In doing the research and development work for some new packaging, we were asked by a customer “What recycle number is it? Is it environmentally friendly?” While I understand the thought process behind the question, as a recovering engineer I am almost offended by it. Here’s why:
A new package is developed to address a need. The need is usually based on a problem. The problem tends to be rooted in monetary losses. So the solution is something that saves money. Now don’t go all ‘Capitalist pig’ on me yet – hear me out. When the problem is wasted food and the need is better protection to insure that what the farmer grows gets eaten by the customer we are addressing a financial issue in addition to a social one. Remember your parents telling you that there are starving children in (insert country name here) so you should eat what is on your plate?
The obsession with one metric [like what recycle number is it] needs to be balanced with other questions like how much waste will this new package prevent? I’ll try to reframe it – if a farmer uses X amount of energy to grow two pounds of food and then half of it rots before being consumed, what is actually eaten took twice as much energy per pound. So if we have packaging that isn’t biodegradable or isn’t a favored recycle number, but it enables 90% of its food contents to being consumed, what is the true cost, both in dollars and in social responsibility?
Using technology to address a need based on a problem is what engineers do. Think about energy production – coal is dirty, nuclear is scary, petroleum generates CO2, wind farms are unsightly, hydroelectric plants destroy rivers, and solar panels are too expensive. Every method of electricity generation has positive and negative implications. The bias on any particular method is usually a deeply personal belief, not a Mr. Spock deduced factual conclusion. To be objective is to be effective.