imageOne of the only surprises at this year’s iPod unveiling was that Apple CEO Steve Jobs took a few minutes to discuss the environmental progress of the iPod family, specifically calling out changes to the iPod nano and touch that showed the company’s commitment to greener, recycled products. Checklists were placed in slides and then on Apple’s web site, showing how the new iPods had eliminated certain types of environmentally unfriendly materials, and included others that were recyclable. These were feel good moments, brought on by pressure from groups such as Greenpeace, which had previously called out Apple for “iPoison and iWaste” in a highly publicized media campaign.

While the iPod devices were easy targets, Greenpeace specifically noted that it wasn’t targeting Apple for something else—packaging reduction—perhaps because Apple seemed to be on top of this issue a few years ago. iPod nano and shuffle boxes were some of the most impressively compact we’d ever seen for consumer electronics products, and managed to be distinctive even after dropping the origami-style cardboard packaging that made their predecessors so fun to unpack. Plus, if you ordered any iPod direct from Apple circa 2005 or 2006, you’d be shocked at the small, custom-made cardboard mailer it arrived in. The company wasn’t just shrinking its iPods and packages—it was shrinking the shipping boxes the packages came in, too.

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This year, despite whatever improvements the iPods themselves have made, Apple has gone backwards in shipping boxes. True, the new iPod nano packages were just as large as they needed to be to hold the taller, brightly colored devices inside. But when we ordered nine new iPods, this is how they arrived—all in the same delivery, at the same moment: in nine separate FedEx boxes. Each of the “FedEx Medium” boxes was large enough to hold all of the iPods we’d ordered.

 

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Normally, we’d write this off, but the mountain of cardboard and plastic around our offices continues to grow, and we’re now at the point where we have six separate recycling containers out every week just to deal with all the stuff that’s coming in. Adding nine separate FedEx boxes to that pile rather than one will probably push us to a seventh container this week. Multiply our experience times the millions of iPods Apple will be shipping this year and you’ll have some idea of just how much cardboard will be wasted if this keeps up.

From our standpoint, the best way to avoid recycling is to avoid wasting cardboard and other packing materials in the first place. Apple does a great job with the device boxes, but their shipping boxes—and the boxes used by its partners—aren’t quite as thoughtful. Last year, AT&T’s shipment of huge, boxed paper bills to iPhone users was considered wasteful (and frankly, moronic) enough that the company stopped line-itemizing and printing every piece of data from its cellular network to regurgitate to customers. This year, with fuel prices at all-time highs, reducing cardboard and paper waste from iPod, iPhone, and accessory packaging and repackaging should be a priority—it’ll save money on boxes and shipping, help the environment, and spare users the need to dispose of the dozens of unnecessary plastic bags, cardboard box inserts, and other parts that add no value to their purchases.

 

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For our part, we’ll continue to point out when companies do a good job—like Tunewear, with its new bag-like eco-packaging—of reducing packaging clutter. There’s no single standard of perfection in product packaging or shipping, but we definitely appreciate it when companies find smart ways to cut down on waste. Readers, what do you think?