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Departments: First Word

  

Paper or Plastic?

How about neither?

by Dirk Dusharme

 

During the past few years, Quality Digest has given a fair amount of ink to green standards such as reduction of hazardous substances (RoHS) and waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). We’ve also covered the value of waste reduction in stories dealing with lean or lean Six Sigma. At its essence, lean is all about waste reduction, whether hazardous waste, material waste, or simply wasted time; reducing waste almost invariably leads to reduced costs.

Two articles in this issue focus on hazardous-substance reduction. The first is a News Digest story by news editor Carey Wilson recapping a National Geographic article on the human effect of hazardous waste from electronic equipment (“Where Does It Go?”). If that doesn’t paint a picture for the need of such standards, nothing does. Unfortunately, with the European Union, the United States, China, and others each coming up with its own standards, complying with the multitude of redundant, not to mention confusing, waste-reduction standards could be wasteful in itself. Rather than lament the state of affairs, one electronics manufacturer looked at how to best meet the needs of all standards in a way that saved it money. Read the case study, “Get the Lead Out.

My first thought about RoHS or WEEE is why do companies have to wait until there is some sort of legal gun at their head before they go green? But wait, I’m no different. The biggest waste producers on the planet are you and me. How green are we when we don’t have to be? Do we recycle? Do we dispose of batteries and electronic equipment properly, or just squirrel them away in the depths of our trash can so that they end up in a landfill? I could give you a ton of excuses why I’m not greener than I should be (we don’t have curbside recycling, the disposal company makes me pay to dispose of paint and toxic items, and so forth), but they’re just excuses. The real reason is that I’m lazy and cheap, and unless green actions are easy… and cheap… I most likely won’t do them.

In one of life’s little synergies, at about the same time that we were editing these articles, I came across a February 8 New York Times article (“Motivated By a Tax, Irish Spurn Plastic Bags,” by Elisabeth Rosenthal). Since 2002, Irish supermarkets, by government edict, have been charging shoppers 33 cents for every plastic bag that they use. Immediately after the tax went into place, plastic bag usage dropped by 94 percent, with almost everyone choosing to use cloth bags for shopping. Lest grocers turn to paper bags (not a whole lot better than plastic, according to some studies), Ireland’s environment minister said he would tax those as well.

The amazing thing is not that the government imposed the tax, but that it took so little motivation for people to change. Paying an extra buck to bag three sacks of groceries in plastic, perhaps $30 worth of food, is not that much incentive. But it worked, proving that most of us just need a nudge in the right direction.

For me, the nudge came a week after reading that article. My wife and I walked into Trader Joe’s, and there on a big rack were both canvas and recycled-plastic reusable shopping bags, $2.99 and 99 cents, respectively. I picked up a bunch of them--the cheap ones, of course.

As much as it would be nice if people and companies always acted out of altruism, it rarely works that way. Sometimes it takes a nudge--legal, financial, or just being hit over the head enough times.