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Made in China vs Made in USA: Which is Better for the Environment? Part 1

Feb 13, 2014 9:02:00 AM

Good Start Packaging is very conscious of the entire lifecycle environmental footprint of the products we sell. After all, just because a product is compostable doesn’t mean a lot of environmentally unsustainable things happened to produce and transport it to you.   

We don’t mean to pick on China specifically since the United States imports products from many countries.  But the fact is that many of the products Americans buy and even some of Good Start Packaging’s compostable food packaging is made in China.  That’s why many people are increasingly concerned about what this means for the economy and global environment. 

We get questions every week from concerned clients about where our coffee cups and other take-out containers are made.  We’re happy to be transparent about the answers to this because doing so enhances the discussion about what we can all do to improve the environment. 

In part one of this two part series, we’re going to disclose some of the tolls that even our own “green” products can have on the environment. 

The Road Heavily Traveled 

We recently ordered a typical distributor load of paper bags from our manufacturing partner in Oklahoma, the closest manufacturer we’ve found of post consumer recycled handle bags.    Always trying to reduce costs and our carbon footprint, we ordered our usual order of about 25,000 bags, which is about 9 pallets (for reference, a typical tractor trailer holds 26 pallets). 

What I’ve outlined below in terms of the path these bags took (via tracking I did online with the carrier) is illustrative of how reliant we all are on the trucking industry and just how much energy is used to get products from factories to store shelves in the United States. Whether you buy products from Walmart or a local store, they often have been on many trucks before they get to you. 

The Trip

How many trucks do you think are involved in shipping paper bags just half way across the country? 2? 4? Would you believe at least 8 tractor trailers and countless forklifts?    

  • Truck # 1 picked up our bags at the factory Tulsa, OK and delivered them to a local terminal (which offloaded them presumably by a fossil fuel burning forklift)
  • Truck # 2 took them to Oklahoma City
  • Truck # 3 took them to Fontana, CA
  • Truck # 4 took them to Los Angeles
  • Truck # 5 went from L.A. to Fresno
  • Truck # 6 traveled from Fresno all the way to Sacramento
  • Truck # 7 went from Sacramento to Oakland, CA
  • Truck # 8 went Oakland to our warehouse in Hayward, CA

All of this doesn’t count the trucks that took the raw paper stock to the factory in Oklahoma or Good Start’s trucks getting the bags from our warehouse to customer sites.  So really we’re talking at least 10 trucks to get bags from paper converter to end customers.  At an average of 5 miles per gallon for a truck that size, it took about 400 gallons of fuel to get the bags to our warehouse.  

The U.S. trucking industry is highly optimized so most likely all those trucks were fully loaded to maximize their efficiency. But check out this bullet truck to see how they can reduce their fuel consumption by 7.5 billion gallons a year! Imagine what that would do for air quality and to save us all money on the products we buy.

What about products made in Asia?

Some of our other products arrive at the port of Oakland, CA via container ship from China, Taiwan, and Korea.  A typical container ship can carry 5000-8000 containers the size of the trailer on an 18 wheeler truck for distances of 5000 miles or more. Typical consumption of fuel from Asia to the U.S. is about 600,000 gallons. That may seem like a lot but because its distributed among 5,000 tractor trailer size containers, each one is responsible for only about 120 gallons of that fuel and therefore a container can travel 42 miles on a ship per gallon of fuel, 8 times more efficient than the truck that transported our bags from Oklahoma. 

Of course there are a ton of variables that can impact the comparisons.  In addition, container ships burn the less refined bunker fuel, which emits many more of the sulfur dioxides that contribute to air pollution and human health problems.  Many people will point out human rights issues and other abuses as issues that continue to plague some countries. 

The point is, there is no “right” choice but we can provide transparency and work to improve our impact, socially, economically, and environmentally every day no matter where products are made. 

Now that we’ve got the facts, Check out part 2 of the series where we take a dive into what we are doing to improve.

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Ken Jacobus is CEO and founder of Good Start Packaging. He works with restaurants and other organizations around the U.S. to help them find the best sustainable alternatives to traditional plastic take out food containers. When not busy trying to eliminate landfills and plastic, he hikes, bikes, skis, reads, and plays with his family around his home in southern New Hampshire. 

Ken Jacobus

Written by Ken Jacobus

Ken Jacobus is CEO and founder of Good Start Packaging. He works with restaurants and other organizations around the U.S. to help them find the best sustainable alternatives to traditional plastic take out food containers. When not busy trying to eliminate landfills and plastic, he hikes, bikes, skis, reads, and plays with his family around his home in southern New Hampshire.

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