrappings, cans, bags, bottles, boxes — aren't we overdoing it?
THE 96TH annual Pasadena New Year's Tournament of Roses Parade is now history. It is always amazing how quickly the crowds that line the streets for this event — arriving a full 24 hours or more before the parade even begins — disappear after it passes. But left behind is a blanket of litter — tons and tons of litter. Most of it is made up of discarded wrappings and containers that once held various kinds of food or drink. How many of us take it for granted that the amount of plastic, glass, cellophane, paper, cardboard, aluminum, tin, Styrofoam and other materials a society uses to wrap or contain food is a measure of today's advancement? The greater the quantity of such materials used once and then thrown away, the more a society is presumed to be enjoying progress.
Should It Be This Way?
But stop and think. Is all that really progress? Have you ever struggled to open a little cellophane bag of peanuts? Your fingers take hold where the words say "Tear here." You pull and twist. Nothing gives. You pull and twist some more. In vain. Finally, out of desperation, you grab the top corner in your teeth and yank the bag open, spilling peanuts far and wide as you stand there with a shred of cellophane dangling from your lip. Or what about the paper milk carton with the spout that does not open? Though you follow the instructions printed on the side to the letter, the spout remains sealed. After some effort you resort to the use of a knife or other sharp instrument and you puncture and tear an opening out of which you may dribble the milk. And who has not had a tin can or bottle to open, but no opener available? Or tried to reseal a "resealable" carton that would not stay shut? Or purchased a package of some foodstuff only to find out once you have opened it at home that the package is only half full or, worse, that the contents are spoiled? Or, when attempting to loosen the lid on a jar, had the lid suddenly move, allowing a liberal amount of whatever is inside to spill? Such are some of the design defects in modern food packaging. But there is more. A controversy rages in some circles as to how safe many of the man-made materials are that are used to package food. There are those who are convinced food is dangerously tainted by contact with plastic, aluminum, Styrofoam and such. It is now widely recognized, for example, that the solder long used on tin cans has been a source of toxic lead in the diet. So many of the containers into which food is put are not able to keep the contents from spoiling, discoloring or changing in texture. In an effort to counteract this, various chemical preservatives are added to food or the food is processed or refined, all of which procedures render it less suitable for human consumption. In addition to substances purposely added to much containerized food, there can be found certain undesirable elements 'that the huge packaging industry has no practical way of keeping out. For this reason, U.S. government regulations actually allow a certain number of rodent hairs, rodent feces, insect parts and other kinds of dirt to be included in packaged food. When you prepare food at home, you discard that which is moldy, blemished, worm-eaten or otherwise spoiled. But when it's a question of tons of tomatoes going into a batch of commercial tomato sauce, for instance, despite human supervision, there are bound to be tomatoes included that individually you would refuse to serve at your table. The same is true of any other commercially prepared food. This subject is far more vast than commercial food packaging though. Almost everything we purchase is packaged in some way. It either comes from the factory like that or we ourselves slip it into a plastic bag in the store that in turn is put into one or more paper or plastic bags at the checkout counter. Textile fabrics may also be taped and stapled shut in an effort to discourage shoplifting. Basic human dishonesty is one of. the reasons a society becomes over — packaged. Smaller items (that otherwise have no real need to be wrapped) are enclosed in large hard-to-open plasticized containers to make them difficult to steal. But whatever the reasons for using all the boxes, bags, wrappings, cans, bottles, strings, wires and tapes, the problem is that they have to be disposed of eventually. True, some packaging is biodegradable, that is, once it is properly disposed of (that too often means it must be picked up from where it has been carelessly dropped or tossed and then disposed of properly), it will eventually decompose. But much in the way of wrappings and containers does not fall into this category. Such must be recycled, if that is possible and convenient, or hauled away to immense dump sites and landfills. In larger cities, massive disposal systems are required. Consider your own garbage that you regularly put out to be collected. How much less would you have to put out if you didn't have so much unnecessary packaging to discard and if you put food scraps into a compost heap behind the house? For sure, fewer refuse collection trucks would be needed and far less refuse would have to be disposed of, to the relief of municipal budgets. Many of our lakes, rivers, streams, beaches and highways would be in much better shape without all the packaging that is tossed into them and onto them. Also, there would be less industrial pollution and better use of resources if nonessential packaging were not manufactured in the first place. Many societies get along fine without using so many wrappings and containers. Something is wrong when an over-commercialized, over-industrialized society must struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the excessiveness of its own rubbish.
A Lesson from Nature
Did you ever notice with what wisdom packaging is used in nature? Not everything in nature is packaged. Not everything needs to be packaged. But when packaging is used, it is used appropriately and well. To illustrate, let's go back to the peanuts. Who can design a better container than the one they come in naturally — peanut shells? They keep dirt and light out, tend to maintain freshness, are easy to open, take up little space and are totally biodegradable. The same holds true for many other edible nuts — though some may be a little harder to open. Have you ever looked closely at a banana peel? Now there is a marvel in packaging engineering! It's as easy to open as a zipper and serves as a convenient holder so you can keep your hands clean while you're eating. In addition to being biodegradable, as all packaging in nature is, a banana peel will never fool you, that is to say, you'll never open one and find it half empty. Nor is a banana likely to be defective if the peel — un tampered with by man, of course — looks good. What you see is what you get. This is real truth in packaging. Some of nature's packaging is edible. It is meant to be eaten along with the contents. Such is the case with berries, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, string beans, figs and so forth. In these cases the packaging not only does not have to be thrown away, to the contrary, it contains valuable nutrients and is a vital contribution to roughage in the diet. In some cases we eat the packaging and only part of the contents (as apples, peaches, plums, apricots). The part we don't eat, the seed or stone, is discarded — often into the ground where it can spring forth into a new generation of fruit-bearing tree. Nothing is wasted in nature. Anyone who has drunk orange juice from a plastic bottle and detected a plastic taste, and wondered what to do with the bottle afterward, or who has drunk it from a can and noticed a tiny stale taste, should consider the orange juice container designed by God. An orange is, after all, mostly a ball of juice. But you can't spill it, and air does not get to the juice to rob it of its vitamin value, for it is packaged in a marvelous way. Once you remove the attractive outer skin that so well preserves the freshness of the contents, you will find that what is inside can be divided into sections-thin-skinned sacks full of golden juice. But don't worry if you puncture one of these sacks. The juice will not come gushing out. You can enjoy this treat with your best clothes on. Why? Because inside each of these juice sacks are smaller sub-sacks, the thin membranes of which envelop and protect small portions of the delicious liquid sunshine. And the sacks themselves are all edible! Watermelon packaging is equally designed to be spill proof. The content is mostly liquid, yet you can slice a watermelon in half and lose no more than a few drops of juice. Try that with a liquid-filled plastic bottle! And how about an ear of corn? The layer upon layer of overlapping husks may seem excessive. Yet they are not. They serve to keep the kernels fresh, clean and cool under the hot summer sun. Then there is the coconut. After the milk it contains is drunk and the meat is removed, the shell has utilitarian or artistic value, as has the large fibrous husk that once surrounded it. Or they can be discarded, eventually returning to the earth without leaving a trace. Who can improve on that? Other examples of unique packaging include the pomegranate, the grape, garlic, the artichoke, the eggplant and the egg itself. The more deeply one analyzes it, the more inescapable is the conclusion that in food packaging, as in any other field you can name, God had a better idea!