Seventh Generation recently hosted three bloggers as our special guests at Natural Products Expo West, the largest trade show in our industry. We thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Lynn Miller of Organic Mania, Diane MacEachern of Big Green Purse and Caryn Bailey of Rockin' Mama and we think you will too as you read their reflections on our blog. The old adage says, "Don't judge a book by its cover." But if you'd been at Natural Products Expo West, you'd have had a hard time getting beyond the cover -- the packaging covering most of the products on display, that is. There was organic applesauce in disposable sippy pouches and "natural" gummy worms sold in little plastic bags, two foods I don't think my colleague Lynn Miller of Organicmania.com would voluntarily give her kids. Ionized "all natural" water in throwaway plastic bottles. Organic rice curry on microwaveable, one-size serving trays that came wrapped in cellophane and then cushioned in a cardboard box. It didn't stop there. Aseptic boxes -- like the kind that hold juice or bouillon -- seemed increasingly popular, especially among the organic wine vendors. Throwaway tubes seemed to be a big hit, too. Some were filled with food you could suck out, others contained powder you could mix with water for a "natural" drink, and many contained lip balm, lip stick, and lip gloss. And of course, several vendors weren't even bothering with a product. The only thing they were selling was -- you guessed it -- throwaway packaging.
When I stopped by the display table pictured, I was amazed. Everything on it was designed to be used one time and tossed. Even in this era of heightened environmental awareness and almost mandatory carbon footprinting, "natural" seemed to be a good excuse for otherwise creating a lot of trash. Why? "It's recyclable!" the sales rep responded when I asked him how he could justify the environmental impact all the wrapping would have. "Recyclable where?" I asked. Many communities are still struggling to recycle newspapers, milk jugs, and soda cans, let alone food tubes and juice boxes. "Well...," he said. "Hmmm..." he dithered. Technically, if it can't be recycled, is it? Looking for some redeeming qualities, I asked whether the packaging was at least made with "post consumer waste" or other recycled materials. The poor guy looked a bit confused. "I'm just the vendor," he noted defensively. "I don't make this stuff." Now what kind of excuse is that? This entire exchange perfectly illuminated my recent analysis of the new standards set by the Natural Products Association. To the degree NPA's standards focus on ingredients, they do a pretty good job. But they completely ignore the manufacture and disposal of packaging, which in the end, may be a far more significant issue to contend with. Interestingly, cleaning products companies attending the Expo seemed to be among the stars when it came to minimizing trash. Seventh Generation, my Expo host, unveiled a new dishwashing liquid sold in a recyclable plastic bottle made from 90% post-consumer waste. Because the product is so concentrated, you get more washes per bottle out of it, further reducing the amount of trash you generate when you wash your dishes. Several organic soap companies either sell their bars wrapped with a simple cardboard 'belt' or in small bags made from waxed paper. Innovators like Twist sell sponges that reduce the need for roll after roll of paper towels -- and all the wrapping they come in. These are terrific innovations that deserve a lot more attention. So how about this? The entrance hall to Expo West is filled with display cases that showcase the exhibitors on hand. Next year, why not set up a "Packaging Heroes" display right at the Expo's main entrance? The display could spotlight companies that have reduced their packaging by at least 50%; are using at least 50% post-consumer waste in packing materials; and have produced a package that can be easily recycled in most community recycling programs. Any company that meets the criteria can become a Packaging Hero. Some people might think these standards are too low. But based on what I saw at Expo West, they would raise the bar for many. Most packaging will never really be "natural." But it can be a lot better -- the less of it there is.