If packaging is something which ought not to exist at all, why does it exist in the first place? Why, for example, does the most ubiquitous form of packaging – expanded polystyrene food-service containers (seen in too many places along the roadside not because it exists, but because some people are too lazy to dispose of it properly) – exist in the market at all? Moreover, if states and/or cities mandate source reduction through bans or taxes (as advocated by the Environmental Defense Fund and current legislative proposals in the Michigan State Legislature) on certain types of packaging materials, what will take the place of what has been banned?

Packaging exists for health, safety, and convenience reasons. Which is to say, given sellers' needs to both protect and sell their product, packaging exists for economic reasons. (Packaging a product so as to reduce, if not totally eliminate, the kind of tampering which caused so many problems with Tylenol capsules several years ago is as much an economic reason for packaging as is packaging designed to attractconsumer attention.)

Moreover, the particular type of packaging any given firm will elect to employ will, given technology and marketing requirements, depend on the relative price of one type of packaging compared to another. Grocery stores which encourage their customers to accept bagged groceries in plastic rather than paper bags do so for one simple reason: plastic bags are not only as much as 80 percent less costly to the grocery owner than paper bags, they take up far less storage space. (Space which does not have to be used for bag storage can be used for selling space.) One thousand paper grocery bags will weigh 140 pounds and stand almost four feet high. The same number of plastic grocery bags will weigh less than 19 pounds and stand only four inches high. Any waste management plan aimed at banning one or the other form of packaging should at least begin with some understanding of why grocery stores seem to have moved from one to the other in recent years.

What about health reasons? In 1988 testimony before the Forum On Foam Products and Plastics held in Providence, Rhode Island, as that state considered action against plastic food packaging, Nancy J. Sherman reported the findings of a study conducted by the University of Michigan School of Public Health and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. That study found that the level of microorganisms found in food service permanentware was considerably and consistently higher than that for plastic disposable ware. [57]

Moreover, plastic ware has reduced the need for labor – the most scarce and costly of all economic resources. Disposable ware has eliminated the need for staff to wash and care for permanentware. Those cost savings have not been inconsequential.

One of the main arguments for source reduction, with special emphasis on packaging, is that source reduction conserves scarce economic resources.

The relative scarcity of any resource is reflected in the relative price of that resource. Polystyrene packaging has increased relative to paper packaging in food-service containers because expanded polystyrene is cheaper than paper. If, say, expanded polystyrene packaging is cheaper than paper packaging, it can only mean one thing: the resources consumed in presenting paper packaging to market are relatively more scarce than the resources absorbed in bringing polystyrene packaging to market. If that were not true, the price of one material relative to another would tell no one anything.

McDonald's switched from paper to expanded polystyrene cups and trays ten years ago due to concern about vanishing forests and paper-mill pollution. Moreover, switching to plastic saved McDonald's money. By contrast, when Lake Forest College in Illinois decided – after the college president banned foam-plastic food service containers in order to avoid what he called "potential ecological disaster" – the school's food service costs doubled. [58]

In effect, McDonald's decision to use plastic containers saved them money and, in their own opinion, a vital resource (trees) which was far more scarce than the resource used to produce the material they now use. [59] Why did Lake Forest College's decision to reject plastic packaging in their food service programs significantly increase their costs? Only one reason: the resources absorbed in producing the substitute material were far more scarce and valuable to society in alternative uses than the resources used in producing plastics.

Any tax on or outright ban of one particular packaging material must result in an increase in demand for some other form of packaging material. Therefore it is not surprising that the views expressed by all the many elements within the packaging industry, have been of less-than-one-mind on this issue. Glass packagers tout their wares over paper. Paper over plastic. Plastic over all the others. The glass people claim that glass can be recycled while plastic cannot. The paper people make the same claim while the plastic people counter both and not only press to prove that plastic can also be recycled, they spend millions of dollars developing new uses for recycled plastic – money which, in my judgment, ought to have been spent doing something else. Obviously, given the mounting calls for banning plastic packaging, the plastics industry probably feels compelled to spend scarce capital resources in self-defense.

Given that plastic seems to be one of the more important targets, if not the major target, of proposals for diminishing the flow of solid waste into landfills through source reduction, two studies cited by EPA may be of interest to those states and communities seeking to mandate the abolition of one material or the other. While neither study examined the impact on consumer product safety or utility of an outright ban on plastics, they did examine the environmental effects of direct substitution of other materials for plastics.

