Things We Need to Put an End To: Excessive/Wasteful Packaging (Talking to You, Dell)

Since it’s Earth Day, I thought I’d offer an environmentally-minded opinion…

One of my favorite blogs, Gizmodo, recently posted about the excessive packaging practices employed by Dell and other companies, including Wal-Mart and NewEgg.

As these examples show, some of the packaging practices are absolutely ridiculous. They evidence not only a complete lack of consciousness in these companies of their environmental impact, but an inefficient production process that is unfair to consumers as well.

I am aware of the obvious counter-points. Companies like Dell need large cardboard boxes and other packaging materials to efficiently pack and ship their larger products, like PCs. Perhaps it is inefficient and prohibitively expensive for Dell to buy all different sizes and shapes of boxes for its various small products. That’s all well and good… for cardboard boxes. How about we think outside of the … well, you know …? The thumb drive in the image above is not fragile and could fit in a simple mailing envelope (like the free ones UPS, FedEx, and USPS all give out). These wasteful packaging costs are all passed on (if indirectly) to the consumer.

Costs that are most definitely passed directly to the consumer are shipping costs. All the major carriers determine shipping prices not only by package weight, but by dimensions as well. This makes sense, of course, because as packages get larger, less total packages can fit in each distribution facility, transport plane, truck, etc. So, not only are these companies adding to our solid waste problem, they’re increasing air pollution as well by forcing carriers expend more fossil fuels.

Ultimately, I’d like to see new environmental laws aimed at this issue (or existing ones extended by statute or EPA regulation). Heck, China already has such a law. See Yuhong Zhao, Trade and Environment: Challenges After China’s WTO Accession, 32 Colum. J. Envtl. L. 41, 93-94 (2007). Because I am a law student and in administrative law geek, I’ll go through the legal arguments for such government action. First, excessive and wasteful packaging practices directly affect interstate commerce. Therefore, Congress has the power to legislate the issue under the Commerce Clause. See U.S. Constitution, Article I §8. Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency already has the authority to regulate solid waste under the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act (RCRA), 42 U.S.C. §6901 et seq., and carbon dioxide (fuel emissions) under the Clean Air Act (CAA), 42 U.S.C. §7401, et seq. See Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. ___; 127 S. Ct. 1438 (2007). However, I’ll admit that arguing that EPA has jurisdiction to directly regulate packaging practices under CAA alone is a stretch.

Ideally, companies like this would self-regulate. Apple comes to mind as a good example. Over the last few years, their iPod packaging in particular has gotten slimmer and slimmer. I was particularly impressed with the packaging my MacBook Pro came in, which was just a little bigger than the notebook itself (same with Mrs. Flash’s MacBook). In any event, something needs to be done about this wasteful practice.


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