A new book addresses the misconceptions of environmental packaging. (Its namesake being the largest among them.)

But it’s full of interesting history, too. Take Heinz, which once defined itself by its slow dripping glass bottle. It made the transition to an easier-to-use plastic bottle that’s actually more environmentally friendly.

This pulp tray by Newton shoes looks barebones, but it’s actually less environmentally friendly than their latest, slightly more conventional, soy-inked and fully recycled box.

Coke’s new Ultra bottle has a similar form to the original, but is 40% stronger, 20% lighter and 10% cheaper to produce.

Sennheiser CX-3000 headphones buck the trend of environmentally cruel consumer electronics packaging.

This Boots reading glasses package is a single piece of polypropylene, folded over to be distinctive enough for a store shelf and strong enough to double as your glasses case.

Co.Design

Why Shrink-Wrapping A Cucumber Is Actually Good For The Environment

A new book addresses the many misconceptions of the environmentally conscious packaging movement.

I remember the first time I saw a piece of produce shrink-wrapped at the grocery store. I was infuriated that big industry had decided to waste plastic on something nature had already managed to protect just fine. And I, like many others, was entirely wrong in this assumption. That shrink-wrap is actually a net gain for the environment.

Newton’s old pulp shoebox--actually worse for the environment than their new, more traditional recycled box printed in soy-based inks.

It’s one of many lessons I learned in Why Shrink-Wrap a Cucumber: A Complete Guide to Environmental Packaging (Lawrence King, 2012). It’s a completely readable introduction to the environmental impact of the consumer goods industry, touching on everything from Heinz’s eco-friendly plastic squeeze container to telltale signs of “greenwashed” products. And of course, the titular cucumbers.

As authors Laurel Miller and Stephen Aldridge explain, an unwrapped cucumber will lose 3.5% of its weight after just three days of sitting out. Shrink-wrapping slows evaporation, keeping the cucumber fresh longer: A wrapped cucumber loses a mere 1.5% of its weight over two weeks.

In the U.K., a third of all food is simply thrown away. We all buy produce with good intentions, but often it rots before we remember to fish it out of the fridge for dinner. For cucumbers, shrink-wrapping prevents food waste. It means less fertilizer, water, and pesticides are used growing more cucumbers to replace wasted ones. It means less fossil fuels are spent transporting additional harvests, and less methane is produced by landfills where rotted produce is tossed.

This Boots reading glasses package is a single piece of polypropylene, folded over to be distinctive enough for a store shelf and strong enough to double as your glasses case.

As the book documents, these facts didn’t stop the Daily Mail from launching a nationwide campaign against the prepackaged cucumber. The newspaper convinced a major supermarket chain, Co-op, to instead pack cucumbers in a large, plastic-lined box that would lengthen their shelf life without the shrink-wrap.

The catch? In practice, the individually wrapped cucumbers stay fresher longer, the authors say. And those new plastic-lined boxes? They’re not reused like many produce crates can be.

It’s an excellent lesson in environmental packaging. On one hand, lightening an environmental footprint is generally good business. On the other, if the consumer doesn’t understand the logic behind a packaging redesign, the best ideas can completely backfire.

The book is full of other interesting insights: Most of us assume glass is environmentally superior to plastic, but its footprint is generally far worse than recyclable plastics. Plastics can be tough to dispose of, but creating them is relatively environmentally friendly: The process is a byproduct of existing fossil fuel production (in the same way chicken nuggets find a use for every last scrap of the bird). And things are getting better, often invisibly: The modern beer can weighs one quarter what it did in the 1960s.

If you’d like to read more, the book is available now for about $40.

Order it here.

[Hat tip: Core77]

[Image: Cucumber via Shutterstock]

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19 Comments

  • Rachel888

    In North America, 88% think that food packaging is a far bigger problem than food waste. Yet when we consider CO2 emission rates, the reality is food waste is responsible for 89% of this, while packaging represents only 11% of this (source: http://www.newswire.net/newsro... ). Not to mention the ways in which it reduces food waste / methane gas. Education is the key to helping consumers make choices consistent with their intention to tread lighter on the environment. Thanks for sharing!

  • Guest

    One small detail left out in the post and in the comments is the fact that when this product is shipped, it is never in a container solely full of cucumbers. Typically they are shipped with other fruits such as tomatoes that grow in the same farms as cucumbers. Why does this matter? Tomatoes ripen due to the gases released by the cucumbers, and in turn the gases emitted from tomatoes rot the cucumbers. The plastic also serves as a protective device to keep the food from spoiling in transit.

  • fnarf

    Buying local food is usually counter-productive, ecologically, as transportation from afar is a tiny percentage of even total transport, let alone the entire environmental cost of the item. The petroleum cost of driving your vegetables home three miles in a 5,000 pound SUV is many, many times the cost of flying them here from Mexico or Colombia or wherever, and, if you live in a climate where winter happens, your greenhouses are an eco-disaster. Even in summer growing things in the US, even organically, is frequently far more carbon-intensive than growing it elsewhere and shipping it here. "Buy local" is (usually) just more greenwashing.

