In June of 2007, Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco mandated that the City of San Francisco could no longer use government money to purchase bottled water. He said that it simply didn’t make any sense to spend upwards of $500,000 per year of taxpayer money on bottled water that was by objective standards often inferior to the quality of San Francisco's pristine tap water.

And he’s right, of course. Shipping water from Fargo or France simply makes no common sense. But I have discovered something even sillier: Shipping air from China.

It struck me, literally, this Christmas. It was Christmas morning and we awoke late and wandered downstairs to see what Santa had brought. The lights of the tree danced on the shiny ribbons, and for one brief moment it was as perfect and serene as any Currier and Ives etching. Then my six year old in the guise of a 50hp wood chipper set to work. No appreciation was given the origami-like precision of the wrapping on his presents, or the heartfelt and witty bromides on the cards as he tore through the wrapping to see what was his.

He was excited and appreciative at the same time. Wow, and thanks, and look at this!  The coffee was still brewing, and so it was that my reaction time was still a little lagging when the lad said “Hey cool! Mega Bloks! Dad! Catch!” and tossed a large box at me. My hands weren’t entirely connected to my brain, and it caught me square in the forehead and pitched me back into the couch. I yelped in pain, and grabbed my head. Maggie rushed over, picked up the box to sit down, and began to comfort me and sooth my injury. “Hey, wait a minute,” she said, “this thing doesn’t weigh anything. Don’t be such a big baby, it hardly left a mark.”

She was right. Not about the big baby part, it actually smarted, but about the package weight, and reason became obvious after breakfast when we opened the box.

The box was 16 inches long, 10 inches wide and 2 inches deep. After we had removed the extraneous packaging, and stood the box on end, the pieces took up only one quarter of the box. Three quarters of the box was filled with air.

Why was that air there? It was there because a marketing and packaging design person wanted to make the package more impressive so that it would be purchased over something smaller. The callous and premeditated marketing and design person didn’t think about the consequences of his actions.

Let’s think about this. Mega Bloks are made and packaged in China and shipped by container to the West coast, where they are put on trucks and trains and shipped to various department and toy specialty shops all across North America. If all of their packaging was designed by the same wastrel, let’s call him Bob, then out of every four containers that contain Bob’s packaged products, three of them are filled with …. air.

That’s correct, Bob. You and Mega Bloks are shipping air from China. And each of those containers has an embedded pollution calculation associated with it. According to a recent UN report, cargo ships contribute ONE BILLION tonnes of air pollution a year to the atmosphere! Recent studies in the US and the Netherlands showed pollutants from ships contribute half of the smog-related sulphur dioxide in Los Angeles. In Rotterdam, where North Sea shipping lanes run within 25 miles of the shore, container ships spew pollution that can travel up to 1,000 miles inland.

If it’s the same for Vancouver, then Bob, and other product designers like him are directly responsible for 37% of the pollution in Vancouver. How many trucks whiz down the highway carrying air? How many ships ply the oceans polluting the air we breath to bring us air? We are expanding port facilities and building roads to accommodate the air you’re shipping from China.

Nice goin’ Bob.

Bottled Water Bad ~ Bottled Air Worse