5 Ways to Fight Retail Overpackaging

There's a big need to decrease the amount of packaging involved with all of our stuff. (Photo: kemalbas/iStockphoto).

Maybe this has happened to you: a desk pen set arrives in shoebox-sized packaging. One aspirin, shrink-wrapped on a six-by-six inch card. A small electronic part that arrives wrapped in more plastic than the device itself.

What a waste! It's overpackaging, and your local landfill is bursting with it.

Why all this packaging?

There's nothing wrong with reasonable packaging; we all want the stuff we buy to be clean and undamaged. But retail packaging has a dual purpose — protecting a product, and getting you to buy it. The latter case is where things get out of hand.

The aisles of your local grocery or department store are a battleground. Vendors spend big money fighting for shelf space. Once they have it, they want to be seen. Hence the millions of dollars spent annually by companies in the design of over-the-top packaging with high "shelf appeal."

Trashing the environment

The problem with overpackaging is twofold: it wastes raw materials, and most of it ends up in our already overburdened landfill systems. A lot of packaging is made of plastic, too, meaning it will be around for centuries.

To make things worse, much of the plastic used in packaging isn't marked for recycling. It'll be a treasure trove for future archeologists — assuming we all don't drown in our own garbage first.

What you can do to fight overpackaging

You are the consumer. You’re the end user. Ultimately, what you say goes. So don't take overpackaging lying down. We've rounded up five ideas to help you fight the glut of unnecessary garbage. Pick a few — and help wrap up a big mess.

1. Vote with your purchase

You can be assured that big companies pay close attention to the relationship between packaging changes and sales. Thanks to modern inventory systems, product movement can be traced right down to the shelf of your local big-box retailer.

Make this work for the good. When confronted with several equivalent products, choose the one with the least (or most environmentally friendly) packaging. This is the slow boat to change, but it strikes directly at the root of overpackaging: profit.

Can't find something with reasonable wrapping? If possible, put off your purchase and choose one of the options below.

A piece RAM delivered in a much too big box
An upgrade of RAM delivered in box that's much too big for its contents. Andrew Bowden/Flickr

2. Tell companies what you think

Direct customer input is a powerful thing. Done right, a phone call or a well-written letter can have real impact on the way a product is presented.

It's always helpful to take a pen and pad of paper when you shopping. See a horribly overpackaged product? Jot down the customer feedback info on the side panel and take action.

Be polite, but be very specific. Say where you were, what you saw, and why you didn't buy. If you bought a competing product, say so. Then challenge them to do a better job. If you keep a blog, write it up and include a link. Just stick to the facts and avoid heated rhetoric. It's true about honey catching more flies than vinegar.

Don't have a blog of your own? Send your story to OverPackaging.com.

3. Recycle your packaging

It's not always possible to avoid buying overpackaged goods. When that happens, make the best of things and recycle properly.

Not recycling yet? Now is a great time to start. Pick up some beginner's tips from RecycleNow. For a list of your local recycling centers, visit the granddaddy of "how-to" recycling websites, Earth911.

Recycling can also mean repurposing. Hang onto those Styrofoam peanuts — they'll come in handy. Can a box be put to some other use? And plastic food containers make great drawer organizers. Get creative!

A LED lightbulb in its packaging
A LED lightbulb sealed away in plastic and a cardboard insert. Thankfully, it's all likely recyclable. Lisa Pinehill/Flickr

4. Buy in bulk

This is a great way to stomp out overpackaging. Those warehouse stores really manage costs, which means you'll find goods taped and shrink-wrapped together, rather than sold separately. Why buy three boxes of macaroni when you can buy a big one and save a lot of cardboard?

Opportunities to buy unpackaged goods fall under this umbrella, also. Food co-ops usually expect you to bring your own containers to distribution, which is great. Veggies at your local farmers market are unlikely to be packaged at all, and you'll be saving all that fuel used and carbon dioxide expended in transporting groceries cross-country.

Bulk buying demands organization at home. Arm yourself with plenty of airtight storage containers. If you're buying frozen goods, consider a top-opening chest freezer. They use less energy than refrigerator models, and are the ideal place for frozen storage.

5. Buy used

As the saying goes, "Why buy new, when used will do?" In this case, buying used would ideally be done on the local level (to avoid the burden of shipping).

Newspapers, weekly shoppers, your local Craigslist board, Freecycle, thrift stores, flea markets and garage sales are all likely places to find what you want. Almost nothing you find will be packaged, and you're putting an item to use which might otherwise have been discarded.

In a way, this is a bit of retro-recycling for the product's original packaging. Every time an item changes hands and makes a purchase unnecessary, you've diluted the impact of its original manufacturing, transport and packaging. So don't keep a good thing to yourself — take those useful items and pass them on!