Every garbage day before the trucks arrive, a man scrounges through the refuse cans and plastic bags in my alley, looking for aluminum soda cans. He probably is homeless. He definitely is dirty. Occasionally he gets yelled at by an irate neighbor who wants him out of her neatly wrapped trash.
His name is Lloyd and he trades the metal for money at a nearby recycling center. "I've found 10, 20 cans in one bag," Lloyd told me.
This raises the question: Who is the uglier American? The guy who makes a living by picking through litter because he can sell it, or the family of four that goes through two cases of soda a week and puts the 48 empty cans in a plastic bag, leaving it for someone else to haul away?
According to Garbage magazine, the average American family of four tosses out 1,760 pounds of packaging annually. Packaging. Not newspapers, old sneakers or leftover pizza.
Pure packaging, such as beer cans, plastic bottles, tampon applicators and glass jars that end up in landfills and on beaches. The virtually nondegradable single-serving "brick pack" fruit beverage container alone may bury us: More than 4 billion of them were sold last year in the United States.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tells us the volume of trash is clogging municipal solid-waste disposal systems that typically bury 80 percent of their trash, incinerate 10 percent and recycle the remainder. The EPA warns that 27 states will run out of landfill space this year. Many of these states are in the Northeast.
Opponents of plastic packaging warn that the amount of containers and packaging will double in the next five years, mostly because of the increase in microwaveable foods (wrapped in plastic), which are popular because they are "quick and easy."
Jeanne Wirka is the coordinator of the Solid Waste Alternatives Project at the Washington-based Environmental Action Foundation. In her study "Wrapped in Plastics," she says the plastics mania in packaging has a dual impact on the environment. Many of the chemicals used in the production and processing of plastics are pernicious. Yet consumers rarely make the connection between the plastic products and packaging they buy and the growing problem of toxic pollution.
"At the front end of plastic production, improper land disposal of hazardous wastes, emissions of toxic chemicals into the air and discharges of poisonous industrial effluents into waterways threaten public health and the environment," she says.
"At the back end, post-consumer plastic trash is littering our streets, oceans and wilderness areas, contributing to our nation's solid-waste crisis."
Who is to blame? "It's the consumer for loading his shopping cart with them," says Wirka, "and it's the manufacturer for tempting us with them in the first place."
"Recycling is ultimately the responsibility of the consumer but most communities do not have the ability to recycle plastics," adds Wirka. "Some states may soon impose packaging taxes on manufacturers who use nonrecyclable materials. Such taxes can offset the cost of retrieving them."
If packaging manufacturers can continue to use any materials they want to catch the consumer's eye, we will never solve our solid waste problem, adds Wirka. "We need packaging designed to use less materials as well as materials that are recyclable. On top of that, we need consumer education programs to instruct people how to purchase products that are environmentally safer."
Americans in the 25th century will be able to see exactly how we lived via our garbage.
Take Campbell's Souper-Combo, a microwaveable soup and sandwich deal. Five minutes to heat, five minutes to eat. And 10,000 years for the packaging to decompose.
Plastics abound inside the cheerful paperboard box. Sandwich and soup bowl are wrapped in polyester film. The non-reheatable soup bowl is polypropylene. The EPA ranked propylene No. 1 as the chemical whose production generates the most hazardous waste.
"Theoretically, much of this product can be recycled," says David C. Hackney, manager of public relations for the Campbell Soup Co. "But most towns are not willing to accept them."
Campbell Soup, however, did bow this year to environmental groups by altering the packaging material just a tad. The once polystyrene foam tray that holds the soup and sandwich now is made of Keyes molded fiber, a paper product made of old newspapers.
Still bothersome, though, is the product concept itself. Are Americans so busy they cannot slap together a sandwich?
Answer: Yes. The company did a consumer study. Consumers influence product development. Consumers want convenient packaging as well as disposability.
Is it Campbell Soup's fault if consumers write in and suggest ideas that make Ralph Nader's head spin 360 degrees? If Campbell Soup can make a few hundred million dollars with Souper-Combo in the process, hey, it's America.
"It's difficult for a company to say 'I'm going to be 100 percent environmentally sound' and then go out of business," responds Campbell's Hackney.
He parts with the suggestion that the Souper-Combo soup bowl be reused as a container for cold breakfast cereal.
Equally quirky is a product by Quaker Oats called Aunt Jemima's Pancake Express that consists of four ounces of pancake mix in a polyethylene bottle. The product is single-use: It makes six pancakes. You trash the empty bottle before you can say, "Come and get it."
"The pancake market was relatively flat," says Ron Bottrell, senior manager of corporate communications for Quaker Oats. "People were getting away from making pancakes from scratch and there was a corporate niche to be filled." (Read: Big Money.)
"As a company, we are trying to balance issues of recyclability with consumer convenience. Obviously, I am not saying the Pancake Express packaging does both. Our packaging designers are reexamining this product and will do whatever they can to address the environmental issues. Modifications will be made if need be," says Bottrell.
Meanwhile consumers find Pancake Express alluring enough to make it the No. 1 instant pancake product.
More ready to put its products where its promises are is the Procter & Gamble Co.
