How nature packages her products
What is the ideal packaging for a natural product?
Designer Bruno Munari once gave an excellent lecture on the subject.
The answer is: the packaging provided by nature.
Let’s take an orange, for example. Its bright color is attractive and interesting: this is nature’s promotional work, to make sure someone will pick the fruit and spread the seeds far from the tree, in order to diffuse the species.
The peel is completely biodegradable.
The spherical shape of the fruit ensures a minimal surface area of peel in relation to the pulp inside. The external peel is thin, shiny, slightly oily and waterproof, although it allows the scent of the fruit to exude. The internal peel is thick, smooth and bitter, and protects the fruit from temperature changes and damage; it also acts as a deterrent against insects and birds.
The fruit itself is divided into a series of segments, each in its own individual “packaging”, arranged so that no space is wasted, and each of them can grow independently.
Man’s useless additions
Yet when we go to buy oranges in a supermarket, we often find them wrapped in groups of three and four in a polystyrene tray covered with polyethylene film, which serve no purpose whatsoever, unless it is to add to the gigantic flow of refuse each of us produces every day.
Until a short while ago polystyrene (polymer foam) was blown up using freon, a chlorofluorocarbon responsible for the hole in the layer of ozone around the earth (the vital natural “packaging” of our planet).
Those little trays are still accompanied by polyethylene today and if we want to recycle the packaging, in this case – like a thousand others – these two polymers cannot be used together but need to be separated first. This is the main technical and financial problem which any and all plastic waste recycling projects come up against. This artificial packaging, along with the natural packaging supplied by nature, is destined to end up in a rubbish tip.
This means they will contribute to that mountain of household waste that no-one can find a place for, and certainly no-one wants a rubbish dump near their home; or else they will end up in the incinerator, a system which claims to reduce the volume of refuse in order to take up less space in the dump (although there is some residue just the same, and the waste from an incinerator must still be sent to the dump) but in fact just blows most of the burnt material up into the sky in the form of smoke, as if there were room for it up in the atmosphere.
Dumps will of course pollute the water-bearing layers, when the plastic sheeting used to “package” them (ie. to isolate them from the ground) breaks – and break it will, sooner or later, even in state-of-the-art dumps; while the incinerators not only feed the dumps with their waste and the by-products of smoke filtering systems (all highly toxic), but also involve massive use and pollution of water used in the cooling and cleaning systems. All this is due to the excessive practice of adding useless packaging to that already provided by nature.
Overall, packaging accounts for about 40% of the weight of household waste, which means that each of us throws away about half a kilo of packaging every day. If we calculate the volume (which is what counts in determining the rhythm with which the dump is filled) it is over 60% of household waste.
A completely irrational system
While the natural and totally biodegradable packaging created by nature to protect her products fulfils all the main packaging functions (protect, preserve, transport and make it appetizing – in other words, attract the consumer) with minimum use of resources, the artificial packaging filling our refuse actually exacerbates them (especially those linked to marketing – by incorporating the advertisement for the product in the package itself) with horrifying levels of waste. There would be no financial justification for such waste if financing were concerned with the substance of things (rational use of resources) and not exclusively the monetary value attributed by the market to goods in circulation.
In actual fact, the economy does not promote the rational use of resources because the price of food does not include (nor therefore does it cover) the costs of environmental damage caused by this extensive demand on natural resources. For example – in the case of foods – erosion of the soil, the loss of biodiversity, pollution of the land with fertilizers and phytosanitary products, consumption and pollution of water etc.
Especially in the case of packaging, the costs faced by manufacturers and users have unfortunately failed to cover the (indirect) cost to the environment nor even the (direct) financial costs incurred by their disposal in the form of refuse: a tin of tomatoes costs a few hundred lire, but the cost of disposing of it as refuse is three or four times this much. If we also consider the environmental damage caused by this type of packaging, the overall cost might amount to ten times as much!
Underlying this fact there was – and to an extent, still is – a perverse mechanism which exonerated the manufacturers and users of packaging from all responsibility for organizing and financing its disposal, and transferred this responsibility to the town councils (who are obliged to remove and dispose of the household waste we all produce) without however providing them with the necessary funds to fulfil it.
