Paper or Plastic? Packaging Goes Green The advent of treeless paper and biodegradable plastics has further complicated the age-old supermarket question: "Paper or plastic?" Researchers making sustainable paper and plastic products discuss how U.S. efforts to switch to Earth-friendly packaging measure up with efforts in Europe.
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Paper or Plastic? Packaging Goes Green

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Paper or Plastic? Packaging Goes Green

Paper or Plastic? Packaging Goes Green

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The front page of a local New York City newspaper screams - "Drink Up. No Bottles About It: City Pushes Tap Water." The newspaper AM New York details New York's new campaign against city dwellers to drink some of the best water in the world - the stuff that flows out of the Big Apple's own faucets.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, the mayor has first banned plastic garbage bags, and now, he's forbidden the city and County of San Francisco from buying bottled water. Well, you could see the mayor's point. You got all these plastics bag - plastic bags. They're cheap, they're popular, but you can't recycle them very easily so they turn up everywhere as litter and so do empty water plastic bottles.

Listen to this statistic, the U.S. buys more bottled water than anyone else, and making these bottles takes up more than one and a half million barrels of oil every year. About 86 percent of our empties end up in the trash and can take up to a thousand years to decay. Wow. So some cities like San Francisco are leading the ban on plastics that are not biodegradable. Researchers, meanwhile, are trying to come up with alternatives, right? Alternatives sound good, but it's really not that simple, because while some new packaging may be biodegradable, it may have other drawbacks. It may not be really as green as you think it is. So you have to be very careful, and you have to think very carefully about the alternatives.

For example, in Canada, one team of scientist thinks it has the answer - biodegradable plastics made from canola oil. This hour, we're going to talk with a biochemist about his team's new work, making plastic from canola oil. Are these the grocery bags of the future? Or, are we going to be faced with another problem? If you make plastics out of canola oil, you have less oil to use in making food, in cooking. Does that make a shortage of it? We'll talk about that. And, you know, plastic isn't the only material under the microscope.

Design & Source Productions is packaging - is a packaging design and production company that offers plastics made from corn, and paper made without wood but from the earth. We'll talk about this product that looks like paper, feels like paper, but it's made out of stuff that comes out of the earth.

And meanwhile, like San Francisco, European countries are already using sustainable packaging. What can we learn from their experiences? Let's see what we can find out this hour. And maybe you have some suggestions of your own. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. 1-800-989-TALK.

My first guest today can tell us about what's happening with green packaging in Europe and what the U.S. can learn from that. Jane Bickerstaffe is director of Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment, known as INCPEN. Ms. Bickerstaffe is trained as a biochemist and spent many years of experience working with industry and politicians on environmental issues. And she joins us today from BBC Radio Berkshire in Reading, England. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Ms. JANE BICKERSTAFFE (Director, INCPEN): Hello, Ira. Thanks for inviting me.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Nicole Smith is an architect and environmental director of Design & Source Productions here. Design & Source Productions is in New York City and they make sustainable packaging materials. Ms. Smith joins us today, right here on NPR New York Bureau. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Ms. NICOLE SMITH (Architect and Environmental Director, Design & Source Productions): Thanks, Ira. Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: You're welcome. My third guest is a biochemist Suresh Narine, and he's associate professor in the Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutritional Science at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, that's in Canada, where he's also director of the Alberta Lipid Utilization Program. Dr. Narine joins us today by phone from Toronto. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. SURESH NARINE (Director, Alberta Lipid Utilization Program): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Let me ask you, Jane, first. Are bans on plastic grocery bags and water bottles - bottles like the one the mayor of San Francisco decreed - is that a good idea?

Ms. BICKERSTAFFE: Well, I think it's too simplistic an approach, because when you introduced to the beginning, you were saying - you were talking about litter, you were talking about use of resources. I think what needs to happen with all these things is you need to define what is the problem and what are we trying to solve, because there are different solutions in different areas.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Well - so you look across the pond at us - are there any lessons we can learn from what you folks are doing over there?

