It all started back in the 1890s. Catalogues came to farmers. Farmers sent their money. Good arrived in boxes. Those goods — everything from watches to carriages to entire houses in kits — came from Sears, Roebuck and Company. The goods were often things that couldn’t be bought locally at reasonable prices or with a reasonable selection and Sears et al was able to earn business by offering greater selection at lower prices with free delivery. I’m not sure what the farmers did with their Sear’s boxes. Probably reused them for something, but… but eventually I’m guessing most of them found their way into the garbage pile along with the rest of the packing materials.
Right now there is a box of boxes on my back stoop that is human-sized in volume, and almost human massed (see picture: note single serving Silk yogurt for scale). It is the result of shopping online where the selection is higher, the prices are often lower, and sometimes there is free delivery. Amazon, Drs. Foster and Smith, and eBay are all to blame. As much as I hate the mega-malls, the strip malls, and, well, even the local mall, I have to wonder if their isn’t a more eco-friendly way to purchase the things that can’t be acquired on a walk through the mom and pop stores of main street?
Paper is not an inherently bad product. In fact, the fast growing trees that are used to make domestically grown papers are good for the environment. Given the choice of paper or plastic, paper may be the more sound option – If the paper bag blows away and get wet, it turns to mush. That plastic bag is just going to blow free, waiting to get stuck in a tree, wrap itself around an animal, get chocked on by an animal, or otherwise do something bad. Similarly, cardboard boxes are something I can bury in my garden under a layer of bark mulch and know that (assuming I remove all the tape and staples) they will decay to worm food after one weed blocking season. The plastic just keeps blocking the weeds on and on and on.
The real problem with our catalogue ordering, Amazon clicking, box filled society is that we are consuming far more resources than are necessary. There have been days when the UPS dud has come to our house twice and the DHL and FedEx guys have each taken their turns as well. That’s a lot of gas, a lot of plastic filling materials, and a lot of cardboard all used to bring use a few objects that would all have fit in one backpack. Particularly troubling is the addiction to 2-day air mail that comes with our Amazon Prime membership. Every planeload of wares is a major insult to the environment – but our household desire for instant gratification keeps those planes flying.
Environmentally responsible shopping requires one to buy locally grown and manufactured goods that preferably come from environmentally responsible companies. Like the Tuscans, we should learn to eat what is in season, and savor the favorite foods of the current crop rather than demanding out-of-season apples in May. Unfortunately, our centralized economy has largely adapted to our generic unchanging needs, so soybeans for cows come from where I live, and soybeans for people come from Wisconsin, while non-soy food comes from somewhere else. Instead of growing everything everywhere, we grow something somewhere and ship it everywhere. This process has its own efficiencies, but it unbalances ecosystems, makes entire crop destruction possible with one foul storm, and keeps lots of long haul shippers employed when their spouces would likely live it if they just did a daily dairy run.
When Wal-Mart and the other big box companies (who require centralized production to get the needed amounts of inventory) put mom and pop stores out of business, they are also ruining the environment by feeding out “Everything now” mentality.
Not that I help the environment when I order my garden plants and compost bin from the web — there are ironies in the environmental movement.
So, having stared at my personal cardboard box pile and contemplated my environmental fingerprint, I’m going to pledge to myself that I will try to spend $1 in a local store with local products for every $1 I spend online, and I’m going to swear off air freight (at least until Harry Potter comes out…).
One small step at a time, maybe we can all reduce our environmental finger print or at least the amount of mass that goes through the mail.