Source reduction is important only as long as consumers want it. For a moment, there was almost a meeting of the minds of the plastic industry and the plastic haters. Both reveled in a new theme: eliminating waste and saving money by producing smaller, more-efficient packaging. It seemed on its face to be an unbeatable economic combination and a public relations bull's-eye.
But then Lever Bros. Co. announced it would focus its marketing away from concentrated detergents in smaller bottles. The company was selling less detergent and losing market share, it contended, because the public still equates value with the large package once touted as the ``economy'' size.
Concentrated detergents and their accompanying concentrated packages, Lever officials said, were unable to portray an environmentally sensitive washday miracle successfully. So they reverted to emphasizing diluted deter-gent in a bottle twice the size of the package for concentrated detergent.
Because they market directly to the consumer, detergent companies bear a large responsibility of educating the public on the efficiencies of such packaging. Along with them, the American Plastics Council has its work cut out for it to assure consumers that resource conservation and source reduction are as economically sensible as it has claimed - and as viable an option for reducing solid waste as recycling.
In the meantime, the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group and Clean Water Action (with a little help from Lever competitor Arm & Hammer) characteristically reached out to the media with the claim that if everyone in the detergent business did the same thing as Lever, 55 million pounds of mostly HDPE plastic would have to be blow molded to accommodate the once-shrunk-but-now-bigger packages.
Until now, the environmentalist movement had embraced APC's message of resource conservation/source reduction as a viable means of further eliminating landfill plastics. It even had signed on to the industry theory that plastics recovery is good for business. But faced with declining market share, Lever just said no to source reduction.
APC, a group dedicated to showing the usefulness and common sense of plastics in our everyday lives, lost some face in the process. Its task of promoting source reduction just became harder, for it shows how quickly and easily the imperatives of market share and marketing can pull rank on environmental initiatives.
Rather than look at the current situation as a new card played in the game of environmental policy brinksmanship, let us instead focus on the importance of keeping a commitment to the original goal of source reduction. It's good business sense and there's more than enough evidence to prove it.