Ms. BICKERSTAFFE: Yeah, I think so. What we've realized is that there isn't green packaging or sustainable packaging per se. What you've got to do is look at what you're trying to achieve. You're trying to get goods from the point of production to where you use them, and do that with a minimum use of materials and energy.

The point of using the packaging is to enable that process to take place. And the best way of making that more sustainable is to tailor the packaging to the product. So, you know, people say, well, paper degrades - glass doesn't. Does that mean paper is better than glass? It doesn't, necessary. Paper can't pack liquids, whereas glass can. You've got to look at it in the context of the supply chain and of the product, because if - some of these new packaging developments are very interesting, but are they extending the shelf life of the product? What are they offering in terms of the job they're trying to do, protecting products?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Nicole Smith, what was your reaction to the mayor of San Francisco's ban?

Ms. SMITH: I actually don't see it as that big of a problem. I mean, he's only banning it inside government buildings. I think this is sort of the largest misconception about the ban is they thought, oh, no one in the city is going to be able to buy a bottled water. I can only buy a Coke when I'm out. That's not really the situation. He's just saying, I'm not going to fit the bill anymore for every employee of the city to drink bottled water. You're going to have to drink out of the tap. Is that such a bad thing? I don't think so. I definitely do agree with Jane. There's materials for everything, and you sort of have to look at the pros and cons for each situation.

FLATOW: Let's talk about some of the materials. You're making some of the new materials that you've brought with us, and we're making a video - let's see if we're able to watch in on our Web site. Particularly interested in this product called terra skin, it's called a tree-free paper. It feels like paper, but there's no wood or wood pulp in it.

Ms. SMITH: No wood. It's actually made from calcium carbonate. So we say it's made from stone, because you're basically deriving it out of marble or some sort of limestone. And, you know, you get the same durability. Actually, you get a better durability. You get a waterproof paper.

FLATOW: So there must be some plastic or something in it?

Ms. SMITH: There is. There's about 20 percent polyethylene, and that sort of binds the calcium carbonate together. And it really makes for an excellent alternative. We don't see this going into every copying machine and every, you know, Kinkos. It's really just for specific uses, sort of like as - I'm going to reference Jane again, she made a very good point. We think you really have to think about what your packaging, and make the package suit the product because not everything needs a shelf life of 20 years.

FLATOW: Right. Jane, let's talk about some of the instances of what happen when people were banning and disallowing things, or what can happen if we don't really think broadly. You have a story about Ireland being the first country to ban plastic grocery bags, and things sort of backfired there, right?

Ms. BICKERSTAFFE: Well, they put a levy on the thin plastic carrier bags, yes. And that was - most supermarkets pulled back from them and either replaced them with paper bags or with what we call bags for life, which are much thicker gauged, reusable carriers. And then, what they realized was one particular store, actually, was needing three times more lorries on the road to deliver those heavier, thicker bags. So when you've - it may have stopped plastics things down one route, but you're actually increasing environmental impact by more transport pollution. And the customs and excise statistics showed that there was more plastics being imported into Ireland after the ban because people used to use the thin bags to line their rubbish bins. They didn't have those, so they had to buy tailor-made bin-liners, which again are much thicker plastic.

FLATOW: Oh, boy. And no one thought that through?

Ms. BICKERSTAFFE: No. But that's so true of environmental things. You poke it one place, it doesn't pops up somewhere else. We're very concerned that some of these ideas - I mean, it makes absolute sense that if you've got good tap water, you don't need bottled water when you're at home or in a restaurant. But if you're walking out on the streets and you want to drink, then you do need it. So I'm interested to hear that's its not a total ban in San Francisco.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let me bring on Dr. Narine to talk about his product. You say that you can now make plastics out of canola oil.

Dr. NARINE: That's correct.

FLATOW: Tell us how you do that.

Dr. NARINE: But I would like to comment…

FLATOW: Yes, please.

Dr. NARINE: …on the issue that's being discussed as well. I think it's absolutely great that the mayor decided to do something about it because you're having a show around it. I think that for too long in North America, we have ignored the environmental issues. I agree with Jane that we have to look at the system's view. But oftentimes, the political mileage or the political will to address environmental issues simply isn't there.

