Her fake Chinese rubber plant in the fake plastic earth

Water Bottle Graveyard David, I’ve thought much the same thing. At some point we’re going to wish we’d saved the oil that went in to all that packaging and those water bottles and all the other multitudinous waste our black gold makes and that we so carelessly and inevitably throw away.

I wonder what an appropriate policy would be to counter this? A blanket gas tax makes sense, but it would hit drivers as well, and that would be immediately unpopular. It would also add a bit of a sting to the already bad economy. Some places have banned plastic shopping bags outright (though they make excellent trash bags, and if you use them for that purpose you don’t need to buy trash bags which are made out of the same stuff only more of it). Those same places – I think largely in California – have not done enough to curtail water-bottle use.

I imagine in the future we will go to the grocery store and much of what we buy will no longer be in cardboard boxes or plastic containers. We’ll buy lots more things in bulk, in containers we own. Similarly, toys will have to be packaged differently – maybe sold outside of boxes altogether.

At my daughter’s birthday recently I had an incredibly difficult time even opening a set of toy musical instruments she had gotten. Each was tied down with a little plastic knot, wedged between cardboard. Packaging seems like such a bizarre waste of our resources. I realize it prevents shoplifting to some degree – but is it worth the extra cost? Would it be worth the extra cost if that cost were more realistically reflected in the goods used? Is shoplifting really that big of a problem and in any case aren’t observant employees still the best way to dissuade these petty thieves?

This is one area where I think you could actually impose taxes or fines that would not, in the end, be passed on to the customer (the argument against many such taxes and fines on pollution and waste in industry).  Companies are more likely to decrease their use of these materials than they are to pass along the cost to consumers. Water-bottle taxes probably would be passed on to the consumer, but in that case it’s sort of the point. The price of a bottle of water can only go so high before it becomes prohibitively expensive and people start turning to their perfectly good (oftentimes identical) tap water and reusable water-bottles.

The questions is also whether there are any good replacement materials out there to substitute that are both more clean and more sustainable. I’ve seen a lot of corn-based, recyclable materials used for coffee cups, water cups, and so forth (even for bags of chips) but I’m not sure how environmentally friendly they actually are, and I suspect that their use relies heavily on government subsidies of corn.

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14 thoughts on “Her fake Chinese rubber plant in the fake plastic earth

  1. Here in Ontario, the province mandates that grocery stores charge you 5 cents per plastic bag. They all have to do it and they get to keep the money, but they all swear up and down that they don’t really want to do it. But, the result is that most of us are cheap enough to avoid plastic bags like the plague. If I have five items or less, I’ll carry them under my arm. Usually, I bring our cloth beach bag and carry groceries in that. In the last year, I’d say we’ve probably used between 10-15 plastic bags total. And I never see them alongside the road any more. And, no, people haven’t cut down on their grocery shopping.

    My one main gripe about this, and it goes for the environmental movement overall- since they’ve changed the policy, I know we’ve changed our shopping behaviors and had an impact in Ontario. But you never hear about what we’ve accomplished thus far- it’s always gloom and doom. Just once I’d like an environmentalist group to run ads saying, “Hey, we’ve still got a ways to go, but good work on all that recycling and bringing cloth bags to the grocery stores! Have a beer on us!”

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  2. E.D. as I commented on Dave’s post I don’t believe that oil production vs. plastic and asphalt are a zero sum game. I think you have a certain amount of asphalt and plastic raw material in a barrel of crude just as you have a certain amount of extractable gasoline. So using less of the one does not result in more of the other.

    That said, I imagine a carbon fee/tax would probably hit these kinds of packaging and certainly very strong pricing of the externality of landfill/waste management would also make sure that the use of plastics et all is done responsibly.

    And yes, the phenomenon of commercial bottled water is one of the most mind-blowing idiotic things I’ve ever witnessed in my scant thirty years on the planet.

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  3. Is shoplifting the idea with the toy packaging? I always figured it allowed them to show or pose the junk in a more compelling way, or something. Although I have no idea.

    In the meantime, my wife just bought a pation furniture set from Sears. Much to my amazement, it only took me about 30 minutes to put it together. Sadly, it took me about two hours to get it out of the damn package in the first place. Each individual piece was wrappen in foam paper, then bubble-wrap, then a thick coating of packaging tape.

    There were about 50 pieces.

