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Open letter to 3M

I was doing dishes tonight and I needed a sponge. So I dug around in the kitchen and found a pack of 3M sponges I'd bought a few months back. Sponges are one of those things that's ubiquitous in every modern kitchen. Most people don't spend more than a few minutes a year thinking about sponges. Normally, I don't either, but I hadn't opened a new sponge since before my February 6 entry (and for those of you who are wondering, YES we've replaced our sponges since February, but my wife has done it the last few times) about reducing plastic. I was dismayed to see that each sponge was individually wrapped inside the larger package. For one, I was annoyed to have to open yet another layer with wet hands, and second: what the hell is the point? The outer packaging contains all the pertinent info but it's certainly not full and could take the additional info that the individual wrappers have.

I thought about where the wrapper would go once I threw it in the trash. In an ideal world, I could compost it and use it to feed my garden, but we are living in a far-from-ideal world. More than likely, it will go to the Marin Sanitary (who thought THAT would be a good word to add to a DUMP?) Landfill, but if I'm very unlucky, it'll end up in the "Eastern Garbage Patch" out in the north pacific gyre. At that point, it'll likely be ingested by a fish or other animal and cause death and mayhem for that creature. Lovely. Either way, plastic wrap that can't be reused / recycled is just plain stupid. SO.. I decided to start taking a stand, one product at a time. Many folks might argue against buying this kind of packaging in the first place, and that's ok too, but it's far more pro-active to ask for changes from companies that are going to continue on with the status quo unless the market demands that they change. I started by writing to 3M: here's the text of my email.

Several months ago I purchased a 15 pack of Scotch-Brite Multi Purpose NO SCRATCH Scrub Sponges (Item 15550). I believe I purchased them from Costco in Novato, CA. I am writing to implore the marketing and management branches of 3M to reconsider their packaging for this item, and other items like it. The amount of packaging in this product is excessive, as each sponge is individually wrapped INSIDE the larger wrapper. That extra plastic goes immediately into the trash and is a waste of precious global resources and landfill space. It is also NOT biodegradeable (there are NO petroleum based plastics that are) and it increases the cost of the product AND it's impact on the planet. Please consider reducing your packaging to minimalist levels and ALSO using a corn/soy based biodegradable plastic or better yet, recycled paper for your packaging needs. The global biosphere and your customers will thank you for being caring about their pocketbooks AND the future of the planet. Please let me know how and if 3M has any plans to implement greener packaging policies: it greatly affects the probability of me buying your products in the future. It's imperative for me to use sustainable products ,and companies that can't "get with the program" will lose my business to companies that can.

I look forward to your reply.

A copy of this email will be posted to my blog ( as well as any reply you choose to send.

I think it's a good thing to ask for a reply and some sort of accountability when you write a letter like this. I hope they follow through in replying and I REALLY hope they make some changes.

A couple of excerpts from the article I linked to in my Feb 6th entry:

This news is depressing enough to make a person reach for the bottle. Glass, at least, is easily recyclable. You can take one tequila bottle, melt it down, and make another tequila bottle. With plastic, recycling is more complicated. Unfortunately, that promising-looking triangle of arrows that appears on products doesn’t always signify endless reuse; it merely identifies which type of plastic the item is made from. And of the seven different plastics in common use, only two of them—PET (labeled with #1 inside the triangle and used in soda bottles) and HDPE (labeled with #2 inside the triangle and used in milk jugs)—have much of an aftermarket. So no matter how virtuously you toss your chip bags and shampoo bottles into your blue bin, few of them will escape the landfill—only 3 to 5 percent of plastics are recycled in any way.

“There’s no legal way to recycle a milk container into another milk container without adding a new virgin layer of plastic,” Moore says, pointing out that, because plastic melts at low temperatures, it retains pollutants and the tainted residue of its former contents. Turn up the heat to sear these off, and some plastics release deadly vapors. So the reclaimed stuff is mostly used to make entirely different products, things that don’t go anywhere near our mouths, such as fleece jackets and carpeting. Therefore, unlike recycling glass, metal, or paper, recycling plastic doesn’t always result in less use of virgin material. It also doesn’t help that fresh-made plastic is far cheaper.


Except for the small amount that’s been incinerated—and it’s a very small amount—every bit of plastic ever made still exists,” Moore says, describing how the material’s molecular structure resists biodegradation. Instead, plastic crumbles into ever-tinier fragments as it’s exposed to sunlight and the elements. And none of these untold gazillions of fragments is disappearing anytime soon: Even when plastic is broken down to a single molecule, it remains too tough for biodegradation.
Truth is, no one knows how long it will take for plastic to biodegrade, or return to its carbon and hydrogen elements. We only invented the stuff 144 years ago, and science’s best guess is that its natural disappearance will take several more centuries. Meanwhile, every year, we churn out about 60 billion tons of it, much of which becomes disposable products meant only for a single use. Set aside the question of why we’re creating ketchup bottles and six-pack rings that last for half a millennium, and consider the implications of it: Plastic never really goes away.
"Our Oceans are turning into plastic... are we?" by Susan Casey

----------UPDATE: 5.19.2008----------

So I got an email back from 3M. I was not surprised to see that is says NOTHING of significance and generally implies that it wasn't read by a human. I will continue to post any feedback I receive from 3M, but I'm not getting my hopes up. Here's the text of the email:

Dear Ian,

Thank you for taking the time to share your comments/concerns with 3M. Feedback from our customers is an integral part of our business and we encourage it. Please know that we have forwarded your message to our marketing and lab departments.

We appreciate your input!


3M Home Care Division

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