Phone chargers, toothpaste tubes, ketchup bottles: can we offset pollution by lowering our expectations as consumers?

Our toothpaste is almost out and there is new and unopened rectangular box on the bathroom cabinet shelf waiting to be deployed fighting plaque and hidden incipient cavities. I am holding the old squeezed-out tube in my palm trying to guesstimate how much it weighs and stop to think for a moment: this very second, a new toothpaste is being opened somewhere around the world. How much weight in toothpaste caps does that amount to, globally? I can’t provide myself with the answer, but I can only imagine. Many, many cubic tons.

And then comes a follow-up question: would I agree, as a matter of principle, going through the small trouble of twisting-on a one-size-fits-all reusable cap on most – or all – of the toothpaste tubes that I buy in the future? How about using the same old cap on my future ketchup and shampoo bottles?

Being the environmentally-conscious person that I am, I wouldn’t mind at all to rinse off residue toothpaste or ketchup from an old cap and re-using it on the next bottle that I buy. Knowing that there will many hundreds of similar such products that I am going to consume throughout my life, it would give me a sense of pride to know that I could be responsible for removing a hundred kilos or more in plastic, out of the global pollution equation.

My hopes that the world will wake up to this possibility are not in vain. Few years ago there was a change in the way plastic bottles are made that must have resulted in a serious decrease in the amount of plastic being used to produce this commodity. Bottlers decided to save money by shortening the height of the caps and it makes perfect sense. They save money while decreasing the amount of plastic needed to produce a typical cap. Major soft drink companies like Coca Cola and Pepsico didn’t follow suit on their most popular products, but they can always opt in since there is now a viable example in Poland Spring bottled water and other brands.

There is always more than one way to cut costs and pollution. Mobile phone manufacturers and the electronic device industry in general, must have agreed that everyone- industry and consumers alike- would benefit from the use of standard micro USB chargers and data cables, which now conveniently arrive in the box or are sold as interchangeable items- cable and adapter. This move alone may as well have offset the cumulative of at least one day’s worth of pollution (my own totally unscientific guesswork) in some city East Asia, which is a major producer of phone chargers and cables.

What I am driving at here is that some sectors in the manufacturing industry don’t have to make far-reaching changes to do the environment, and all of us, the huge favor of cutting down the toxic fumes that come out of stacks that melt and mold plastic cables, wiring and casings. If there is a standardization in the production of interchangeable items – like phone chargers and bottle caps – companies can save money  while enabling willing consumers to decrease their footprint on the environment. The overall effect for the planet may be revolutionary and big data science will soon be able to demonstrate how much money we have, in fact, saved on medical expenses for diseases and injuries caused by toxic smoke.

The reality is, people discard many tons of plastic in toothpaste, ketchup and shampoo caps each day. It would be a sensible thing for the consumer to have the option of buying a variety of products without the cap, and there are millions of people who will go through the small “trouble”. Without the danger of non-food items spoiling because of air or light exposure or humidity, there is a vast area in consumer products that can undergo the change. All it would take is a major producer to test how consumers feel about the idea.  I believe that most producers will agree that their efforts to differentiate from the competition wouldn’t be hurt if they all used a universal cap- just like all Android phones use the same micro USB cable and charger.

If that were to happen now, many people would simply pick up a sealed tube from the row of capless tubes and head home to reuse the one-size-fits-all cap.

I think it’s worth the thought.

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