Monday, July 11th, 2011

Thoughts from Freakonomics on Plastic Packaging

If you’re not familiar with Freakonomics, the 2005 book by Steven D. Levitt, a University of Chicago economics professor, and New York-based writer Stephen J. Dubner had an extended stay on The New York Times bestseller list, as did the pair’s next book, SuperFreakonomics, in 2009.

The idea behind what has since then spawned a website, radio program, and talk-show celebrity for the authors is how Levitt applies the methods of an economist to very non-traditional subjects. Chapters in Freakonomics examine what schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common and why drug dealers sill live with their moms. The books are interesting, to be sure, but what caught me was the depth of thinking.

It’s easy to be underwhelmed by what passes for thinking these days. For example: politics and how the media cover it. The slogans and sound bites are the opposite of Freakonomics-type thinking. So I was happy to find that in-depth thinking applied to plastic packaging on a recent Freakonomics blog.

On June 30, James McWilliams, author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly,plus three other books on food and agriculture, blogged on the Freakonomics website about a “package-free, zero-waste” grocery store opening in Austin, TX. He sees that as a cause for optimism, but notes that the store underestimates the environmental impact of its venture.

“The tawdry rhetorical appeal to reduced packing,” he says, “local production, and organic food might resonate with an audience accustomed to associating these traits with eco-correctness. But the carbon-footprint complex isn’t so simple.” Although reducing waste, buying local, and going organic make sense to McWilliams, he suggests that the real impact is less than advertised.

He says, “Packaging can be wasteful, but it also extends the life of perishable food, thus increasing the chances that it’s purchased and consumed before it rots, and (as usually happens) is trucked to a landfill (where, unlike plastic, it emits methane).” He is also cautionary about the generally perceived virtues of local sourcing and organic produce. Did I mention in-depth thinking?

McWilliams concludes, “What we buy and eat matters far more than where it comes from, how it’s produced, and whether or not it’s packaged.” The blog post, Greenwashing the Groceries, which contains links to further info on food, packaging, and organic production, is a quick read, yet the amount of real thinking in it goes a long way.

One Response to “Thoughts from Freakonomics on Plastic Packaging”

  1. Thanks for this, Rob. Good post and links to interesting article on a topic that deserves more play.

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