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Moving into the passing lane

“Whether it’s packaging or transportation, we do have personal choices, some that are clearer about the environment, others that are more pure preference.”

Despite much encouragement, I’ve refrained from writing about biodegradable packaging materials because I was somewhat ambivalent about the topic. Not because I didn’t believe in the concept; but rather I wasn’t a “true believer.” The arguments didn’t always pass the “smell” test for truly being energy-efficient and cost-effective.

After all, if you’ve read this column often, you know how ardently I support recycling, along with the Clean Air and Water championed so ably by the late Gaylord Nelsona, founder of Earth Day.

As I’ve mentioned before, I became a believer in recycling when I served a forward-thinking suburb of Chicago as a commissioner on its solid waste committee some 20 years ago. We visited lots of commercial recycling operations, and even though we discovered that recycling had to be at least partially subsidized, we were persuaded our constituents were willing to do so. And frankly most were.

Our family venue has changed since then, to Door County, Wisconsin, where natural resources are usually even more highly valued, because we treasure an abundance of them. As some of my coworkers can attest, Puchinsky the bulldog and I operate a year-round free lunch (plus breakfast, at least) for the birds of Northeastern Wisconsin. To do that within the budget means Puch and I have to be kind of harsh with the squirrels. They are extremely creative in attacking those feeders, and have done considerable damage to them, along with the raccoons that visit nocturnally.

So while I think of myself as basically nature-friendly, I guess I do have some favorites, like the goldfinches and cardinals, while Puch and I work hard to keep the reds and greys (squirrels) across the road, even to the point of feeding them there (but don’t tell Puch about that). So we all make choices, whether it’s about wildlife or about packaging materials that portray themselves as sensitive to the environment.

Is some of this discussion more promotional than real? Well, that’s for each of us to judge. And perhaps our biases will come into play.

Some years ago, when my wife and I were making the trip from the Chicago area to Northeastern Wisconsin regularly (at considerably cheaper gas prices), we spent an afternoon at the Honda dealer in Green Bay, test-driving an Insight hybrid that, at the time, would just about double our highway gas mileage.

The gas/electric hybrid took some getting used to, and later we “grilled” an Insight owner, who was an engineer, at a local pub up here. Although this was long before the roomier Toyota Prius hybrid became popular, the engineer planted enough seeds of doubt when he talked about researching which waxed finish offered the least wind resistance to improve mpg.

That led to more research, eventually anticipating the Ford Escape hybrid, which I think was the first four-wheel-drive hybrid. However, the more we looked at the data, the less the Escape hybrid looked like it fit our driving, mostly highway miles up here. The fact that we push through snow during our six-month (I think I’m kidding) winter meant that a 4WD vehicle was likely in our future. It became a Honda CR-V, both then and more recently our second one, for its four-cylinder motor, manual transmission, front-wheel-drive most of the time until we need more oomph when the computer shifts automatically into 4WD. And don’t ask me to explain about my Mazda pick-up truck.

This was originally going to be a discussion about how environmental preference becomes a controversial issue when the choice between alternatives become price-competitive. And the point to all of this is that whether it’s packaging or transportation, we do have personal choices, some that are clearer about the environment, others that are more pure preference.

Like where we are today, between high-priced plastics and high-priced alternatives that exhibit a decidedly “green” tint. Sure, there’s a warm feeling of buying a more costly hybrid vehicle, but it may not be economical long-term. Similarly, a biodegradable material may be price-competitive over only a short period of time.

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