$2 that lasts a lifetime

A few months back I picked up a stand for my laptop. I decided to shell out for a Griffin Elevator. I’m quite sensitive to neck strain, so having a stand for my laptop is important, and I’d used the Elevator at Digital Eskimo, liked the look of it, so went with that.

When I picked up the Elevator from the store I was disappointed to find that the packaging was predominantly vacuum molded plastic. Not only that, but there were no indications/markings on it indicating recyclability (the little recycle symbol with a number on it).

Having visited a recycling depot (yes, I’m truly an enviro-geek!) I knew that I couldn’t put this in the recycling as they are hand sorted and would end up in landfill anyways – so I was left with no option to but to throw it into general waste.

Annoyed by this I wrote to Griffin suggesting that, in this day and age, it wasn’t good enough to be putting out packaging that was unrecyclable – let alone something that wasn’t recycled to begin with. The response? We’ve looked into it but it’s too expensive.

Now, call me naive – but for a product that retails at around AUD$80 for what amounts to being two formed strips of aluminium and a piece of plastic, I’m sure that Griffin could afford the extra few cents (even a dollar or two) per unit to clean up their packaging. Perhaps by exploring other materials, like molded cardboard, they could possibly even reduce their costs (I’m not sure – but creative thinking might uncover cost savings is my point).

Ever since I read Cradle to Cradle I’ve been quite averse to plastic – especially for so-called “single-use consumables” – plastic water bottles etc. (For example, the Elevator uses plastic in its construction – but it has a long expected life usage. That’s not to say that it, too, shouldn’t be recyclable – which it isn’t – but it offends me far less.)

Sometime whilst reading that book it really struck home how insane our use of plastic is. Here’s a material that has a life expectancy of hundreds, if not thousands of years (depending on the plastic) – and we use it for “single use” products?! As the book says – isn’t it odd that we use a container that outlives its contents by thousands of years? Why not use materials that degrade within years, or months, instead?

It’s not just Griffin, of course. The use of plastic in product packaging is deeply embedded. What bothers me most is that this is the “cheaper” option – the incentive is there to use the most damaging option. That, to me, is broken.

In my view it’s a systemic failure – a market failure. Since I’ve been thinking about it I’ve been wondering what sort of “market mechanisms” might be employed to correct this failure. I’d be really interested to know what David thinks, because so far I’m at a loss.

The thing is, solutions are coming – but as we saw with the recent ruckus by retailers about phasing out plastic bags, we seem unwilling to change our damaging ways. This is a legacy that will last for generations – one of those clear cases where we’re borrowing against our childrens’ future – it’s disappointing (to say the least) that we’re not being more pro-active in embracing and developing solutions.

In my new business I am resigned to the fact that plastic is going to make up part of what we do. I know that Rise Up has found alternatives to plastic coat hangers already – but it seems everything from the buttons (usually plastic) to packing cases to the threads (polyester) seem to be unbiodegradable plastic.

I had the pleasure of meeting a materials scientist at the RMIT textiles workshop I attended earlier in the week and I would dearly love to continue the conversation with him, to continue to explore options. Hopefully we’ll find some alternatives that can help be part of the solution.

And while I don’t have the capital or scale to effect a lot of change – I will be doing all I can to find alternatives…

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