Del Monte is marketing plastic-wrapped bananas--to the horror of environmentalists. But what is the right reaction?
A few weeks ago the banana company Del Monte released a packaging innovation: a plastic banana wrapper. The story spread through the Twitterverse as an example of consumer society gone wrong. The wrapper, which appears to be a small, transparent-printed plastic bag, features "Controlled Ripening Technology (CRT)" which allows a banana to stay ripe for six more days on the shelf. Del Monte's UK managing director, James Harvey, was unrepentent in his response to criticisms, stating in the Fresh Produce Journal that "Del Monte's new CRT packaging is designed to provide significant carbon footprint savings by reducing the frequency of deliveries and the amount of waste going to landfill."
This leaves us with two very different views of the same facts.
According to Del Monte, the plastic-wrapped banana is a solution to
climate change and our wasteful society, and according to many others,
the wrapper is an example of technology creating a wasteful need that
few people were aware they had. Modern society is rife with examples of
humans attempting to improve the convenience and accessibility of
nature's products, from red dye on pistachios to bottled water, but the
challenge we increasingly face is determining when the net positives of
those technological innovations outweigh the net negatives. Few would
say that the small number of plastic-wrapped bananas is a notable cause
of climate change. In fact the total carbon dioxide released by a few
trans-oceanic jet flights would most likely be higher than the excess
carbon dioxide caused by the plastic-wrapping, if Del Monte's claims of
carbon reduction don't pan out. But it is an important parable in the
fight of nature versus the machine, and it's worth examining.
Environmentalists have long been accused of forming a church of nature worship. Early leaders of the Sierra Club, like John Muir, referred to nature as a cathedral, and legendary activist David Brower was referred to as an "arch-druid" by writer John McPhee. Until recently, most religious orders were relatively silent politically on the destruction of the natural world, leading to the formation of activist organizations that served to respond to an unmet moral challenge. This moral intention has long produced a type of earnest belief in those who partake in environmental, green, or sustainable practices, which causes particular consternation when those practices are directly challenged. If you are someone who composts, a practice akin to daily prayer, and someone produces an uncompostable component (a plastic bag) for a formerly compostable product (a banana), this is a form of blasphemy. Practically speaking, that additional plastic bag won't push the planet over the edge, just as taking God's name in vain won't make God disappear, but both are challenges to a belief system.