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Fight the Foam: Join the Packaging Police

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The large box looked too heavy for my 115 pound frame to carry. "Jennifer Schwab, Sierra Club Green Home" on the label, yep, it was for me, but I hadn't ordered anything large like this??

After cutting open the yards of plastic packing tape, I was appalled to find acres of bubble wrap, then those absolutely impossible Styrofoam "peanuts" which will still be in the landfill 200 years from now. After all this, a nice glass vase from a relative who shall remain unnamed. She means well, and this lovely object d'art did survive the trip, but what do I do with this pile of unsustainable, non-green, mostly not recyclable, plastic and Styrofoam packing materials?

And so it goes for millions and millions of packages, not to mention one of the biggest culprits in this assault on the environment, electronics products. Think about all those big, dense pieces of Styrofoam that are used in almost every electronic product package to secure the ends of the item. Admittedly, they help keep the DVDs, TVs, stereos and computers in one piece. And what about moving? Most of the cardboard boxes can be recycled, but the reams of tapes, peanuts, foam and other packing material usually cannot.

What's a consumer, and for that matter a manufacturer, to do? The answer can be found in some relatively new products and services that entrepreneurs are developing to address these problems.

To make moving a truly green experience, inventor Spencer Brown of Costa Mesa (Orange County) CA, has developed a totally recyclable moving system. The company is called, appropriately, Earth Friendly Moving. His concept is RECO-PACK, a sustainable bin that holds your stuff, they come in different sizes and can be delivered directly to your door, then picked up and moved or stored. When you're finished with them, Earth Friendly Moving retrieves the RECO-PACKs, puts them back in inventory and re-uses them.

This business has the earmarks of a winner. An idea that solves a problem, can be run profitably and is scaleable. "I am a product designer at heart, and I knew the moving industry was inherently wasteful. It seemed to me that we needed a sustainable solution," Brown explains. "We deliver environmental consciousness in a box. Our solution is cheaper, faster and easier. If you provide this, the consumer will choose the green alternative."

Back to my box of foam noodles. I happened to meet Brian J. Pio, an entrepreneur who is making his bet on IPG/ERi, a startup out of Phoenix which offers fully sustainable, recyclable packaging for all products including fragile items and electronics. The secret sauce is molded fiber and sugar cane-based, environmentally friendly material. It feels like a strong, yet light weight molded paper/cardboard to the touch. Pio claims his firm has done extensive testing on a variety of consumer electronics products with very favorable results. And in most applications, the cost to switch to molded fiber is the same or even less than traditional foam. However, his experience selling manufacturers on switching from foam to his new product has been mixed. Most of the mid- and upper-level managers he speaks with seem to consider making the switch to green packaging a low priority.

Pio had been involved in the packaging industry for years and as a green guy saw the need to move away from foam. "Where the rubber hits the road, companies continue to do what they always have done.... It's about established supply chain relationships and taking the path of least resistance. Disappointing but not surprising. The reality of course is that using foam packaging is a broken model that needs fixing. Styrofoam is not biodegradable, very difficult to recycle and almost always ends up in landfill.

Molded fiber products offered by IPG/ERi, BeGreen Packaging (which uses bulrush fiber to make a similar type of product) and other firms boast full recyclability, produce no off-gassing or toxic materials during manufacturing, can be made into virtually limitless shapes, and protect the contents comparably to foam. Clearly there is a place for this cost-effective, environmentally friendly material in most of the packages we receive or purchase every day. "Given that we can deliver molded fiber for the same or less than foam, it seems a no-brainer that industry would make the switch, and consumers would be thrilled to be able to recycle the packaging," Pio concludes. Sure makes sense to me, too.

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So how do Pio and other green packaging pioneers persuade manufacturers of products that we buy to make the switch? It will probably take time, perhaps government regulation, and public opinion. The voice of the consumer must be heard. So, to help you join our "Packaging Police" and send a message to companies still using foam, feel free to poach this letter, below, and e-mail it to the VP of Marketing and/Sor CEO of the companies at fault.

"Dear CEO/CMO:

I recently purchased your (product name and model number) and was very disappointed to find it packed in hard foam packaging material. I realize you must protect this product during shipping, but there are cost-effective ways to accomplish the same result. (Name of company) really needs to investigate MOLDED FIBER packaging materials. They are fully recyclable, environmentally friendly and produce no toxins during manufacturing. They are also the same or even less expensive than traditional foam. And importantly, testing proves molded fiber will protect your product during shipping to keep it safe and secure.

As your customer, I am committed to reducing my carbon footprint and (Name of Company) needs to do the same to win my business going forward. I sincerely hope you take this to heart, as I plan to purchase my (insert type of product) in the future from companies that use sustainable packaging materials.

Thanks for taking time to read this. Please respond at (insert your e-mail address).

Sincerely,"

If you know of other companies doing innovative things to help the environment by changing our established practices, let me know as we may highlight them in future My Inner Green columns. Thanks!

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