I think that when we see that political will being expressed, we have to encourage it, perhaps educated it a little bit. But we do have to encourage it. So I think it's a good thing even if it has to be modified at some point, you know, by cooler heads or perhaps by a more systematic view of things. But I really do believe that it must be encouraged and seen as a development forward.

Europe has had the political will for a very long time, of course. In terms of the packaging that we're making, there're a number of drivers for it, not just environmental. A lot of debate, of course, surrounds the whole issue of increasing prices of fossil fuels and the potential end of fossil fuels. And of course, many of the plastics that - 99 percent, actually, of the plastics that we utilize today derive originally from a petroleum source. And so as we see a rise in prices from petroleum-derived products, we're also seeing a drive to find alternative sources of those products.

If, of course, we can make those products as functional and price competitive as current products being offered, then we have an advantage. We might see some commercialization. And, of course, if we can make them a little bit more environmentally benign, we might also have a selling point. So it's not entirely just an environmental push to look at alternative ways of creating materials, although, of course, it helps if these products can be environmentally benign.

FLATOW: Well, Dr. Narine, tell us about how you make plastics out of canola oil.

Dr. NARINE: Well, canola oil, like soy and flax, which are the major North American oils, are fairly plain oils. They're very unsaturated and so they're very good for you if you were to ingest them. So canola oil is a healthy oil. What we have is a situation in Western Canada where the historical amount of acreage that was under cultivation for canola had been at about a 12-year low when we started this research. And this was mainly because oils like canola and soy, which are grown in North America, are under severe threat from oils that are grown elsewhere, mainly because of the challenges we face, these climatic conditions.

So the world supply situation had ended up pushing down the prices of edible oils so badly that farmers were growing other things. So we have part of a broader look at how to utilize better edible oils and make them more expensive within our center, the Alberta Lipid Utilization Program.

FLATOW: So you don't think that - like critics talk about, using corn to make ethanol that's it's going to drive the price up of corn for people whom, you know, use it as food. You don't think the same thing could happen with canola oil.

Dr. NARINE: We're going to invoke Jane here again. We have to look at a system's view. Using corn to make ethanol is an extremely myopic thing to do. It's fueled mostly - it's like - I can probably try to be as politically incorrect here - but it's fueled by a lobby. It's really not fueled by what makes sense. The amount of energy that comes out of the ethanol from corn versus the amount of energy that has to go in, it's almost a 1 to 1.5 ratio, so it doesn't make any sense. It's being done within a very close system.

And, of course, the price of food goes up as a result of a greater demand for corn for making ethanol. It's a very stupid thing to do actually. However, if we're to look at the amount of biomass that is in the earth right now and the amount that we utilize for food and energy, we utilize about seven to eight percent. So I don't think that unless we start to modify a resource or uses a resource, that becomes - that starts to have inflationary pressures that we have to worry too much about it. In the case of canola oil, because we have so much acreage that is unused at this point, it is actually a good thing.

The market, of course, regulates it in the absence of a lobby. So, for instance, if the demand on canola oil for, say, plastics - if we were to commercialize our research, gets so high - then the price would become one that it doesn't sustain the business, that we can be able to compete.

FLATOW: Let me take a break. I have to remind everybody that I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Talking about alternative packaging this hour. And our number 1-800-989-8255.

Jane, do you agree that there's little danger here of the price of canola oil going up?

Ms. BICKERSTAFFE: I think that area has to be looked up, but I'd love to comment Suresh's first point, that it's good that politicians are taking the environment seriously now. And citizens are really aware of it. But I think we have to watch - and we've learned this in Europe - that they find big areas of environmental impact difficult to tackle; packaging, they see, as an easy target.

And, I mean, we did some research looking at the average household's energy use for everything. Eighty-one percent of it is in the products and food that they buy, the central heating and hot water in their homes and their private transport. Packaging is just three percent of the energy. So I think the chairman of Earth Day in the states had it right a couple of years ago when he said people have to get a sense of perspective. They drive their SUVs to the grocery store and then stand there agonizing over whether to choose paper or plastic. It's actually a tiny, tiny impact.

