Taking the trash out of Christmas

Published 9:57 am Friday, December 24, 2010

At some point tonight – or tomorrow morning, depending on tradition – many of us will sit back and survey a pile of presents and the related debris: battered boxes, torn paper, bent bows and twisted ribbons.

Then our gaze will linger on the new presents, shorn of their wrapping but mostly still encased in their clever, eye-catching packages.

That would be a good time, during that post gift-exchange lull, to think about what those piles say about how we’re living our lives.

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While that might read like the run-up to complaints about excessive gift-giving that are almost as traditional as excessive gift-giving, the point is actually a bit different. Don’t worry about the gifts, think about the packages.

Think about the waste. Not to feel guilty, but simply to consider whether there isn’t a better way.

The packages that encase most of the things we buy have a couple of obvious purposes. First, they’re the last chance for the manufacturer and retailer to sell you whatever it is with an exciting, bright box and wrapper. Second, it’s to prevent theft, since big packages are usually harder to steal than the small objects they contain.

But there’s a third reason, both more and less obvious: Americans expect things to be packaged, and packaged well.

Because of family schedules, travel obligations and whatnot, Tammy and I exchanged gifts early this year. She gave me, among other things, one of those chin-up bars that sets up in a doorway. It came in a heavy cardboard box, each piece wrapped in a custom-sized plastic sheath and separated from every other piece with plastic foam. In other words, pretty typical.

The bar itself is about as indestructible as a consumer product can be, basically some heavy metal tubing. If ever anything did not need packaging, this was it. But how odd would it have been to receive a gift that was simply a loose metal bar taped together with its supporting parts? It’s just not how things are done.

Now we have to dispose of the box, the plastic and the foam, some of which may be recycled but most of which will probably end up as waste.

The same story was true for my gifts to Tammy and for most gifts that will be given this Christmas season: Piles of packaging, piles far bigger than the actual gifts, none of which we want or need.

If you doubt that, just wait until you try to stuff all the trash into your regulation-sized garbage can next week.

Some countries have developed regulations that attempt to limit the amount of packaging that goes into the waste stream. Here in the United States some businesses, including Wal-Mart, are making efforts to reduce their own packaging waste.

Progress, however, does not appear to be very fast and it’s not likely to be as long as we continue to demand that everything we buy be packaged up nicely, even when it makes no sense and costs a lot more to do it that way. I’ve considered – but never had the nerve to really try – asking check-out clerks to remove and keep packaging in cases where items are ridiculously over-packaged (most headsets for MP3 players, for example). Could that be the start of a grass-roots campaign?

Or what if those of us who tell relatives and friends, “Please, don’t get me anything for Christmas,” changed that to, “Please don’t get me anything in a box.”

Too weird to catch on? Maybe.

But as long as we keep accepting huge chunks of waste material with everything we buy, that’s what we’re going to get.

If your thoughts drift, in the next couple of days, to ways that the Christmas season might be simplified, just consider how much easier and better it would be without that pile of trash next to the unwrapped presents.