The hands cannot do what they used to do—arthritis. I have trouble getting into things—medicine bottles, bags of chips, those little clear envelopes of soy sauce that come with Chinese takeout. If I bought a pair of scissors to help me out, I would need a pair of scissors to free them from their secure wrapping. I do not get out much, so I do some online shopping, and everything arrives inside layers of cardboard and plastic and bubble wrap. More and more of my trash now consists of discarded packaging. At least it does not smell.
Between 1960 and 2014, containers and packaging materials in the U.S. MSW (Municipal Solid Waste, in E.P.A. speak) rose from 27.4 million tons to 76.7 million tons, an almost three-fold increase. That is roughly a quarter of a ton per woman, man, and child. I do my bit, I guess. But almost a pound and a half a day? More than one-quarter of the 2014 MSW total waste stream of 258.5 million tons was paper and paperboard, and plastic—individual items each of which weigh very little—accounted for 33.3 million tons. Of that, just 3.17 million tons were recovered.
Okay, packaging has been with us at least as long as civilization. Think Egyptian mummies and Greek amphora. Homer relates that Achilles’s camp at Troy was awash with Thracian wine brought in on Achaean ships—obviously in very durable containers. There is, of course, Pandora’s famous box. In those cases, the packaging was purely functional; their content was what was important. But something has happened to packaging. It has taken on an indestructible life of its own.
From MacDonald’s and Starbucks to the pharmacy and supermarket, the medium—in this case the wrapping, the container—is the message. Take beer, for example. In my grandfather’s time, the suds were sloshed home from the local saloon in your (logo-less) bucket. That beer came from battered old label-less barrels down in the basement. Later came reusable bottles. In the ‘50s, my brothers and I relied for cash on collecting and returning those bottles to redeem their deposit. A couple nickels would buy you a candy bar. (The candy bars inside have since shrunk, while the wrappings have remained much the same.) Now most beer is sold in throw-away aluminum cans.
I spent a few days in the late ‘70s on a bluff above a cove on the Northern California coast. I was there as a reporter covering a disaster. A sea-going tug leaving San Francisco with two barges of goods for Hawaii in tow had messed up and lost its charges, which had broken up in the cliff-face surf, spilling their contents. One had been loaded with Budweiser. As far as I and the park rangers with me could see, the surf and the beach hosted a continuous mass of white-red-and-blue beer cans, millions of them. “To think I used to hand out litter citations for a couple of cans left behind,” one of the rangers said.
The dense garbage patch of plastic containers in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is now larger than France. Around the world, eight million tons of plastic waste make it into the ocean every year and from there into the marine food chain, and it does not go away. Almost all of it is packaging, plastic bottles. But the plastics problem is only the most obvious.
“Packaging can be theater,” tech-age guru Steve Jobs declaimed; “it can create a story.” And he was not talking about Big Mac Attacks. He was talking about the whole enchilada—our culture. When the context eclipses the content, deception displaces reality. It’s not just that the big (opaque plastic) bottle of vitamins you bought, when opened, is only half-filled with pills. It’s not just that the (plastic) bottle of name-brand water you bought (at four times the price of gasoline) is not any better (possibly worse) than the water out of your tap. It’s not just that the blockbuster movie did not live up to its hype. (Maybe food and beer ads on TV should be required, like drug ads, to enumerate all the possible dire side effects of their ballyhooed desirability. Honda ad: Buy your son a motorcycle for his last birthday.) It is that what is lost is our openness to the actual, with all its inconvenient faults. A drive-through meal is not home cooking.
Our news of events is presented as—and so becomes—entertainment, sheathed in spin. Disbelief must be suspended when the profiteers perform. Blatant falsehoods are giftwrapped as free speech. Our enemies are those whose outer wrappings are unlike ours. We like what we like, and we know what we like by its presentation. A book is its cover.
Ah, books. There is an example close to my heart. My publishers are always harping about “branding” and “marketing.” You have to package yourself. Pick a genre, an established brand, and market yourself there. The quality of the content, its extra-generic value, is of minor import. Cocoon yourself in plastic wrap with a familiar label and sell, god damn it.
Was it George Carlin from whom I learned that God created man because He could not Himself (being all good) create plastic; so He created man solely for the purpose of having him do so? One of His jokes. Time to wrap this up.