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ECOLOGICALLY AWARE PACKAGERS ARE GETTING BACK TO THE BASICS

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In the Dark Ages - before Styrofoam peanuts and plastic bubble pack - man looked to the forest to ensure that his Wedgwood vase wouldn't get broken by the movers.

Now, in the environmentally aware '90s, excelsior and other natural packing materials are making a comeback."After the Earth Day celebration, it was phenomenal the interest," said Jim LeFevre, assistant branch manager for American Excelsior Co. of Arlington, Texas, makers of the long, thin strands of wood nearly forgotten in the age of plastic.

"Our customers are telling us their customers are asking for environmentally safe packaging."

Companies like LeFevre's never stopped making excelsior; for the last four decades it was used mainly to cover budding foliage and prevent erosion.

Now, it has received a facelift of sorts to make it more attractive to companies packaging everything from cosmetics to dishes.

In red, green, blue, orange, purple and every shade in between, excelsior made one of the more colorful displays at last week's Eastern Packaging Exposition here. It was far from the only environmentally sensitive product on view.

"There's no question about it. I think most major corporations are going to have a real thrust into using more environmentally safe materials," said Philip Thorn, a purchasing manager at Johnson & Johnson Orthopedics in Braintree, Mass.

"Our selling point now is biodegradable and non-toxic. Even our glue is non-toxic," salesman Kevin Arnold told customers as he described cardboardlike packaging materials made by Honeycomb Corp. of North Haven, Conn.

Chip Giorgi, another Honeycomb salesman, said he feared some potential customers at the expo were scared away because the product his company had made since the early 1970s was "almost too trendy."

New laws are forcing companies to buy biodegradable packaging, said Robert Sadlik, supervisor of Miles Pharmaceutical. Plus, "peanuts are getting to be a problem. You open a box and they blow all over the place," he said. "Somebody's got to come up with something to replace peanuts."

Brian Stewartson, sales manager for Ranpak Corp. of Willoughby, Ohio, claims his company already has. The product, Padpack, consists of thick paper that has been crumbled. "It's back to the basics. There's no pizzazz," he said.