All Wrapped Up

(Adapted from Recycling Our Resources: A Recycling/Solid Waste Curriculum for Kindergarten through 6th Grade, Oneida-Herkimer Solid Waste Project, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County)



SUBJECT AREAS: social studies

CONCEPT: Why do we need packaging? How can we reduce the amount of waste it generates?

OBJECTIVE: To understand the purpose of packaging and to be able to identify wasteful packaging.

MATERIALS: product packaging, old magazines

KEYWORDS: packaging, renewable resources

BACKGROUND: Why do we buy one product instead of another? Often it's because of the packaging. Packaging accounts for 10-15% (and sometimes more than 50%) of the cost of a product and approximately 1/3 of what goes into a family's trash can. Excess and non-recyclable packaging add to our energy and waste problems. We can cut down on packaging.

Packaging has several uses. It may provide protection to a product during shipping. It may provide protection to the consumer by preventing contamination or tampering. Or it may prove a useful marketing tool for the manufacturer. In some cases, the packaging may serve multiple purposes. Packaging often differs from culture to culture. Generally, Americans are accustomed to seeing a lot of packaging material. On the other hand, some European cultures use relatively little packaging. For example, Americans expect their purchased items to be placed in a paper or plastic bag as a convenient method of carrying the item home. Some Europeans, however, frequent open food markets where they bring their own wicker basket or cloth bag which is used over and over again. In addition, U.S. supermarkets often feature fruits and vegetables wrapped in plastic shrink wrap and polystyrene (styrofoam). Open food markets do not use synthetic wrapping, instead they rely on nature's own packaging, ie. the banana peel or potato skin.

Packaging often serves as a way to promote a product, and we often are lured into buying something we may not really need.


Have the students bring in examples of packaging. Discuss:

Design a way to categorize the packaging. For example, sort it according to "natural" packaging (bananas, apples, peanuts); recyclable packaging (paper bags, returnable bottles); and nonrecyclable packaging. Discuss:

Brainstorm ways you could reduce the amount of packaging you purchase. For example, could you purchase products in bulk? How would this help reduce packaging? (A 3-ounce tube of toothpaste requires 50% more packaging per ounce than a 7-ounce tube.)


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Department of Crop and Soil Sciences
Bradfield Hall, Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853