FLATOW: But we see it everywhere. I mean, it could serve as a, you know, as a reminder, could it not? That you're actually working and doing something, or that you want to?

Ms. BICKERSTAFFE: Yes, I mean, but restricting packaging, you've got to watch that you don't have the unintended side effects.

Ms. SMITH: I would like to input on that. I completely agree, and I was at the - there's actually a coalition here. We're sort of based in the U.S. but it's a global initiative of Sustainable Packaging Coalition. And we actually had our last meeting in Europe because we thought to ourselves, well, the Europeans are just so far ahead. We need to understand what they're doing. And surprisingly, you sort of get the feeling that they've been so regulated that maybe what they're having to use now, what the government decided was the best solution isn't always the best solution. And I think the U.S., we particularly have a great opportunity here to jump ahead of the government before they regulate us and do something great. And it's sort of being pushed by a large - a lot of large corporations who were saying we want to do the right thing, how do we do it?

FLATOW: They view it as a good - as a real market…

Ms. SMITH: Oh, definitely.

FLATOW: …alternative packaging, green packaging.

Ms. SMITH: Definitely, yeah.

Dr. NARINE: I do believe that political mileage can be harnessed, though. I think that if the concerns are there, that we simply need to harness it. And if we're seeing runaway policies - certainly, I believe that if a politician is willing to take a step forward, I'd imagine it'd be more apt to listen to arguments, because the thoughts are in the right direction, aren't they?

Ms. SMITH: They are, but you often see - and I just see it with corporations that they choose to make a stop in the right direction and either an NGO or somebody else jumps down their throat because they didn't like the decision they made. And I can see that happening even harder for a politician to have to eat his words and say I made the wrong decision after selling it to somebody else, you know. You really have to really stand up and say, this is absolutely the best decision. It'll be in place forever. And I think that sort of that hard part of taking this into regulation. Once you make that step, you sort of get stuck.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a short break. Come back and go to the phones, take your calls on packaging, your pros and cons, what are your feelings about it. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

We're talking this hour about green packaging. My guests are Nicole Smith, architect and environmental director of Design & Source Productions in New York City; Suresh Narine, who is director of the Alberta Lipid Utilization Program at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada; and Jane Bickerstaffe, director of the Industrial Council for Packaging and the Environment in Reading, England.

Our number 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phone. Let's go to Nora in Minneapolis. Hi, Nora.

NORA (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

NORA: I'm calling - I have a small company in Minneapolis and we make banners and flags and table covers and we work mostly business to business. But since 2001, we've been printing on a fabric made out of a hundred percent recycled soda bottles. And we print with water-based inks, so we're taking some of, I think, you know, a lot of the landfills and upcycling and making it into a better product. Since we've been doing this, it's been really hard to get any businesses' attention except last year, we convinced a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to make all of their banners and graphics and table covers at the Minnesota Eco Experience at the state fair last summer, and I - almost all of them were made out of this eco-fab, the recycled soda bottles.

FLATOW: Let me ask Nicole Smith, your reaction to that.

Ms. SMITH: Well, we actually work with the similar material, but ours is sort of multi-purposeful - we can do clothing, we can do bags, we can - it really mimics any polyester you really work with and I think it's fantastic. And I think it brings up a good point when you see some of these bans that - sort of what Jane was touching on - you're going to see other things pay consequences. And, you know, the bottles can be reused. They are what William McDonough would say a technical nutrient. And you can see these materials get recycled infinitely if we have the infrastructure.

FLATOW: They make fleece, the fleece…

Ms. SMITH: Yeah. Fleece Patagonia house jacket out of it. There's a lot of companies that are looking into this material right now, and I think you're going to see more demand for this.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling.

NORA: Sure.

FLATOW: Our number 1-800-989-8255.

You have, Nicole, brought with you some toys, some props. You have a Chameleon Packaging.

