Talk About Quality

Tom Harris

Archive for April 2007

No Free Lunch

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Recently I read an article by Norman Balabanian (“On the Presumed Neutrality of Technology”, IEEE Technology & Society magazine, reprinted Winter 2006, pp. 15-25; originally published in 1980), where he addresses, among other things, the popular claim that people choose new technologies out of free choice. That if we use a technology, whether it be a car, or a refrigerator, or permanent-press clothing, we freely choose the benefits, and have accepted the costs. In several examples, Balabanian shows that we do not. We live modern life as part of an interlocking, consumption/profit-driven system which requires us to accept most of the new technologies, or starve.

I decided to do a small experiment in the household, to see up close what Balabanian was talking about.

The Experiment

I set out to collect and put aside all the food packaging that our family opened and threw away as part of our meals at home for one week. Not paper plates or napkins, or non-food trash such as newspapers. Just the containers that our food comes in. My kids wondered at first, but after a day or two I convinced them that even after school people still learn, and this was my self-assigned science project this week. As material rapidly piled up, I cut off “data” collection at 4 days.

What did I find?

I collected a half-full garbage bag of paper and cardboard, similar of plastic bags and bottles, and a few metal cans, for a total of 1 kg of waste material. By weight, the packaging was a bit less than 4% of the food net weight. Not much at all, but I was not concentrating on waste vs. recycling.

Rather, I was looking at the question: have we freely chosen to buy our food packaged?

Looking at the list below, I have to say “no”. Very few of these foods are available for purchase either at our corner grocery, or our large supermarket, without the packaging (i.e. take in your own container).

Reminds me of a cynical saying we used to have in high school: “You have a choice … and it has been made for you.”

The Challenge to Innovators

Don’t tell me how to recycle these materials. (We do already—as much as our city provides for.) That’s more forced choice: take the food in packages, and then recycle the packages.

Instead, suggest ways that we or the food distribution system could change so that we could eat our (reasonably) healthy diet without all the packaging in the first place.

Appendix 1: Four Days of Food Packaging

Food Amount (g) Type Wrapper Type Comments

Cheetos™ 55 Prepared Plastic Silverized
Pudding 330 Prepared Plastic
Fruit 1000 Prepared Plastic Styrofoam
Flour 2000 Prepared Paper
Cola 3000 Prepared Plastic
Milk 3000 Raw Plastic
Cereal 1200 Prepared Paper Waxed cardboard
Cereal 0 Prepared Plastic
Cottage Ch. 250 Prepared Plastic
Sugar 1000 Raw Paper
Potato Chips 50 Prepared Plastic Silverized
Eggs 1400 Raw Paper Cardboard
Soda Water 1500 Prepared Plastic
Smoked Salmon 100 Prepared Plastic
Granola 500 Prepared Plastic
Brown Sugar1000 Raw Paper
Yogurt 450 Prepared Plastic
Fruit Juice3000 Prepared Plastic
Margarine 2000 Raw Paper Waxed paper
Tuna Fish 320 Prepared Metal
Pineapple 825 Prepared Metal
Crackers 325 Prepared Plastic Silverized
Egglplant Spread 1000 Prepared Plastic
Mineral water 3000 Raw Plastic
Total Food Weight 27305


Written by Tom Harris

April 23, 2007 at 6:31 pm