Week of 12/02/2007

Dear EarthTalk: Many foods like tuna and pet foods that formerly were sold only in cans are now available in "pouches" as well. Is this kind of packaging less harmful to the environment or just cheaper to make for the seller?

—Stefanie Galdolfi, Oakland, CA

Food pouches, which are made from a combination of food-grade aluminum foil, plastic and adhesives, do appear to have some front-end environmental advantages over the cans they are increasingly replacing on supermarket shelves. However, they are not as easily recycled.

Tuna and pet food pouches use less energy and fewer resources in their manufacture, storage and transport, but are more difficult to recycle than the traditional tin-coated steel cans they are increasingly replacing on grocery shelves.© Jeanne Licari

Food pouches take up far less space and weight (in both warehouses and on supermarket shelves) and are simpler to manufacture than tin-coated steel cans. Minneapolis-based flexible packaging manufacturer Kapak Corporation reports that one truckload of the pouches it makes has the same holding capacity as 25 truckloads of traditional rigid containers (cans), and saves as much as 96 percent in warehouse storage space. The company also says its pouches use 75 percent less energy than cans to manufacture, and that they reduce the amount of source materials needed to make cans by a factor of 25 to one.

According to Anthony Andrady, author of the 2003 book, Plastics and the Environment, the pouches used to store Whiskas cat food require 30 percent less retorting time (retorting is the process of pressurizing the interior of the vessel to ensure it is sterilized) than the 10 ounce steel cans they replaced because the pouch can be heated more evenly and quickly. "That translates directly into reduced energy use for the retorting process and probably into a decrease in the amount of cooling water required as well," he says.

On the down side, most of these pouches, despite their upfront advantages, are destined for the landfill once they are empty because their multi-material construction makes them difficult to recycle. Some manufacturers, like California-based Flex Products Inc., are working on variations of the pouch that are less complex and inherently more recyclable than what’s on supermarket shelves right now, but such products may be years away from widespread adoption. Nevertheless, technological improvements could make recycling of pouches more feasible in the future.

In contrast, the tin-coated steel cans that tuna and pet foods usually come in are both easy to recycle and are likely to have been manufactured with a large percentage of recycled steel to begin with. In fact, most steel used in the U.S. today contains a large percentage of recycled material (and creating new steel cans from recycled materials uses only about a quarter of the energy needed to produce them from raw materials). And steel cans are not just recycled to make new cans; they provide raw material for a variety of steel products, including bicycles, car parts, washing machines, refrigerators and tools.

Still not sure what to do (it is a tough call)? Perhaps Cook’s Country magazine’s cans-versus-pouches tuna taste test will break the tie: The magazine tested eight brands of solid white albacore packed in water (the most popular tuna variety), and canned tuna took four of the five top spots. The main reason given by samplers was bigger and meatier chunks of fish in the cans, compared to the "mushier, less appealing texture" of the tuna in the pouches.

CONTACTS: Kapak Corporation; Steel Recycling Institute; Cook’s Country

Dear EarthTalk: I’m in the market for new furniture. What should I look for in natural furniture and where do I find it?

—Debbie Fine, Philadelphia, PA

Upgrading to greener furniture is one of the healthiest things you can do for your family and the planet. Pictured here is an all-natural Alfred Loveseat from Furnature

Along with replacing your incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents and driving your car less, upgrading to greener furniture is one of the healthiest things you can do for your family and the planet. Most furniture is made with wood from the tropics, so the chair you are now sitting in may have played a role in rainforest deforestation, loss of wildlife habitat, even global warming (cutting forests releases carbon dioxide). Also, furniture is often full of chemicals that release unhealthy fumes into your home.

So what’s a green-minded couch potato to do? Looking for furniture made of wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a good place to start. Founded in 1992, FSC establishes standards for sustainable forestry around the world, and certifies timber operations that follow its guidelines. A growing number of furniture makers are availing themselves of FSC-certified wood in order to meet increasing demand for greener products. Local furniture stores usually stock some FSC-certified products (the best way to find out is to call and ask), and many manufacturers now showcase and sell FSC products online.

Beyond wood, bamboo furniture is strong and resilient and usually harvested from sustainable sources. Stainless steel, most of which is recycled, is also a good eco-friendly furniture framing choice. Also, many cutting edge furniture designers are making use of reclaimed timber and other recycled materials in their products, breathing new life into old wood and sparing live trees in the process.

The other major issue with traditional furniture is the pollution from all the noxious synthetic chemicals used to produce it. One leading culprit is formaldehyde, a known carcinogen found in furniture made from pressed wood and particle board and in many of the glues and resins used to bind furniture frames, padding and upholstery together. Another villain is synthetic flame-retardant, commonly added to foam filler materials and linked to human nervous system and reproductive disorders (accordingly, it has been banned by the states of Washington and California, as well as the European Union).

Luckily, a large number of non-toxic alternatives are now available to manufacturers. Water-based glues, for example, do not contain formaldehyde or synthetic chemicals. Also, designs such as tongue and groove joinery eliminate the need for adhesives altogether. And a handful of natural materials, such as wool batting, can work well as flame-retardants while providing ample padding.

Furniture makers committed to non-toxic and/or recycled materials and FSC-certified or reclaimed wood include Vivanti, the Joinery, Woodshanti, Furnature, Pacific Rim Woodworking, Berkeley Mills, Steckley Woodcrafts and Urban Hardwoods, among many others. Many of these producers specialize in higher end custom orders but also offer readymade items. For a quick fix, browse the aisles of Ikea, which besides being committed to less toxic materials, is also a big buyer of FSC-certified wood.

CONTACTS: Forest Stewardship Council,; Vivavi; The Joinery; Woodshanti; Furnature; Pacific Rim Woodworking; Berkeley Mills; Steckley Woodcrafts; Urban Hardwoods