Awash in plastic

I am not a coffee drinker.

Never liked the bitter taste, despite my deep affection for its cousin, chocolate.

But I am addicted to iced tea, and for years, I happily plunked down $1 for 16 ounces of Lipton’s “Pure Leaf” tea in a bottle.

I realized I could make my own version at home for pennies a glass, and sometimes did, but too often I’d forget until I was walking out the door.

Besides, the stuff actually tasted like fresh-brewed tea, unlike so many other bottled teas. It came in glass bottles, rather than plastic (don’t get me started on how much better milk tastes in bottles vs. plastic jugs). And it was sold in our vending machines at work, where I tend to crave (an IV full of) caffeine.

So I paid for the convenience.

Until one day I went downstairs and the iced-tea slot was empty. As my hands shook, the very nice deliveryman told me Lipton’s had Blog Photoswitched to a new square bottle that no longer fit in the machines.

That didn’t strike me as a shrewd marketing move.

But packaging in general doesn’t make much sense to me these days.

There’s the toy situation, of course, where box cutters and scissors have become a part of the Christmas morning tradition. Many a novice parent has shed blood trying to separate Barbie from her rigid plastic “clam shell.”

We also have toilet paper wrapped not once but twice in plastic. (What, it’s going to spoil?)

We have cereal packaged in plastic bags that are harder to break into than Google’s secret server facilities.

We have cases of canned Pepsi sealed in boxes and then encased in plastic. (Again, spoilage?)

Even the six-packs of the glass tea bottles I hoarded were wrapped in plastic. So are the new plastic bottles.

It seems that we’re taking giant steps backward here. Whatever happened to going green?

In most cases, it’s about protecting products during shipping, which these days is often an overseas journey. Toy packaging also is designed to deter theft and child tampering in the store. But it’s excessive, to put it mildly.

Lipton trotted out its new Pure Leaf plastic bottle in the spring, and judging by the comments on Facebook, most customers were not terribly Blog Photohappy. (The Pure Leaf Facebook page actually has almost 168,000 fans. For tea.)

One customer said he loved the glass bottles, but the new plastic would make them easier to carry to the car.

But a Delaware customer complained that the new square bottle wouldn’t fit in his “round cup holder world. ... It’s function before fashion. Wake up and fit in!!”

Another customer who used to buy 40 bottles a week said that would likely change because the tea warms up too fast in plastic. Glass, she noted, keeps beverages cold longer.

Others complained the plastic affected the tea’s flavor (though I confess I couldn’t detect much difference).

“Big THUMBS DOWN on the new plastic bottles!” wrote Jackie Nichols. “The formula may not have changed, but it tastes HORRIBLE out of plastic. Oh well, I might not get the great tea I love anymore, but at least my wallet will be thicker now that I won’t be buying four or five a day.”

Customer Wynema Chilianis agreed and said the bottle is also too tall for a standard-sized straw.

“Why does the company want to contribute to the PLASTIC PROBLEM? ... I will NEVER buy this product again. I WILL tell EVERYONE about the FLAWS, and tell them how to make better homemade tea by the gallon at home — which tastes just like your Pure Leaf.”

So there.

In response, the company thanked Wynema for her “honest feedback” and reminded its fans that they were free to send a private message if needed. Ah, you gotta love Facebook.

I called Lipton to ask about the change and received a statement saying the packaging is more consumer-friendly than glass for “on-the-go and out-of-home occasions.”

The new square bottles are lightweight and fit together better on pallets, which equates to lighter loads, “higher pallet efficiency” and less fuel used in transport, the company said. And the PET plastic — used in most other beverage bottles — is fully recyclable, the company said.

The brand itself is also Rainforest Alliance Certified because the tea comes from Kenyan farms that meet the organization’s sustainability standards to protect workers and the environment, the company said.

OK.

But what’s more renewable than glass? It’s made from sand, not fossil fuels. It’s 100 percent recyclable — or, better yet, 100 percent REUSABLE if companies would ever go back to returnable bottles. In fact, we buy our milk in returnable bottles.

And wasn’t it nice when cereal bags didn’t explode all over your kitchen table?

Blog PhotoKellogg’s, it turns out, has been rolling out a “new, improved” cereal liner after consumers demanded an easier-to-open bag, company spokesman Kris Charles said. It will be fully implemented by 2013.

Asked if the new liners are also plastic, he said, “Our liners use a variety of proprietary materials to maintain product taste and freshness and are recyclable in many locations.”

It turns out that Lipton is still producing some Pure Leaf in glass bottles for vending sales, so we apparently just need to talk to our supplier.

I suppose that’s some progress.

__________________________

Julie Wurth writes and blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 351-5226 or jwurth@news-gazette.com or follow her on Twitter at Twitter.com/jawurth.

Photos:

Top: Photo illustration by John Dixon/The News-Gazette

Middle: The new plastic Pure Leaf bottle. Courtesy Lipton Pure Leaf Tea

Bottom: Kellogg's new cereal box liners. Courtesy Kellogg's

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