Ms. SMITH: That's just the name of our environmental division. And what you're actually holding is a PLA box.


Ms. SMITH: PLA. Polylactic acid made by NatureWorks and it's a…

FLATOW: From corn.

Ms. SMITH: …corn-based plastic. So I'm assuming, Dr. Narine, this is very similar to what you're making with the canola oil. Is it similar together?

Dr. NARINE: The technology is quite different…

Ms. SMITH: Okay.

Dr. NARINE: …but similar results, yes.

Ms. SMITH: Okay.

FLATOW: What ever happened to biodegradable plastics years ago?

Ms. SMITH: That would be it.

FLATOW: This would be it.

Ms. SMITH: Yeah.

FLATOW: They were going to make all these garbage bags and trash bags out of them.

Ms. SMITH: We also have bags.

FLATOW: You don't see very many of them advertised in the store.

Ms. SMITH: Yeah, because you typically see a slightly higher price point.

FLATOW: Still, price is still everything?

Ms. SMITH: It is. You know, I think some of these companies that really are trying to make a change in packaging are starting to budget it in. But until you can make it really price competitive, it's going to be a hard sell for any corporation because in the end, it's the consumer choosing, well, do I pay an extra x amount for this product or do I buy the environmentally friend one?

FLATOW: Jane, do you find that to be true also, that the price is going to always be the point here.

Ms. BICKERSTAFFE: It's the price and the barrier properties. I mean, the clever thing about the traditional plastics is that by using tiny layers of different ones, you can actually vary whether you have a gas barrier or water permeable barrier. The biodegradable polymers at the moment aren't that clever, but they're getting better all the time, and there's so much innovation in this area that I'm sure we will see breakthroughs on it.

But we still feel very strongly from the experience of these new materials is that no material has a monopoly of environmental virtues - some degrade, some are recyclable, some have environmental properties that allow you to reduce lorries and stack things higher in warehouses. And we need a more holistic approach to it, not sort of the single issue saying this is good because of x, y, z. It may not be as back to where I started, really. If it works well, then - and stops the product going to waste because product damage, you know, 10 times more resources than the products and that should be a real driver for what packaging we choose.

FLATOW: Well, how do you create a holistic approach? What do you - I've heard you say this a couple of times, but what does that translate into?

Ms. BICKERSTAFFE: Well, it translates into stepping back and saying, okay, you're going to make a product here and you have to get it to the consumer there. Now, how do I choose a minimum amount of material so that I fabricate it with a minimum amount of energy, and it protects the product? So you don't get product wastage. And then you look at the next stage in the chain and say, now, I've got find a way of putting it into a lorry to take it somewhere safe.

So you've got to design from the lorry backwards. You design the transport packaging and you design the grouping packaging, and then the individual packaging around it. Because the consumers don't know about the supply chain, they don't realize that everything goes through there. And there were so many tradeoffs in that area that if you take this approach, you will come up with the right solutions.

I mean, I'll give you one example of - sometimes, it's sensible to increase the packaging, not reduce it, even though the politicians think they just want to reduce. One of our members is packaging televisions and decided that instead of using forklift trucks to lift them in the warehouse, he's going to use clamp trucks.

And by doing that, he could get away with one - remove one complete layer of transport packaging. But, the boxes themselves where the televisions are actually came under so much extra pressure that they had to be increased. But he could stack them twice as high, which reduced the warehousing space, which has land use implications. I mean, it - I'm making it round a bit too complicated. It isn't complicated, but there are checklists sort of being developed. The companies…

FLATOW: Well, but what you're saying is that sometimes, the extra energy we put into doing any thing in trying to change may offset the change itself from the use of fossil fuels or…


FLATOW: …for pollution. And you have to really factor all of these things and…



Ms. BICKERSTAFFE: And climate change is a big, big driver and that's what's…


Ms. BICKERSTAFFE: …put everything on the map. So we tend, with packaging - to equate packaging with waste and then you look at the waste issues.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number.

Professor Narine, how much more expensive were the plastic from canola oil be then? How competitive would it be and how far have you gotten into actually putting it into the stream of plastics?

