FOR MANY years I owned a Smith-Corona portable typewriter. Ribbons cost under $2 and could be reused until the words on the paper were a dull gray. By banging hard, I could get up to 600 pages out of one ribbon. When I threw the ribbon away, I knew I had gotten my money's worth, and I saved most of the used spools for the kids to play with.
Then I got an SCM personal word processor. It was easier, quieter and faster. It beeped when I typed "queit" instead of "quiet." The only problem with the thing was that it didn't use ribbons. It used "multi-strike ribbon cartridges" that lasted about 200 pages. These were larger than audio cassettes and cost almost $8. You couldn't just replace the ribbon. You had to buy a whole new cartridge and throw the old one away.
Much as I enjoyed my new word processor, I hated throwing away all that unrecyclable plastic. I let used cartridges pile up on the mantle while I tried to figure out something to do with them. Finally, in desperation, I sent one back to the manufacturer with a note saying I thought the product was overpriced and created more trash than was necessary. It was an emotional act, and I didn't expect anything to come of it.
Ten days later, I got a computer-generated form letter full of platitudes about commitment to customer satisfaction . . . along with a new cartridge. A week later, I sent off another used cartridge and, once again, got a new one for free, with another letter about customer satisfaction.
So now, whenever I run into a useful product I feel is packaged wastefully, I send the packaging back to the manufacturer when I'm through with it. Pump toothpaste? The only way to go when you have small children, but why aren't the pumps reusable? I've sent several used Aqua-Fresh pumps back to Beecham Products with notes asking that question. Every time, Beecham sends me free products and a stack of coupons worth at least $5.
I'm making money at this. I've written dozens of letters to politicians, and I've never gotten so much as a ticket to a bull roast. But every time I write to a consumer products manufacturer, I get free products or coupons worth at least $2 or $3. But money isn't the main reason I write to companies instead of to government officials.
Governments don't care about us, and big companies don't care about governments. We can hold hundreds of rallies and pass petitions to all our neighbors. Maybe, after a lot of work, we can get some sort of bill introduced to outlaw unnecessary packaging. Even if, by some miracle, a waste reduction bill gets signed into law, corporate lawyers will hack away at it in court until it is meaningless. Direct action, on the other hand, has a fighting chance of success.
Imagine, for one second, that you're president of Beecham Products, the maker of Aqua-Fresh, and you read about 200,000 people going to an Earth Day rally. What do you do? Shake your head a few times and turn to the sports pages? Now imagine your reaction if, instead of going to an Earth Day rally, each one of those people sent you a used Aqua-Fresh toothpaste pump along with a note asking you to throw it away. What would you do? Probably call your packaging department and ask it to design a refillable pump.
The great thing about this protest is that anyone can do it, anywhere, at any time. You don't have to join anything, or go to meetings, or drive anywhere. You don't have to find a babysitter. All you need are stamps, envelopes and some paper. (You address envelopes during TV commercials.)
Will your voice count? Million-dollar ad campaigns have been pulled because small groups of religious fanatics didn't like a particular TV show. Major cosmetics manufacturers have suspended animal testing, not because of government regulations, but because their customers wrote and told them they didn't like the idea.
This tactic won't work with every manufacturer every time. It's at its best when dealing with companies that make and sell items you buy in the grocery or drug store. These companies spend million of dollars filling your TV screen during prime time and more millions trying to get an extra 6 inches of shelf space in your local supermarket.
Members of Congress may not care about your views, but consumer product executives do, because they can lose their jobs over tiny declines in market share. Look at how Coke and Pepsi go at each other in their endless jockeying to sell a few more cases of soda. Imagine, come to think of it, the reaction of their marketing departments if we started sending back thousands of empty plastic soft drink containers.
Look around your house. You'll find at least a dozen products packaged in non-recyclable containers you can return for under $1 in postage. I looked, and by the time of the second commercial break in "The Simpsons," I found 15, including disposable diapers. I decided to dispose of the diapers. There are limits to everything.
Robin Miller drives a cab in Baltimore.