Manufacturers of any item whatsoever were therefore obliged to publicize themselves illegally – at the expense of the council and the inland revenue – by outrageously multiplying the packaging used for their products and unloading the burden of paying for their disposal onto council funds, once the packages were transformed into refuse.
How to deal with the problem of packaging
Dealing with the problem of packaging means adopting specific measures, which can be summarized as below:
1) reducing the quantities of packaging in circulation to those strictly necessary for transporting and preserving the product, thus forfeiting – at least in part – the marketing effect of the container. Quality products can afford to do this.
2) standardizing the materials and formats into a few basic types, so that the materials are easily recognizable, separable and recyclable, and the formats permit the exchange of “empties” between manufacturers of similar items, as currently happens for glass mineral water bottles.
3) the removal of refuse packaging should take place through the same channels that bring the product to the final consumer; shop-owners and supermarkets should be equipped for removal of used packaging, as some already are for plastic bottles. For their part, the consumers should undertake to bring back materials as clean as possible so as not to transform food shops, for example, into muck-heaps.
In the last decade steps have been taken in this direction, but there is still a long way to go.
In 1994, in the wake of a law applied in Germany at the beginning of the 1990s, the
European Union passed a directive (94/62) making it obligatory to recycle or reclaim a large amount of packaging materials through differentiated refuse collection and adequate industrial procedures; by next year (but this deadline is shortly to be revised by the EU) differentiated refuse collection should concern at least 50% in weight of the packaging on the market. At least half of this should be recycled while the rest can be re-used to produce energy (eg. Burning in an electrical energy plant, a process which obviously does not involve non-combustible materials like glass, steel and aluminum).
Manufacturers, users and distributors of packaging have therefore had to organize the collection, recycling and reclamation of some of their products after use.
This directive effectively adds to the legislation – although only partially – what is known as the principle of “extended responsibility of the manufacturer”. On the basis of this responsibility, those who manufacture or distribute a product are responsible for all the phases of its “life cycle”, from the cradle to the grave.
The decision to re-use reclaimed products in the same form (“returnable empties”), to recycle the materials to make similar or different products, or to burn them for energy purposes depends (within the terms of the famous 50% recycling and 50% reclaiming regulation) on technical, financial and organizational factors. As they must shoulder the financial burden the companies involved in this directive (which is basically all of them!) would obviously be interested in making the best use of the refuse.
The CONAI system
In Europe the 94/62 directive became operative, following two basic models: voluntary agreements between the government and the manufacturers and users of packaging, and the formation of obligatory implementation systems. Holland, Belgium and France have used the first system, while Germany, Italy and the Scandinavian nations have opted for the second. But in actual fact no “pure” model exists in any of these countries because if the voluntary agreements are not undersigned or respected, the government subsequently takes action with sanctions or authoritative regulations; where an obligatory system has been set up, attempts are made to make it operative through program agreements and arrangements with the parties involved.
This is the system used in Italy, where the 94/62 directive was adopted in February 1997 under the Government Decree 22/97 (the famous Ronchi Decree) which formed a general policy law for all materials involved in organization of refuse.
In order to conform to the terms of the European directive, the Ronchi Decree has set up a complex system of obligatory consortia (one for glass, one for plastic, etc) under the umbrella of a “super consortium” (CONAI: Consorzio Nazionale Imballaggi – National Packaging Consortium) whose task it is to supervise the obligatory contribution (a type of packaging tax) applied in order to finance the collection and reclaiming system for packaging refuse.
CONAI in turn gives the town council (or companies delegated by the council) the task of organizing the differentiated packaging refuse collection, and itself “only” ensures that the materials are collected in differentiated form, and repays some of the greater costs incurred by the councils in organizing the differentiated collection. Reclaiming mainly takes place through companies associated with textiles consortia, often “starved” of reclaimed materials, which are increasingly indispensable or convenient for use in their production cycle.
Combustible materials which cannot be recycled can, however, be used in some electricity generating plants or specialized plants like incinerators.
Guido Viale is an Italian journalist and writer who specializes in environmental issues