Dr. NARINE: We're at the lab, at the final stage, Ira. And as far as we can tell because of the processes developed we should be competitive with something like polyethylene mainly because they also generate a number of very high-priced petrochemical byproducts - petrochemical replacements. I do agree that there are issues of not only price but functionality as well. And generally speaking, of course, you don't want your garbage bag to fall apart at the curb with - then leave all of your garbage at the curb as well. So functionality plays a large role.

Another issue I want to put on the table that plays a large role is many of the capitalization for making packaging already exists. And so companies are very leery of using a product that would require then to retool their entire factory. And so another issue that has really been a barrier to technology, to new technology moving into the mainstream is that companies would have to retool in order to produce the materials from them.

So that becomes another very important fulcrum around which technology is much - new technologies must consider if they're going to get it - get out into the mainstream.

The system's view, I don't that we argue with that, Jane. I think it's absolutely essential if we were to get anywhere with these issues. But sometimes, the road towards commercialization with the technology - some things must be answered first. And at the very basic level, what we are grappling with is price, functionality and requirements to recapitalize.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Nick(ph) in Green Bay. Hi and welcome, Nick.

NICK (Caller): Hi. I sort of have a question for you. Hypothetically, I go and buy video game for my computer. Why do I need all those cardboards and stuff? Why can't they just package it in a nice, full neat package and save all that stuff for something else? I mean, I'm buying something the size of, like, you know, maybe an inch. And I get a package that's like, you know, a six inches long and three inches wide, why not just, you know, package it to what it and be done with it?

FLATOW: That was - that's the first R, I think, of all the recycling - reduce, right?

Ms. SMITH: Reduce. But, you know, they don't want you walking out with that in your pocket.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SMITH: That's the biggest concern on that that size issue.

FLATOW: Now - and this is the holistic way of thinking about it.

Ms. SMITH: Yeah.

FLATOW: Let me bring an example in. This is a very good point. We could say - I could say to you, while having a little discussion about this, I could say, well, why don't they put one of those RFID chips, that tiny, little chip and embed it in the package so then - you know when you're leaving the store then you could go back and say, well, because the amount of energy it takes to make that chip may be more than the amount of energy in what the good that you're doing by eliminating the packaging. And so that calculation has to be to be made. Does it not, Jane, that kind of calculation?

Ms. BICKERSTAFFE: It - but I do sympathize with the guy who phoned in. Excessive packaging is just so irritating.

Ms. SMITH: Yeah.

Ms. BICKERSTAFFE: And we do buy things every day and we think, oh my god, why does it have to be like this? So I think there's an issue for the complete supply chain to actually explain why packaging needs to be there. But at the moment in the U.K., there's a huge interest, there's a television program going on at the moment about excessive packaging.

And you say, well, where is all these excessive packaging. It's not actually on your regular, weekly groceries - you know, your butter, your sugar and bacon. That's packaged pretty minimally. It's actually things like kids' toys, electronic stuff, which is usually coming in from the far east designed for global market and nobody seems to be trying to influence that. I mean, we're discussing it with the U.K. government. There has to be some way that we all, around the world, get together to get rid of these excessive areas because they're small, it's not a great deal of material, but it's so irritating to the public that we could do without it being out there.

FLATOW: You brought along with you today, Nicole, a whole bunch of chameleon packaging, the trademark of different - are these all recyclable or new kinds of packages or…

Ms. SMITH: They're all different. Some are recycled materials. Some are biodegradables. They all sort of have different stories and different applications because, like we are saying before, there's - unfortunately, there's no perfect solution right now. So you sort of have to look away your packaging and sort of say, all right, well, you know, what's the goal of the brand, what's the goal of the product, what can we do.

FLATOW: You have, for example, something called falcata, a hundred percent rapidly renewable falcata tree grows in four to five years.