Saddled with the honor of contributing to 1 percent of the nation's garbage -- because, the company says, of its vast product line -- Procter & Gamble recently has made a corporate decision to reduce packaging by an average of 10 percent in all categories. Already there are combination products such as Tide with Bleach and Pert Shampoo with Conditioner to lighten the consumer's load.
Liquid Tide now is in bottles made with 10 percent less plastic. Spic 'n Span Pine is in 100 percent recyclable bottles made from old soft-drink bottles. The company has cut the thickness of disposable diapers by one-half. Crisco Oil bottles now have 25 percent less plastic in them. And three-fourths of all P&G cartons are made from recycled fibers, most of which come from old newspapers.
The Washington-Baltimore area has been graced this year with a P&G test product, Downy Refill. This is a concentrated form of the fabric softener that comes in a milk carton-type container. The idea is to reconstitute Downy Refill in your old plastic Downy bottle.
Is a busy America ready to spend washday concocting a Downy brew for the sake of the environment?
"Despite how we change our packaging policy, consumers must learn the importance of making different purchases," says Tom Rattray, associate director of corporate packaging for P&G. "With the Downy Refill, there is a 75 percent source reduction, that is, 75 percent less packaging to throw away. Yes, remixing the product is less convenient. But that is why our TV ads emphasize the benefits in solid-waste reduction -- there is less garbage to haul away and throw in a town's landfill."
Garbage is the new commodity of the '90s and beyond. Like gold and silver, trash will be mined with a fever, and not just by street people, like can-collecting Lloyd. Among some of the new enterprises:
Harvey Katz of Boca Raton, Fla., makes a product called Dumpster Fresh that dissolves a 15-gallon bag of styrofoam into recyclable liquid in a matter of hours.
Garbage-makers such as Mobil Oil and McDonald's as well as the Palm Beach County Solid Waste Authority are looking at ways to treat their own refuse with the substance, which is made from limestone, orange peel extracts and "a few chemicals."
"When styrofoam is put in a bag that contains the material, it is reduced to liquid that can be sold to polystyrene recycling plants," says Katz. Originally marketed as a garbage-can deodorizer and fly-killer, its styrofoam-dissolving property was discovered by accident: An order of it ate through some plastic cups on the way to a customer in Baltimore.
Plastics Again, in Leominster, Mass., is one of 15 polystyrene-recycling plants in the nation.
Says the manager of recycling operations, Tom Tomaszek, "We take polystyrene both as a foam and in rigid form. We get it from food services, cafeterias, prisons, hospitals, even Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets as far south as the New York Hudson River Valley."
Through plants like Plastics Again, what was once your styrofoam coffee cup now can be turned into products with longer lifespans, such as cassette casings and furniture cushions.
Garbage magazine debuted last fall and already has 120,000 readers, ranging from retirees in volunteer organizations, to college kids, to homeowners, to people employed in waste management.
"We felt environmentalism was no longer a fringe issue," says Garbage publisher-editor Patricia Poore. "People were getting too much mail that showed dead baby seals. They didn't understand that environmentalism really has to do with getting up and deciding what to buy at the market."
Both Garbage and garbage are growing. While there is no place where I live to recycle plastic I buy, I will cut down on its purchase. I will make my own pancakes and sandwiches from scratch.
And I will continue to leave my aluminum soda cans in a bag on the back fence for Lloyd to collect.
One If by Land, The Other If by Sea
You've had a hard 90 minutes at the supermarket. All that careful choosing of products that are non-ozone-depleting, recyclable, degradable and non-overpackaged has got you beat.
You can't wait to get home, kick back and have a tall glass of nontoxic cola.
But first, you must make one more decision at the check-out stand: paper or plastic.
Paper appears the more all-natural choice. Plastic bags last forever -- and they get dumped in the Atlantic and smother baby sea turtles.
The right decision depends on a couple of things, says Jan Beyea, a nuclear physicist and the American Audubon Association's senior staff scientist.
"The paper bags used in most supermarkets are made from virgin paper, despite that they are brown. No recycled paper is used," he says. "The papermaking process pollutes the water, releases dioxin, contributes to acid rain and costs trees."
Beyea also notes that much of today's paper comes from "superior" trees, that is, trees grown using nonrenewable fossil-fuel fertilizers.
Plastic bags contaminate the oceans, degrade very slowly, are negligibly recycled and their production results in air and water pollution.
Whether buying bags, cups or party hats, if you are in a paper-plastic quandary, Beyea recommends: If an item is to be used near ocean coastlines and will likely be hauled out to sea, always choose paper.
If inland, and information is available on plastic content: Reject polyvinyl chloride (PVC) bags because their manufacture creates pollution. PVC bags usually are transparent and hold cooking oils or chicken parts.
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bags should be scratched for the same reason. They are used to make 2-liter soda bottles and boil-in bags.
Polystyrene, the generic name for Styrofoam, depletes the ozone layer.
Polyethylene (PE) is the least ecologically annoying plastic. Sandwich bags, plastic cups for cold drinks and any cheap translucent plastic probably is PE. So are the plastic bags at the checkout stand.
More and more, markets are using PE bags that have corn starch added to them so they will degrade more quickly. Only what they break into are smaller pieces of PE that still pollute.
To be on the safer side, environmentally, do what the Europeans do. Take cloth (or string) sacks to the market and pack your groceries yourself.