A microscopic example of a macroscopic epidemic

By Еvan Osentоn

What images do you normally associate with a liquor store? If you said perverts, alcoholics, shoplifters and libidinous high school girls, you’re only partly right. However, there is one aspect of liquor stores that most of you don’t know about: the colossal amount of waste behind the scenes.

Indeed, the waste-management techniques exhibited at the liquor store for which I work are symbolic of the endemic wastefulness inherent in North American society. Since most of the wastage takes place beyond the range of our customers’ glassy eyes, let me take this opportunity to blow the lid off this secret world for you.

While we throw out a great deal of cardboard and paper every day, it’s polyethylene–imagine thick Saran wrap–that’s the real problem.
Every pallet of beer delivered to our store comes heavily wrapped in polyethylene. The idea is obviously to keep the product from shifting while in transit. Once you cut away the wrapping, you’re supposed to throw the shiny wad of plastic away.

For experimentation’s sake, I decided to wad the plastic wrap into a ball the other night. Tightly packed–and I mean tightly–the wrap formed the approximate size of a softball. We receive several skids a day at our store, nearly every day of the week. Let’s be conservative and say that over the course of the week we accrue enough polyethylene to form a basketball-sized wad. Over the year, we throw out enough wrap to make 52 plastic- wrap basketballs (not even factoring in the Christmas rush).

There are 144 liquor stores in Calgary. Fifty-two basketball-sized wads of plastic-wrap times 144 equals nearly 7,500 large wads of polyethylene–totally unreuseable or recyclable–dumped into our landfill every year. And that’s just in Calgary. Imagine what this phenomenon is like Alberta-wide, throughout Canada and North America. And what about grocery stores, department stores, et cetera? How many billion tonnes of polyethylene will outlive the human race?

The strangest thing about all those hundreds of pounds of polyethylene is they could easily be replaced by bungee cords, truck tie-down straps or a ratchet-and-strap system. All of these options are reusable, and I can tell you from personal experience, cheap and convenient. The problem is that they’re probably not cheap enough for breweries’ tastes–polyethylene wrap is dirt, dirt cheap.

A solution might be for the government to regulate programs that enforce the replacement of polyethylene wrap with reusable materials. The obvious problem with this is that the more expensive reusable packing materials would likely be damaged or go missing, thereby making them astronomically expensive. However, could not the government charge a deposit on their use as they do with glass and plastic bottles? Given that you and I live in Alberta–a province obsessed with short-term and polluting energy options–this likely won’t happen any time soon.

However, what price are we paying in the long-run to transport beer in such a short sighted, albeit cheap manner? Polyethylene is derived from natural gas, following an elaborate and expensive process in which factories pollute during the conversion process and millions of litres of chemicals are transported via truck or train to said factories. One use and it’s off to the landfill. We can’t go on acting like this forever.

Sure, this is a pretty specific example. But think about the serious harm to our environment we cause through the production, use and disposal of one simple, frivolous product that could easily be replaced by an ecologically-friendly alternative. How can one not shudder when thinking of how much other waste our society consumes on a daily basis–and gives as little thought as we would normally to liquor store-pallet polyethylene?

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