Ms. SMITH: Yeah, I actually, unfortunately, don't have a sample of that with me, but that actually looks very much like a wood. It, technically, is a wood.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. SMITH: And it grows in a four-to-five year lifespan, similar to bamboo, and you get some of the same aspects and looks and feel as a wood but you're using a much more rapidly renewable material.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking about packaging this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

You have another product line called Double P, one hundred percent post-consumer recycled - your recycle soda and water bottles.

Ms. SMITH: Yup, so it's like the product we talked about before, and I actually bought a little sample that, unfortunately, your listeners can't see but it actually shows how we actually chip up the soda and water bottles. I actually visit the facilities. These are coming out of Asia, and I actually got to see where they're recycling them, how they're sorting them. They get shredded down into fiber and…

FLATOW: And you've got swatches of this.

Ms. SMITH: Yeah, and made into all different kinds of fabrics and, you know, you've got the same versatility as regular materials but you're actually using a post-consumer recycled content. So, you know, it's like that magic thing where you say what happens to that water bottle when I throw it in my recycling bin. We can actually make this kind of thing with it.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we can get a phone call or two before we go. Let's go to Donovan(ph) in St. Louis. Hi, Donovan.

DONOVAN (Caller): Hi, Ira. Thank you very much for taking my call. I'm an environmental engineer in St. Louis and I work in the water industry, and I just wanted to swing the conversation a little bit toward the bottled water business.

I wanted to comment something that's occurred to me for years, since I've seen bottled water products increased. Of course, it's promoted as being sometimes more healthful and more tasteful, but the reason that cities like San Francisco and New York City are making the effort to keep water bottles at a minimum use is because the public has to keep to belief in equality of the public water supply to keep the water supply at a quality that it is.

In other words, the public has to want to invest in it for it to remake it to high quality that it is. Here in St. Louis, the cholera epidemics of the early 1900 stopped as soon as the public water supply was created. When people started thinking that bottled water is a place where clean water is available and the only place where clean water is available, people's trust in the public water supply will start to diminish and the support of it will start to diminish.

FLATOW: That's very good point. I don't think very many of us thought about that but obviously down in city hall, we have.

DONOVAN: Yeah. The importance of public trust is a big deal. And in the water business that all people use of tap water for is to wash clothes and to wash their hands. The interest in keeping it clean and meeting the requirements, the - becomes less important to the public. Actually, you know, public water has to meet EPA standards that are higher than the bottled water standards that are set by FDA.

FLATOW: You know, and speaking of New York, I remember many years reading, you know, taste test of New York City tap water. They didn't actually test the water. They would be testing bottled water and they'd sneaked in a New York City tap water cup of water ,and would beat out the bottle of water.

DONOVAN: Well, if anyone…

FLATOW: All of that…

DONOVAN: …knew much about the water system in New York City, they'd be amazed in how good it is. It's an amazingly high-quality system, and the same is true for San Francisco. These water systems are designed, you know, they - in those two cases, they use mountain reservoirs to bring the water in and the water quality is extremely high.

There's a great difference water that people think isn't good for them because they can taste it. It might have minerals. It might have sulfur. Those are common in well supplies versus water that is actually not healthy, and there's not a public water supply in United States that's not healthy.

FLATOW: All right. That - go ahead.

DONOVAN: And I was going to say also in China, you know, just a few days ago, we found out that a lot of the bottled water supply in China is actually less healthy than their tap water. I was recently in China and was surprised that I kept hearing that we shouldn't drink the tap water. And for my money, the tap water was perfectly clean.

Ms. SMITH: You didn't drink it? Because I go to China quite often and it's fine if you're living in that scenario but, you know, you don't want to be drinking it from…

FLATOW: We've run out of time. Thank you all for taking time to be with us.

Suresh Narine is associate professor in the Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutritional Science and director of the Alberta Lipid Utilization Program at the University of Alberta in Edmonton; Jane Bickerstaffe is director of the Industry Council for Packaging & the Environment in Reading, England; and Nicole Smith is architect and environmental director of Design & Source Productions here in New York. Thank you all for taking your time to be with us today.

Ms. SMITH: Thank you.

Ms. BICKERSTAFFE: Thank you.

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