This article first appeared in the April 2021 edition of Birdwatching magazine
Not long after WW2 the types and uses of plastic multiplied exponentially. The new ‘wonder of the age’ material began to replace wooden, tin and paper in toys. Its properties of lightness and flexibility meant it began to be used in everyday items from toilet seats to storage canisters. Because it was cheap and could be cast into moulds it became the first thought in manufacturing. Before long, it was ubiquitous and disposable too. Now it is used to replace a myriad of other materials that are more appropriate. Plastic nuts and bolts may be cheap and easy to make, but have insufficient strength to stop your toilet seat from slipping. Ever more components are plastic and not fit for purpose.
It is not just about cheapness per se. Today I had to tear off a plastic net from my garlic bulb… why on earth were large bulbs individually entombed in a plastic grid? The answer struck me, it’s to save time at the till, no weighing or looking up on a list, the bar code can be read from the label saving 10 seconds while dooming some sea creature to a premature death!
My supermarket raspberries come in a recyclable plastic pack… but there is no indication whether the tear-off film on top can be put in the recycle bin. My ‘case’ of fizzy drink cans is contained in a cardboard tray, and the whole thing encased in polythene! Recyclable cans, in recyclable cardboard, wrapped in throwaway plastic when an outer cardboard shell would do as well. Some of my magazines arrive in starch bags, why not all? I can buy loose mushrooms in the supermarket by popping them into a paper bag, why is every other loose fruit or veg only available in skinny plastic? The ‘can’t stop ‘til you eat the lot’ crisps come in paper tubes with a recyclable plastic lid, some tubes have a paper base, others metal, creating a ‘which bin’ recycling dilemma. Why are some toilet roll packs plastic and others paper wrapped?
Change will, of course, mean a lot of re-tooling, whether it is to eliminate the inappropriate plastic component, or to standardise containers to the most ecologically sound formula. Legislation now, to make that change required by a set date in, say, three years would create jobs. Wouldn’t we all rather do that than continue to be sucked in by the myth of variety? I want a variety of flavours of tomatoes but am offered the meaningless ‘vine ripened’ ones in all sorts of shapes and sizes but bland taste. I do not want a choice of nine sorts of chicken soup all of which taste the same and many made by one conglomerate under a variety of brand names. That is the delusion of choice. Real choice should be between convenience and conscience. The inconvenience of buying my fruit and veg loose from a supermarket counter and popping it in paper bags that can be weighed there and a label stuck on the bag, versus the conveniently pre-packed bland crap with meaningless labelling. What is so hard about that when every supermarket I’ve ever been to just across the channel does it that way?
Why are we letting commerce throw away the world? If we kick up enough fuss they would change in fear of losing custom and lowering profit. Now is exactly the right time too. The Coronavirus fallout sunk many businesses and lots of jobs. Government is encouraged to invest in infrastructure to spend us out of recession, let’s call for commerce to do the exactly the same!