Lowering our impact: refillable and reusable containers
I recently watched the documentary No Impact Man, which is a fascinating look at writer Colin Beavan’s year of trying to reduce his and his family’s impact on the earth to zero. He goes much further than most of us can imagine – ceremoniously turning off his circuit-breakers 6 months into the project to live with no electricity in the house, using a cooler as a refrigerator replacement, and not buying anything with packaging that would generate trash. Having worked on a project all about packaging these past few months, I found the last point particularly interesting. If consumers thought about every dollar they spent as a statement of values, people might opt not to buy the individually-wrapped snack packs and go instead to the bulk-buy section of the supermarket. Consumers have immense bargaining power. Businesses would love to supply us with sustainable packaging or less packaging, if we demanded it. However, we don’t demand it. Our trash having an impact on the earth is a very abstract idea, unless you are unfortunate enough to live next door to a landfill.
If we feel that consumers won’t act responsibly in consuming less, can we put the pressure on corporations to absorb or reverse their impacts on the earth? Over the course of my research, I’ve spoken with people who are adamant that all corporations should have to take back and reuse/recycle everything they generate: e.g., Coke would need to take back its cans and bottles (interestingly, they already do at one plant). Should corporations accept more responsibility? If we can’t ask them to take back everything they create, and we can’t ask consumers to shoulder the entire burden, what is the middle ground?
Reusable and refillable packaging seem like a clear solution that would be fairly straightforward to implement. Refillable/reusable types of packaging seem like a win-win for corporations and consumers. Consumer attitudes are already shifting toward reusable and refillable packaging. It’s an easy way for consumers to lessen their impact without going all the way to buying only unpackaged items. Forward-looking corporations can see this pressure, and are acting now to meet it. Refillable/reusable packaging benefits corporations through the cost-savings they gain from not manufacturing packaging and the eco-halo their brand will acquire. First-movers in this market are bound to look innovative and sustainability-savvy. I know that I look forward to seeing refill stations for my laundry detergent and dish soap in U.S. retailers, and would certainly be more partial to the first brand to take the plunge!