1 March 2010


At the risk of redundancy in having two regular features that utilize the word “happy” in their title, I hereby announce the start of another regular feature in which “happy” is a word in the title.

In the great editorial tradition of such esteemed publications as TV Guide and PETA’s Animal Times with “Cheers and Jeers” columns, I thought I’d make some layman’s observations on various companies’ positive and negative contributions to more sustainable products and packaging under the taxonomic classifications “happy” and “crappy”. Granted, PETA almost always seems to give “cheers” to Pamela Anderson’s wearing of bras made out of lettuce and cabbage, and I although unable to compete with that journalistically, I’ll just do what I can.

I say a “layman’s” view because I’m not a packaging or product designer, or a material scientist or chemist (despite many in my family tree). This is just what I see, as a consumer and observer, as seemingly good and bad stuff going on in the world of things on offer. I don’t know how to do Life Cycle Analysis. I’m not, necessarily going to talk about purposefully, consciously green products (check out Inhabitat for that, it’s an awesome site) but just regular old stuff I see for sale or happen to come by one way or another.

OK, enough introduction.

Happy: Refillable Sharpies

Plastic pens drive me crazy. I love them, horribly, painfully, indefatigably, but I know they are wrong. I know I should be using my lovely heirloom fountain pen (which sips ink from glass bottles ever so daintily) all the time, and perhaps pencils and should stop buying any sort of non-refillable, non-recyclable, filled-with-god-knows-what-chemicals writing implements. I’m working on it. I put a moratorium on the number of such offending tools I’m allowed to have at one time (I get to fill the 4 jars on my drafting table and the 1 glass on my desk. When they’re full, that’s it). It’s hard for an artsy-fartsy/designer type person like myself. I was raised to love the fruits of the art and office supply stores. (My gentleman friend has been making his way through a 20-pack of Bics for the past 5 years or so… he still has lots left. He doesn’t own paperclips either, and is good at sitting still).

Certain pens, though, one needs. Or at least one thinks one does. So imagine how pleased I was to see, at the office supply store, (where I wasn’t buying anything, I swear) a refillable, stainless steel Sharpie marker! A return to refillable pens is certainly a positive step towards designing things we need with a systems mentality.

Now, that said, it doesn’t seem like Sanford (the manufacturer) is necessarily taking the refills back for reuse, recycling or anything else — and that’s not very systems-thinking at all. Indeed, their web marketing centers on the “luxury” quality of the pen, not any sustainability benefits. While a Material Safety Data Sheet is available for the product, it’s quite vague. It basically says you can huff Sharpies or write on your skin and eyes under “normal conditions”. And the ink is non-toxic. Doesn’t mean too much.

So this product is a “happy” in that it’s a baby step. Sharpies are popular and, dare I say, even seem trendy of late (since they started innovating in the product line so aggressively over the past few years), so it’s good to see them, perhaps, leading the way with a non-disposable product. Keep pushing that envelope! (Can a pen push an envelope?)

Crappy: Dixie Grab’N GO Cups

Also at the office supply store, and featured in a TV commercial that I happened to catch only to be shocked by its environmental callousness, are these disposable cups from Dixie. I’m not sure how new this product is, but the ad framed it as a clever new invention. It’s shocking a company would bring something like this out at this time (but I guess people still want it, and I guess Georgia Pacific, Dixie’s parent company has to do something with all those trees they cut down.(I’m not going to read their whole Sustainability Report and try to figure out whether they’re being cool or not… I don’t have the knowledge to really determine it fairly. You can read it if you want, though.) (And, full disclosure, I have used papers they manufactured for design projects in the past.)

At Staples, you can get 50 of these cups and 50 lids for $20. They’re touted (twice, in the 5 product benefit bullet points) as being a great alternative to “costly” double cups. Wait… a disposable paper cup is great alternative to two disposable paper cups? Well, I guess…

Bur really, in this day and age? Paper cups and plastic lids meant to last the duration of the morning commute, at best? Not cool.

Reusable hot beverage vessels are not that difficult to come by, deal with or know about. Their benefits are easy to understand. They can save not just 2 cups, or 1 cup, or 50 x 2 cups, but all the cups. You can even put a lid on a reusable hot beverage vessel.

Really. Why bring out this product now? Why encourage this behavior? The French would be appalled. (Well, actually, I believe most of the rest of the world is fairly flabbergasted at North American’s need to drink hot beverages while mobile… but I have to admit I like to make sure I have a coffee with me when entering potentially coffee-less environments, such as long meetings… especially as a non-milk-drinker, it is best to come equipped with your own pre-soy-milk-infused concoction).

Since I’ve bothered to go to the Dixie website to see what I can find out about this product, I would like to add, what’s with this web copy?

These are no ordinary cups. Just like you, Dixie cups work double-duty. They’re easy drinkware, for everything from tea for two to galas for gazillions. And they’re hygiene heroes, teaching kids the importance of rinsing with their own cup. And not just any cup. A Dixie cup.

That’s it…

Though a normal sort of “Cheers and Jeers” column would have 3 or so of each, I talk way too much. It would just get silly long. More for next time!

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