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Here and there I have tried various measures to reduce my waste stream – bringing reuseable bags to the store, sending my son to nursery with a reuseable lunch box and snack bags. Even back in college when I shopped at Harvest Co-op in Cambridge and later in grad school at  Big Carrot on the Danforth in Toronto I placed a priority on buying items in bulk. Shampoo and conditioner went into bottles I refilled time and again to tame my then waist-length hair without piling up oodles of bottles.

Of course, a lot of your waste-stream might be recyclable – plastic shampoo bottles, paperboard food cartons – but each package embodies a lot of hidden costs – the cost of its production, the costs of distribution, the added shipping weight it contributed to the final product, the costs of collecting and recycling the material.

So – it feels very virtuous to buy in bulk in reuseable containers and watch even your recycling bin lighten up. But in the last year, now sufficiently far out of grad school that I can afford to say buy more than a month or two worth of shampoo at a time, I have been ordering in bulk from a UNFI bulk buying co-op. And suddenly buying from bulk bins doesn’t leave me with such a virtuous feeling anymore!

My basement these days? Filled with towers of cardboard boxes. Coming in faster than I can reuse them, or even bother to break them down and recycle them. All those bulk items I used to scoop out of a bin at the store are now coming to me directly in all their packaged glory, and the packaging is now mine to deal with. Sure, it’s less packaging than buying individually packaged items – but I’ve suddenly started noticing those bales of cardboard behind stores. A local Wal-Mart has the bike path running behind it and the vast quantity of flattened cardboard to behold there is stunning. And the shoppers take home their individually wrapped items and maybe they curse the packaging and dutifully recycle, or maybe they don’t care at all, but they’re probably not thinking about their contribution to the waste stream out in back.

Even when we strive to reduce the output into our personal trash cans and recycling bins, this wake of waste follows us, accrued on our behalf, usually out of our sight.

So… when I strive to reduce packaging and lifecycle environmental costs on the products I consume, I try to think now about my upstream waste, and choose accordingly. The more you can DIY the less you need packaging – make your own yogurt from milk in returnable glass jars… Go no-poo (no shampoo) or reduce quantity and frequency of shampoo usage. Grow and preserve more of your own foods. Buy more direct from local farmers and artisans who don’t need to envelop and ship their products to you…

And then as you reduce packaging upstream or the kind that ends up in your basement, you still end up with organic waste, sometimes more than you had before…but I’ll leave that topic to blog about another day!

If anyone has more ideas for making meaningful changes in packaging waste streams, please comment here or on twitter @sufficiency.  I am also trying to make myself more conscious of my outputs by twittering what goes out of my house – garbage, recycling, compost… and tagging it with the hashtag #output – feel free to join in!

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