  • M F

    Don't many of these calculations ignore the fact that all that plastic ends up in the environment eventually, leaching toxins?  Even when the plastic is recycled (which doesn't happen the majority of the time) it can only be recycled a few times at most, then it's dumped into the environment.

    The problem that books like this can run into is that when the entire premise becomes "conventional wisdom is wrong" then they start looking at every issue through the lens of needing to prove their premise.  Not saying that's the case here, haven't read it. 

  • squarebird

    Actually one of the ADVANTAGES of modern plastic wrap is that it is quite biodegradable.   Recycling it is the idiocy .. more drops of diesel is burned driving the recycle truck from one house to the next than can be 'saved' by the melting down the contents of the bin that it picks up.  Plastic bags and bottles are litterally dried soap bubbles .. if you put one drop of dish soap in a bucket and blast it with hot water, a foam of potentially thousands of bubbles appear .. if you melt those bubbles back down .. one recovers less than that first drop of soap.  Recycling plastic works exactly the same way (thus the impossibility of recovering that one drop of diesel by melting down the plastic back into the tiny oil drop that produced the bin full of bottles and bags).   I volunteered at a such a recycling plant, I've seen it with my own eyes .. it is the reason you have to PAY to have your recycling picked up rather than being paid.

  • matthew

    "For cucumbers, shrink-wrapping prevents food waste."

    A couple of wild thoughts.  First, organic cucumbers don't require "harmful" fertilizers or pesticides.  Second, "waste" is a relative term.  An organic cucumber that finds its way back to the soil (read compost) actually presents a net-positive for the environment.

    Unfortunately, to realize these benefits, we just need to figure out a way to ban fertilizers and pesticides, then figure out how to collect compostable food waste (that doesn't first find its way onto the plate of someone in need).

  • Kaptain Kayak

    That's fine if the cucumber is just falling off the bush and back into the soil. But it's hardly believable that growing a cucumber in California and composting it in New York is a net-positive for the environment.

  • Jeff

    Coke/soda pop in less expensive packaging. H-m-m-m-m-m-m-m.
    Then why isn't the product itself less expensive?

    Must be the top-secret formula....

  • Nic Johnson

    Interesting to see so many people talking about local food. In fact local food being better for the environment is a bit of a myth.

    Take tomatoes for instance. They grow perfectly well in the UK (where I'm from), but need heat and light to grow reliably. This means a polytunnel. Being in a polytunnel they must also be irrigated and sometimes heated.

    It turns out that if you run the numbers and take everything into consideration, the environmental impact is lower if you grow them in Spain and bring them over by lorry and ship.

    Of course there are other reasons to buy local produce besides the environment.

  • Olivier

    I think the idea is to eat locally-grown produce, in season. Obviously you CAN grow strawberries in the UK in January, if you're willing to spend the extra energy. This of course means changing our habits.

  • Michael Aldridge

    Great Article, although I would say that more needs to be done to ensure that packaging of all food (and other) products is fully thought through from an environmental perspective. So many products are packaged without consideration of the environment or sometimes even the customer (in the case of Shrink-wrapped Clamshell type).

    Hopefully in the future the consumer will begin to demand more thought from companies.

  • JHONSON AND AN OTHER JHONSON

    Please Admin, how much do you get for the marketing campaign of our friend to have us thinking how you made the bottle and not what there is inside, i'm calling your human-side to get up

  • Jono

    Why does the cucumber get a hard time when we're individually wrapping boiled sweets? At least it's veg. What's worse: an individually wrapped grape or an individually wrapped humbug? Hopefully the book goes into this

  • BoxedChaos

    Well said comments! Mr Wilson, please consider re-titling this article: American Consumerism So Wasteful That Shrink-Wrapped Produce Is Actually Better for the Environment Than the American Norm. 

  • Bah!

    The argument that wasting food causes more production to replace it is a weak one... Production is not that quick to react to the needs of consumers. Also, the author makes an assumption that people will actually replace the items which have gone bad with the same exact items. This is simply not the case. 

    So, for the time being, i will continue to buy un-wrapped cucumbers which come from local farms (as much as possible)....

    Also, would be interesting to know the environmental impact on printing and circulating this book :P

  • an_star

    Or you can just make sure your cucumber doesn't come from 10,000Km away and then maybe just eat it before it goes bad and while its still fresh...

    Shrink wrapping might not be as bad but its an assertive solution to the critical problem of food waste, and on a social perspective enforces many negative behaviours we have grown accustom to when it comes to how we consume our food.   

  • Croc Ography

    Was my first thought as well. Instead of plastic shrink wrapping destined to landfill, perhaps people should buy local instead or when they can. (besides it usually tastes better that way)

    Unfortunately now someone will have to write another book debunking the claims made in this one. Perhaps the author is asking the wrong questions to begin with?