Saving the World One Less Pickle at a Time

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By Neva Knott

I teach Freshman Composition. Recently, I assigned Charles Fishman’s “The Squeeze,” a chapter from his book, The Wal-Mart Effect. Fishman’s book was published in 2006–it’s been around awhile, and it is not my story here. Nor is Wal-Mart. I want to talk about another effect, an environmental effect exemplified by Fishman’s story of the gallon jar of pickles.

“The Squeeze” begins:

“A gallon-sized jar of whole pickles is something to behold. The jar itself is the size of a small aquarium. The fat green pickles, floating in swampy juice, look reptilian, their shapes exaggerated by the glass of the jar. The jar weighs twelve pounds, too big to carry with one hand.

“The gallon jar of pickles is a display of abundance and excess. It is entrancing, and also vaguely unsettling. Wal-Mart fell in love with Vlasic’s gallon jar of pickles.

“Wal-Mart priced it at $2.97…”.

This low price created an unbalanced demand for a gallon jar of pickles. As Fishman explains in his essay, families bought the gigantic jar rather than one of more practical size because of the price, “200,000 gallons of pickles, just in gallon jars…every week. Whole fields of cucumbers were heading out the door.” Families would “eat a quarter of a jar and throw the thing away when it got moldy.” In turn, cucumber growers were unable to fill the demand to Vlasic, and here in lies the environmental problem that is my story.

Every time a consumer–any one of us–spends a dollar,  he or she is creating an environmental impact. Here’s how the waste of pickles ripples through the environment:

  • All those gallon jars were trucked to Wal-Mart, so there’s fuel source and expenditure and carbon emissions to consider;
  • All that fuel was drilled for somewhere, and that process affects water and air quality;
  • Processing all those cucumbers into pickles took large amounts of water and energy;
  • Manufacturing the glass gallon jars also took large amounts of water and energy;
  • Growing cucumbers is water-intensive, so all the water used to grow the thrown-out extras went to waste;
  • Growing cucumbers is also fertilizer and pesticide-intensive (those Vlasic pickles aren’t from organically grown vegetables), and that fertilizer poisons water and creates green-house gases;
  • Chemical run-off from major agricultural regions causes dead zones in the ocean;
  • Farming involves fossil fuel, so more carbon emissions and fuel expenditure;
  • Agriculture requires that land be cleared to make fields, so deforestation occurs. No trees means no carbon storage, so more is emitted into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas;
  • Deforestation causes habitat loss which contributes to endangerment of species;
  • And I bet most of those moldy glass jars went into the landfill rather than the recycling bin.

When families chose to buy that jar, symbolic of “abundance and excess,” they also chose to add to these environmental problems. As consumers we have, embedded in our daily habits, more power than we realize in terms of environmental solutions.

Wal-Mart’s use of the gallon jar of pickles is not much different than the recent free shipping gimmick employed by companies like Zappos and Amazon. This past holiday season, NPR covered the effects of free shipping on working conditions at both of these companies (actually, Zappos is now owned by Amazon). I know working conditions is not an environmental concern, but it’s a similar consumer issue. By paying $5 for having my shoes sent to my home instead of expecting them to arrive at no cost to me, I can promote fair treatment of workers in those supply warehouses. Same with the pickles–by purchasing only a usable amount, the consumer takes strain off the environment being used to produce the wasted excess.

By wasting pickles, we’re wasting land, water, air, fuel, and putting at risk the vitality of other species.

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