One thing I’ve learned over the past 18 years covering packaging sustainability is that you can’t look at just the package.

This morning I read an Earth Week article that provides readers with a number of tips with which to celebrate this event. Besides the usual mindless banter about recycling everything in sight and living a chemical-free lifestyle, the first tip was right up my Use Less Stuff alley: purchase items with less packaging .

OK, I’ve changed and matured since I first wrote that in 1994. I’ve come to learn that you can’t really look at just the package. You also have to look at

a.) What’s in the package, and

b.) The cost associated with ensuring that the enclosed product makes it home in the condition in which it’s expected to arrive.

So, sustainability is really about the meta-product: the functional and emotional elements that make up the entire consumption experience.

And the meta-product level is exactly where discussions about sustainable packaging need to be. Let’s say that I’m interested in buying three pounds of hamburger meat. Rather than glibly looking for the product that uses the least amount of packaging, I should really start by asking myself the following questions:

1. When will I be using the meat?
If the answer is tonight, my best choice is probably a tray with overwrap. If the answer is some now and some later, I might want to consider buying 3 of the one-pound LDPE tubes. I can open one now and put the other two in the freezer; put the other two in the fridge if they’re to be used over the next few days; or put one in the fridge and one in the freezer.

2. Where will I be using it?
If the answer is at home, then see #1 above. If I’m taking it on a picnic, I should consider buying pre-shaped patties. Yes, there will be a little extra packaging (slipsheets), but I would have individually wrapped the burgers anyway, so there’s really no additional waste. Maybe even less!

3.How will I be using it?
Burgers or meat balls? I’ll buy smaller sizes. Chili? Ditto. Meat loaf? I’ll buy in bulk.

By ensuring that all of the meat is eaten and none is wasted, I’ve chosen the most sustainable packaging for the task at hand. That’s how we as an industry should be promoting packaging, and we should be doing it year-round.

Happy Earth Day.

Robert M. Lilienfeld is a Fox TV environmental commentator and Editor of The ULS (Use Less Stuff) Report, a newsletter dedicated to conserving resources and reducing waste. Along with Dr. William J. Rathje, he co-authored the book Use Less Stuff: Environmental Solutions for Who We Really Are and the 1995 landmark New York Times Op-Ed piece entitled Six Enviro-Myths. His website is