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Sunday, September 09, 2001

Dope.

This is a story of orange peels.

One of the most famous facts about Mexico City is probably not known to a vast majority of the inhabitants of Mexico City.

In the 80s, William Rathje, the archeologist who started the famous Garbage project at the University of Arizona, conducted a comparative study of waste disposal between households in Mexico City and the average American urban household. With his associate, Michael Reilly, he published an article, "Household Garbage and the Role of Packaging." The article isn't on the Net, but there is an excellent article by Frank Ackerman of Tufts University at the Society for Philosophy and Technology, ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS OF PACKAGING IN THE U.S. AND MEXICO, which summarizes it:

"The tradeoff between food waste and packaging waste explains one of the most remarkable empirical results in the field of "garbage research." Detailed surveys in the early 1980s found that households in Mexico City discard more waste than urban and suburban U.S. households, even after correcting for family size (Restrepo et al., 1991; for a summary in English see Rathje and Murphy, 1992, pp. 216-219). The Mexican households threw out twice as much food waste, while the Americans threw out more packaging and other materials; on balance the Mexicans discarded more per capita. Most other studies have found that the United States is the world leader in per capita waste disposal, and that developing countries generate much less waste. However, the defense of packaging presented here only shows that some packaging is desirable, including some of the exotic new plastic and composite packages"

There are a lot of examples of food waste in Mexico City, but the one that caught the eye of conservative commentators was the humble orange. Take David Koppel, who writes, in an article entitled Envirohogwash,

"For example, in Mexico � where packaging and refrigeration are rarer than in the U.S. � the average household throws away 40% more total refuse than the average U.S. household. It's not that the Mexican household has a higher standard of living; it's just that high-tech packaging and other advances make U.S. consumption more efficient. In Mexico City, households that drink orange juice usually buy fresh oranges, squeeze them, and throw away the peels � about ten and a half ounces of peels per week. Most American households make their orange juice from frozen concentrate, which comes in a package. The American household, making the same amount of orange juice, throws out a two-ounce cardboard or aluminum container. Thus, the American household creates more than 80% less solid waste."

The idea of all those orange peels flooding Mexico City, as though some bizarre sci-fi flick was running loose South of the Border, seems to have a dreamlike appeal to the defenders of the American Way of Packaging. This is Virginia Postrel , the editor of the libertarian magazine Reason:

"For instance, in Mexico City, most consumers squeeze fresh oranges to make
orange juice. The peels are then thrown away. Americans, by contrast,
tend to buy packaged frozen concentrate. As a result, the typical Mexican
household tosses out 10.5 ounces of orange peel each week; the typical
American household throws out 2 ounces of cardboard or aluminum ."

She adds a little flavor to this stat by commenting: "If all the orange juice
drinkers in New York Cidy individually tossed away their orange peels, one
day's haul would weigh as much as two ocean liners."

What an image! and a puzzle, too, since Mexico City has twice as many people as New York City. Is it true, then, that Mexico city is disposing of a fleet of orange peels every week?

Another, separate question is - why are Kopel and Postrel emphasizing the buying of concentrate? Their example has an oddly outdated feeling. The simple answer is provided in the quote from Anderson's paper - Kopel and Postrel is relying on a study made in the 80s. We'll see in a minute that the time frame of Rathje's study is important. But first, one more example of the by now famous inclination of Mexicans to incautiously make their juices from natural products. In a famous article, Recycling is Garbage, in the New York Times magazine by John Tierney, another libertarian type recycles Rathje to say:

"The typical household in Mexico City buys fewer packaged goods than an American household, but it produces one-third more garbage, chiefly because Mexicans buy fresh foods in bulk and throw away large portions that are unused, spoiled or stale."

Okay, okay. The orange peel menace is beginning to seem truly threatening. The cold war is over, so we need a new enemy, but who knew that it would be a fruit? Still, one thing that seems to have gotten lost here. If orange peels are so bad, why haven't orange trees long ago flooded the world with orange peels? The answer is - orange peels decay. If they didn't, in fact, there wouldn't be orange trees - the fruit, you might have noticed, contains orange seeds.

Well, how about other orange juice containers? Here's what Tropicana has to say about its juice cartons at its faq site:

"IS THE PLASTIC BOTTLE RECYCLABLE?

The bottle is recyclable with plastics coded #2. It is predominantly high density polyethylene (HDPE), and contains a very thin layer of nylon which prevents oxygen penetration and deterioration of the juice. Therefore, we must label it as #7 for "layered" packages. But since the nylon does not interfere with its recyclability, we highlight its #2 compatibility.

ARE YOUR CARTONS RECYCLABLE?

Yes, for the most part. The carton's paper fiber has a high market value and can be recycled. Because the fitment and cap come in direct contact with the juice, they cannot be made of recycled material. These parts are removed during the recycling process."

Interestingly, according to the Plastics Council, an advocacy group for Plastics manufacturers, there was zero recycling of HDPE in the eighties - in other words, when Rathje made his study, the choice between throwing out an orange peel and throwing out a plastic jug full of juice was that the orange peel would decay, and the plastic jug would be left to chemically disassociate on a garbage dump. So in spite of the invidious comparison of the scale of disposal, the orange peel was still the preferred option for the environmentally conscious consumer. This is the kind of moderating fact that Tierney and Postrel seem unaware of.

Tierney, who is a reporter, is more to blame for his lack of curiosity about packaging. Since he was writing in 1996, he should have been aware that there were packaging developments that year, chief among which was the design of the "aseptic package." It won the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development that year. And, even more importantly, it introduced a wild card into Mexico City's orange peel crisis.
Juice in a carton had arrived.

Mexican juices are being packaged, now, in bulk, just like they are in the US. However, the packaging reflects, pace the John Tierney's of the world, the pressure from consumers and environmental groups to find stable, low energy, greener containers.

Having just come back from Mexico City, I can guarantee you that there are no ocean liners made out of orange peels blocking Reforma. If you are looking for juice in Mexico City, you will probably be buying some product of Jugos del Valle, which uses an aseptic carton supplied by SIG Combibloc Inc. Aseptic cartons drive container designers into heights of hyperbole. Here's a quote from the food product design people:

"Aseptic cartons are a lightweight, multi-layer, energy-efficient example of minimal packaging. They combine high-performance materials with high-performance construction and high-performance features. The package is 70% paper (to provide stiffness and strength), 25% low-density polyethylene (to seal the carton liquid-tight), and 5% aluminum (to keep out light and oxygen). Together, these materials produce a carton that safeguards the aseptically processed product inside. "

There isn't a simple moral to the story of the orange peel. On the one hand, you have claims about bulk solid waste which ignore the context of waste decay and use. On the other hand, you have claims made from a study that is ten to fifteen years old that ignore technological developments that are partly driven by environmental regulation. In other words, this is a classic picture of the Keynsian system at work - the state represents the interest of third parties, here, to force private industry to either carry the unadulterated costs of waste disposal or find ways to minimize waste.

The moral of this story, as of almost all the stories I tell, sadly enough, comes from Lafontaine:

Toujours par quelque endroit fourbes se laissent prendre
Quiconque est loup agisse en loup:
C'est le plus certain de beaucoup

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