20 products that could use an eco-friendly facelift

20 products that could use an eco-friendly facelift

Individually-wrapped toothpicks, disposable cell phones and other eco-hostile retail items that could do with a rethink

Mother Nature would shake her head at the grotesque over-packaging of everyday products. Individual bananas mummified in cellophane. A lone USB stick housed in an overflowing box of Styrofoam balls. More often than not, the non-biodegradable waste ends up in a landfill or under the sea.

In April, student Andrew Kim unveiled a remarkable Coke bottle redesign that squares the sides to reduce shipping space. Many other consumer items, especially those found in Asia, could use a green makeover. Here are 20 of the worst eco-offenders and our suggestions for their rehabilitation.

1. Individually wrapped produce

A single strawberry in a plastic lidded cup? Three shiso leaves imprisoned in Styrofoam and cellophane? Sadly, clinically sealed produce is a common sight in Asian groceries.

The eco alternative: Display fruit and vegetables au naturel. 

2. Pears in protective nets

Asian pears aren’t any more sensitive than their Western varieties. Yet they’re always wearing protective foam nets around their waists. If you place several in a clear bag, then carry them home in yet another plastic bag… that’s a lot of waste.

The eco alternative: Prevent bruising with recyclable fruit containers.

3. Over-wrapped snacks

Bite-sized Asian snacks, such as jelly cups and mooncakes, leave behind a mountain of packaging. To eat a green bean cake in the photo above, you must plow through the outer box, plastic wrap, plastic tray, inner box, inner plastic wrap and paper covering.

The eco alternative: China’s taking action by slapping restrictions on packaging. Hopefully, the rules are enforced and other countries will follow suit.

4. Giant boxes for shipping tiny products

The Internet abounds with examples of “shipment fail” where tiny gizmos such as USB sticks arrive in cardboard boxes large enough for a computer.

The eco alternative: Small item, small package. Simple.

5. Styrofoam peanuts

Polystyrene peanuts are among the most eco-unfriendly materials used in packaging. While they can be reused, most consumers throw the confetti into the garbage.

The eco alternative: Crumple old newspapers, or use starch-based peanuts that dissolve in water.

6. Excessively packaged pills

Jonathan Blundell complains, “24 allergy pills. All individually packaged in these goofy blister packs. Can we get a little more wasteful?”

The eco alternative: It would make sense to put the pills in a little jar. But pharmaceutical companies would like consumers to think they’ve paid for more…

7. Double-bottled water

Plastic water bottles produce up to 1.5 million tons of waste per year. If each bottle was encased in yet another plastic capsule, like this one, the number would be twice as large. 

The eco alternative: Switch to tap water and use travel mugs.

8. Chinese takeout rubbish

Chinese leftovers never last long in fridge. But the Styrofoam containers, soy sauce baggies and plastic utensils leave a deep footprint on the Earth.

The eco alternative: Eat at the restaurant, or ask for minimal packaging when you’re placing your order.

9. Disposable cell phones

Disposable mobile phones contain plastics and chemicals, making them some of the worst items you could throw in the trash.

The eco alternative: If you need a temporary cell, borrow one from a friend or a lending company.

10. Twist-tied toys

Poor Barbie and her fellow dolls arrive in plastic coffins, their limbs bound with Scotch tape and twist ties.

The eco alternative: Manufacturers can prop up toys in recyclable cardboard stands.

11. Toothpicks sheathed in plastic

Out of the countless individually wrapped goods on the market, these toothpick sheaths take the cake for uselessness.

The eco alternative: How about toothpicks in a jar?

12. A Mount Fuji of disposable umbrellas

Clear umbrellas are cute but terribly wasteful. The Japanese buy 130 million of these a year, making Japan the world’s top consumer of umbrellas.

The eco alternative: The Mottainai Umbrella Project encourages people to carry around their own umbrellas.

13. Energy-eating neon signs

Asia’s neon signs are a major electricity drain according to Hahn Chu, environmental affairs manager for Friends of the Earth. “Hong Kong always thinks the brighter things are, the more prosperous we seem, but people often forget that we’re wasting energy.”

The eco alternative: The city initiative “Dim It Please” calls on stores to switch off the lights after business hours.

14. Plasma televisions

Plasmas are the SUVs of televisions. They guzzle two to three times more energy than other screens and are made with nitrogen trifluoride, a gas linked to global warming.

The eco alternative: Purchase a less consumptive type of TV, such as an LCD. In the United States, look for electronics marked with the Energy Star label.

15. Over-stuffed shoeboxes

When you buy shoes, you also take home an unwieldy bag and a shoebox stuffed with paper and plastic.

The eco alternative: Take a cue from Puma. New sneakers come in a reusable bag and single sheet of ink-free recycled cardboard, lowering manufacturing waste by 60 percent.

16. Spray foam insulation

Spray-in-place Styrofoam may protect fragile objects, but you’ll feel like Rodin after hacking through the sticky, synthetic stuff.

The eco alternative: You can pack furniture with biodegradable material and natural rubber tape.

17. Skin-exfoliating beads

Popular body scrubs are made with miniscule bits of non-biodegradable polyethylene, which can squeeze past sewage filters and into the ocean.

The eco alternative: Look for skin products with natural exfoliates such as jojoba beads, ground coffee beans and oatmeal.

18. PVC clamshells

Rigid polyvinyl chloride “clamshells” may prevent theft, but they’re near-impossible to pry apart. And potentially dangerous: in 2004, over 6,000 Americans went to the emergency room with injuries from opening packages.

The eco alternative: The Natralock system uses 50 to 60 percent less plastic and can be cut with household scissors. Ink technology and an audible “alarm” help stop tampering.

19. Plastic-sealed magazines

In Asia, magazines are often individually sealed in plastic to prevent fingers from flipping through the pages.

The eco alternative: Tie the magazines with reusable string and give loiterers the evil eye.

20. Tangled Christmas bulbs

To use these Christmas lights, you’ll have to spend 20 minutes either untangling the wire or cutting the cardboard next to each bulb.

The eco alternative: Upgrade to the Tie-Wrap, a minimal and eco-friendly cardboard system designed by Jean Gillaume Blais.

La Carmina writes about Harajuku pop culture and all things spooky-cute. She is the author of three books about Japanese pop culture and food, including "Cute Yummy Time" and "Crazy Wacky Theme Restaurants: Tokyo" -- for which she did all the photos and illustrations. Both books were released in October, accompanied by a U.S. major city book tour.

For more, please visit her website.

Read more about La Carmina