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Watershed Media

big quotation marks Pull the right thread and the whole world unravels its secrets. Dan Imhoff has found a terrific one in the packaging of industrial civilization, ever-present yet invisible, and, in his capable hands, endlessly fascinating.

— Michael Pollan  big quotations marks

Paper or Plastic front cover

Published in 2005
168 pages, 8.5" x 9"
100+ original photographs
Written by Daniel Imhoff
Foreword by Randy Hayes
US $16.95
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boys among plastic bottles"Boys Among Plastic Bottles,"
Republic of the Philippines
© J. Tanodra/UNEP/ Peter Arnold Inc.

Worldwide consumption of bottled water has undergone phenomenal growth since the 1970s. This massive shift toward bottled water requires ever-increasing numbers of plastic containers, heightens impacts related to long-distance transportation, and contributes to polluting the planet’s natural water sources.


reusable ceramic coffee cupBenefits of a Reusable Cup
© Robert Carra

Everyday more than 320 million hot and cold beverage cups are consumed in the United States alone. More than 75 percent are made from paper (i.e. forests) and most are disposable. A joint study prepared by the Alliance for Environment Innovation and Starbucks revealed remarkable environmental and economic benefits - between 85 and 99 percent of the energy, water use, air emissions, water pollution and solid waste as well as considerable money savings - by using reusable glass and ceramic rather than disposable paper or plastic cups.


Paper or Plastic — Overview

This deceptively simple supermarket choice echoed in the title symbolizes the dilemma of a society on a collision course with the planet’s life-support systems. Do we clear-cut forests, process pulp, and bleach it with chlorine to make paper bags? Or do we make a pact with demon hydrocarbon, refining ancient sunlight into handy plastics? About half the total volume of America’s municipal solid waste is packaged - at least 800 pounds per person each year - and the "upstream" costs in energy and resources used to make packaging are even more alarming.

In this fascinating look at the world of packaging, writer Daniel Imhoff and photographer/designer Robert Carra give consumers, product designers, and policy-makers the information we need to take steps toward a more sustainable future. They delve into the histories and life cycles of packaging materials and look at the countless ways that packaged goods shape our culture.

Using case studies, they explore the positive trends that are changing packaging, including producer responsibility and "take-back" laws being enacted in Europe; the eco-design movement; plant-based plastics; labeling to disclose the ecological and social impacts of products; and producing and consuming locally and in bulk versus the wasteful global exchange of single-serving containers.

Carra’s remarkable color photographs illustrate both the important functions of packaging and its many unintended consequences around the globe. Despite recent advances, the packaging problem keeps growing, Imhoff warns. Real solutions must incorporate new (or rediscovered) ways of producing, distributing, packaging, consuming, reusing, and reprocessing products and materials.

As consumers, there’s much we can do, and Paper or Plastic offers a checklist for consumer action, along with resources for information on products, programs, and policy options. It’s one book truly worth the recycled paper it’s printed on.


Overview  |  Abstract  |  Best Practices  |  Excerpts  |  Resources