Every day, in an industrial park in Owings Mills, workers violently shake bottles of Snuggle fabric softener, drop boxes of Wisk detergent until they burst, and generally make life miserable for a variety of Lever Brothers Co. products.
The aim is not industrial terrorism, but rather a multimillion-dollar effort by the giant household products maker to find better, cheaper and more environmentally sound ways of packaging its goods.
Lever Brothers' Packaging Development Center, which opened in January and was dedicated yesterday, is a 32,000-square-foot facility for the design and testing of new packages. Among its goals: finding ways to reduce the solid waste choking the nation's landfills and using more recycled or recyclable materials.
"Our mission is to develop innovative packaging, obviously in support of our business needs, but also to do it in a way that is environmentally responsible," said Arnold Brown, vice president-packaging for the New York-based Lever Brothers.
Nationwide, Americans produce about four pounds of solid waste per person every day, or about 180 million tons a year, most of which is dumped into landfills. Of this, about 40 percent is paper and paper products and 8 percent is plastic. Only about 13 percent of it is recycled.
Nancy Firestone, associate deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said attempts like those by Lever Brothers to reduce waste are growing more common and could eventually have a significant impact on the environment.
"We're beginning to see the evolution of consumers and industry coming together to try and solve the problem, and all steps anyone takes have to be applauded," Firestone said.
Even Greenpeace USA -- an environmental group that rarely supports big business -- said such efforts are a move in the right direction. However, a spokeswoman for the group, who was unaware of Lever Brothers initiatives, warned in general about "Greenwashing" by corporations seeking to improve their image.
Lever Brothers this year closed a packaging development center in Edgewater, N.J., and transferred the work to the Owings Mills Business Center industrial park, where it employs about 50, including 40 scientists and engineers.
Besides the testing systems, it has a computer-assisted design department where package concepts can be created on a multicolored computer screen that highlights weak and strong spots.
The facility conducts research for packaging goods made in all five of Lever Brothers' factories, including its plant in East Baltimore, where about 700 workers make a variety of soaps, detergents, and other products.
Lever Brothers, a maker of common household products sold here and abroad, is one of the world's biggest users of packaging. Savings in this material often contribute to profits as well as help the environment, Brown said.
"We're spending a lot of time and money to reduce the amount of packaging we use," Brown said.
For example, Lever Brothers is test-marketing a powdered laundry detergent that is so highly concentrated that it would require less packaging material. Also, it is testing in Europe a system already used by some competitors that offers refills for certain products the consumer can pour into reusable plastic bottles.
Also, the company is testing 1-gallon containers of Wisk liquid laundry detergent and Snuggle fabric softener designed to use only 25 percent of the plastic used in an all-plastic bottle. Each container consists of a plastic bag surrounded by recycled cardboard.
Last year, Lever Brothers stopped using pigments and inks containing heavy metals in its packages. This has meant less brilliant colors in some of its labels, but fewer toxics in the environment, Brown said. Some New England states are moving toward making this mandatory.
Maryland and many other states have outlawed detergents that contain phosphates, which they consider an environmental hazard. Lever Brothers believes phosphates to be "environmentally sound" and cost-effective, Brown said, and still sells detergents containing phosphates where their use is legal.
Designers are looking for ways to reduce the amount of plastic used in containers to the minimum necessary to maintain strength. The company has established a goal of using at least 25 to 35 percent recycled plastic in half its plastic bottles by next year. This would keep some 50 million bottles out of landfills.
Environmentalists are skeptical of recycling plastics, pointing out that the manufacturing of plastic creates toxic materials and is "inherently polluting." Also, most recycling plans call for re-using the plastic in so-called "lesser" products, such as park benches and marine piers, which does nothing to reduce the demand for more plastic.
"For the most part, plastic recycling is a sham," said Joe Thornton, a Greenpeace researcher. His formula for environmentally safer packaging: use as little packaging as possible, eliminate boxes inside boxes and small-batch containers, and use only glass and unbleached paper and cardboard that can or has been been recycled or reused.
Neil Seldman, president of the Washington-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said he was unaware of Lever Brothers' plans specifically, but said any effort to reduce the amount of plastics in use or to cut down on disposable packaging can only help.
"I think what they are doing is a step in the right direction, however, what they have to do is keep in touch with grass-roots recycling groups," Seldman said.