    I am not kidding you. I had five standard garbage bags full of packaging when I was done.

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    • @Sam M, Shoplifting, or actually more often theft by staff, is the reason for hard-to-open packaging. Generally you can’t put small things on the shelves because people will steal them.

      With furniture the over-packaging is usually due to concerns over damage – wood (even more so glue/wood composite stuff) dents and bruises easily when loaded in a semi-truck and even more so when thrown into the back of a passenger car, so they cover every piece in that foam stuff. It they don’t, it’ll be returned and they’ll take a loss …

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  4. “I realize it prevents shoplifting to some degree – but is it worth the extra cost?”

    Don’t you think that those paying the costs are more capable of-

    “Would it be worth the extra cost if that cost were more realistically reflected in the goods used?”

    Oh. What costs are you referring to that the people using plastic aren’t paying for? Pollution’s the obvious negative externality, but the landfill problem was a red-herring promulgated by well-meaning citizens in the 70s. The article seems to imply that the cost is the using up of oil that future generations can use. But isn’t this the case of any consumable good, for which we generally don’t follow this kind of reasoning? Isn’t it natural to assume that intelligent people see this coming, understand that given its finite quantity, oil is likely to be more expensive years hence, and act accordingly? I don’t doubt that most people aren’t thinking of that, but you only need a few informed people (read: the oil speculators that people so decried back when gas was four bucks a gallon) for such factors to be taken into account.

    Diffuse, uncoordinated action responding to market signals will solve this problem better than any one person or government could. We had the oil spike in the 70s, and we replaced guzzlers with more efficient cars. Prices spiked in the mid-00s and we saw much investment into renewables, reduced consumer driving, and new technology to get oil out of previously expensive places for drilling. There’s no magic bullet here, and no one technology will fix it, but a combination of increased use of renewables, consumer thrift, and alternatives in transportation will see us through to the new energy economy. We’ve responded to gradual changes in the price of oil with gradual changes in our behavior, and should the price continue to increase without sudden jumps (rather without any sustained sudden jumps; the market is notoriously volatile, after all), we’ll transition just fine to a post-oil economy (or more likely, oil use reduces by an amount necessary to make its future stockpile of little concern, as with coal). And the change will be so imperceptible that, much like the fear of the resurgent ice age in the 70s, the fact that we were worried about peak oil at all 40 years ago will be a somewhat arcane fact known mostly by those who wish to tar their political opponents with their unwise predictions.

    Oil is really no different from any other commodity that is consumable, and as the Simon-Ehrlich wager proved, the market generally proves doomsayers wrong when they predict resource apocalypse. The only reason why oil is the red herring is because nearly every single citizen is informed about its use and sees its price fluctuations every day as they’re about their business.

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          • @greginak, There’re several I guess greginak, where we differ is on the question of whether it is needed. If gas prices started a slow march upward (the most likely pattern after peak oil) then I am not convinced intervention would be required. carpooling, fuel efficiency, mass transit and walking would skyrocket. The car companies would smell money in the air and electrical cars would start pouring off the assembly lines. Electricity fuel costs would rise; electrical companies would start looking for cheaper fuel.
            [Now yes, there’s a rub there. The alternative to oil produced electricity is coal. So there is a concrete argument to be made that something needs to be done to make coal infeasible.]
            At a certain level Mom&Dad public would decide that the gasoline car was killing them. The electric or the hybrid would be purchased to replace it. As oil use plummeted the areas where oil products are necessary (fertilizer, air transport, other heavy engine industries) would see price relief.

            Most of this could, at least in theory, happen with no government intervention at all.

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            • @North, i’m think more about gov incentives to make more efficient vehicles through CAFE standards and doing a lot of basic research for various alt tech. Or even improving the power grid so alt forms of electricity can be used and the power can be moved where it is needed. There is a significant time lag and high upfront research costs for development of a lot of these kinds of tech that does not suit itself to the market solving everything. We had a vision of the future in the 70’s and as soon as gas became cheap the country hit the snooze on the alarm. One of the functions of gov should be to plan ahead so we are prepared for future stuff.

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            • @North, I don’t think that’s outlandish or unreasonable. Thing is we’re quite a ways off from peak oil so unless you fold AGW arguements in there isn’t much reason for preperation this far in advance. Of course if AGW proponents are correct in their estimates then trying to get off carbon would be quite urgent.

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