Comparing the resources used, and the environmental releases generated in the production of seven varieties of plastics products and seven products made of alternative materials – including paper, aluminum, and steel – the studies concluded that using plastic products was more favorable for conservation of raw materials and reduction of environmental emissions than using the competing nonplastic products in six of the seven categories. In the remaining category (production of a nine-ounce vending cup from either high-impact expanded polystyrene or paper), the competing products were roughly equal in resource utilization and environmental releases.

The authors noted that the study did not consider any raw materials which aggregated to less than 5 percent of the finished product, nor did they take account of post-consumer wastes which could add to energy recovery when burned. [60] This report, in effect, supports what the OTA study concluded: before any one material or product is banned, the environmental impact of substitute materials should be carefully considered.

At base, however, all elements of the packaging industry agree that the banning of one type of material simply exchanges one form of waste for another and until the broader issue of what to do with waste is resolved, ad-hoc measures aimed at one form of packaging or another will not solve the problem.

Even if all the decisions made by the packaging industry to use less packaging or packaging which is in some way made from materials which are more "environmentally friendly" were made only for self-interest rather than "social" reasons, why would these actions not be acceptable as a form of source reduction?

Because, as some argue, what the packaging industry has done is not enough. Reducing the volume of packaging is inadequate unless the packaging material can be either recycled or biodegraded. Plastics are considered bad because they don't degrade. Paper packaging is considered better – if, in fact, packaging cannot be reduced below some minimum – because it may degrade in landfills, or, if not contaminated by food waste or contain some types of inks, may be recycled.

Absent the capacity for recycling or biodegradability, and regardless of the reduction in material volume per package, outright ban of many forms of packaging has been called for in several states, especially states in the Northeast where landfill space is believed to be quite scarce relative to population.

The Coalition of Northeastern Governors (CONEG) has voted to adopt a source reduction plan for their states which calls for voluntary (emphasis intended) "preferred" packaging guidelines short of outright bans. Included in CONEG's proposal was a call for "minimal packaging accomplished through design changes; lightweight or single packaging; and different modes of shipping which require less product packaging. Moreover, plastic packaging composed of recyclable materials that have no need to be separated prior to introduction into the recycling process were recommended. [61]

That the CONEG action was met by wide support from the plastics packaging industry is, in some respects, not surprising. One part of the reality of American business in the age of government intervention is that business will not argue with government when the consequences of losing the argument might very will be more intervention. That's not an indictment, that's just the way it is.

Economics Nobel Laureate John R. Hicks once said that a monopolist desires nothing more than to lead a quiet life. It's not just the monopolist, it's virtually all business persons. Therefore, in this writer's opinion, the fact that some elements of the packaging responded positively to the idea that "voluntary" rather than mandatory action would be taken against some forms of packaging should have surprised no one who has been a careful observer of the way business people respond to the threat of government intervention. Business support is not by itself an indicator of the economic merit of any given government market-intervention program.

Voluntary or mandatory, some cities (New York City; Los Angeles; Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota; Berkeley, California; and Portland, Oregon) have already begun to entertain or pass ordinances to ban fast-food packaging unless it can be recycled or is biodegradable. More will be given later on the consequences of the Portland decision. [62]

At the Federal level, legislation has been proposed by Representative George J. Hochbrueckner, whose district includes the heavily populated and land-scarce Suffolk County, N.Y., (The Recyclable Materials Science and Technology Act, H.R. 500) to require that non-recyclable materials be biodegradable. After five years the bill would prohibit materials that are neither biodegradable or recyclable. (More on Representative Hochbrueckner below.)

The Environmental Defense Fund has proposed a sales tax or user tax based on the quantity of packaging in a product and a national sales tax on disposable items like diapers, razors, and plates. [63]

What would be the amount of tax? Who would collect it? Would cash registers need to be reprogrammed to distinguish a taxable package from a non-taxable package? How many valuable labor and management resources, which have many alternative uses, would be absorbed in meeting the requirements of this tax system? Would the revenues raised be used for environmental purposes or, as has been the case with such taxes in New Jersey, would the tax revenues simply be used to offset other taxes?

Both EPA and OTA in their reports in MSW management warn that such measures are not without cost. Neither are they certain to attain the end they propose to attain. Caution is advised – caution which is often not apparent in the rush to propose and legislate.