This week the EU announced that it wants 55% of all plastic to be recycled by 2030. (Is it only me who had to check that 2030 was only 12 years away?)
The question of course is not how many years it is until 2030, but about whether we can continue polluting our land and seas with plastic for another 12 years. 2030 is a suspiciously round number, suggesting that Brussels stuck it's collective, finger in the air and said 'yep, that should do it'. Twelve years is three political cycles for most countries, and far enough away to hope that someone else has to deal with the really messy bit. As ever, I suspect that we are talking more about political will than about environmental imperative. We are serving our own needs now, rather than serving the greater needs of our habitat.
This is as true for the way that we make every day, local decisions as it is for the way that politicians make national and international ones. We are all political beings, making choices all the time that trade off our immediate needs with our environmental aspirations.
At an individual, business and a political level, too often we are making decisions based on our immediate needs, in isolation from the systemic needs of others and our planet.
Take this copy of the Observer from this Sunday. What makes TV cook Nigella require her own plastic bag, but not footballer Sergio Agüero?
Is it perhaps that the supplement’s many advertising pamphlets for reading lamps and thermal underwear can’t be entrusted to the loose pages of a mere newspaper? Aside from wondering who has ever bought anything from a newspaper insert, I wince slightly when I think about how many copies of the supplement are dumped by shops every Monday, still wrapped and unable to degrade inside their plastic tomb. This is the wrong kind of mummification people.
If commercially we are making myopic choices that take in only the immediate costs to our businesses, and not the real or true cost to the world, individually we are doing the same thing.
When I am shopping with my toddler, I am far more likely to buy a plastic bag of carrots, than to select them individually, trundle along to the scales, weigh them and put them into a fabric bag in my trolley, because my daughter has a very low threshold for how long she can sit in a trolley, and the fruit and veg is just the start of our struggle with ‘no, sit down nicely… no, put that back’. I tell myself that I don’t have time for this, and on we motor, flinging things into the trolley so that we can leave as quickly as possible.
Food packaging accounts for an enormous chunk of plastic waste however. So we would all be wise to ask ourselves what we’re doing with that extra time that we save by buying bagged. Are we reaching for the plastic wrapped food because we’re just too exhausted at the end of the day to act more creatively, or is it a mindset? Do we tell ourselves that we will ‘never be the kind of hippy who takes a fabric bag to supermarket’?
Dr Carol Dweck has a lot to say about the power of a fixed perspective in her 2006 book, reprinted in paperback last year. In Mindset, she argues that the perspective we take, or rather the mindset that we adopt colours our behaviour and often limits us. I often catch myself telling people that “I’m not the sort of person who’s good at maths”, when after twelve years of running various businesses, even I have to admit that that’s not true. Thinking that way however makes me less willing to volunteer for the treasurer role of the small charity of which I’m a trustee. When my husband suggested that we become semi-vegetarian, we were successful for two thirds of our meals, but both had to confront a mindset that said that ‘dinner contains meat’. Arguably the nation had its mindset towards spontaneous shopping changed by law when the plastic bag charge came in, and suddenly we realised that we were the kind of people who reused our shopping bags, after all.
Ask yourself now, what is your mindset when it comes to plastic packaging? Are you the sort of person who will always be just too busy to take the time to reduce yours?
How many of us who claim, as I often do, that we don’t have time to make more complicated shopping choices, are also regular givers to international development charities? My guess is that we feel compassion for those in the developing world, and grateful (or guilty) for what we ourselves have, and we want to raise everyone’s standard of living. Yet we are failing to notice in the large part that many of the developing world’s current problems stem from climate change, from acute and extreme weather events to chronic, long-term droughts that spark civil wars. We cannot deny that the developing world is paying the price for our convenience.
The money we save on our pre-bagged carrots, are we spending anyway in our donation to WaterAid?
Will this make our humanitarian agencies the world’s dustmen and janitors, mopping up the mess that our consumption has created?
Our businesses must take responsibility too. Time is a factor that is often overlooked when we talk about convenience, but it’s also about price point. Bagged produce can be the same price or even cheaper than loose. Economic wisdom says that the bagging of a product ‘adds value’ to it, and that the value can be priced. Hence food production factories make more profit margin than farmers. Conventional economics says that by pre-bagging my carrots the supermarket has done some of the work for me and that I should pay them for taking that effort off my hands. But often that’s not the case; often the bagged veg is cheaper.
Sometimes this is because the supermarket wants to offer some loss leading staples (our daily spud). But I wonder if the opposite value add may in fact be true. The plastic wrapper may have made it easier for the supermarket to transport the products in bulk, and so instead perhaps they are passing on that saving to us as consumers. It’s easy to select your own carrots when you’re incentivised by price to do so, but hard to turn down the more convenient option when it’s costing you the same or less. Or when your daughter is beginning to howl.
We’re all balancing cost and benefit, and frequently that sees us choosing plastic-wrapped. Looking around my local supermarket this weekend, I found that if I wanted to buy fizzy water, I would be incentivised to buy in bulk packs of four bottles, with a roughly 25% reduction in price for bulk. The bulk packs are of course held together by non-recyclable plastic. You know, the stuff they show on photos of polluted seas?
The same was true a large number of other things that I wanted to buy in multiples, from fruit juice to boxes of tissues. Surely there is an innovative solution here? What for example is wrong with cardboard, which while not completely solving the packaging problem is at least biodegradable and able to be sourced from quick-growing forests? Cardboard has proved that at even modest thickness it is strong enough for the job. If it wasn’t, they wouldn’t sell multiples of beer in it…
(We should at this point give a shout out for beer retailers for selling recyclable bottles and cans in biodegradable cardboard boxes. It’s not often that I get to champion booze producers, so cheers to you for that InBev and SABMiller!)
Just as we are the victims of mindset, so are the people who work at the big retailers, and peer pressure can be a wonderful thing. John Lewis changed the labelling of its children’s ranges last year to make them unisex, after customers lobbied for less gendering of kids clothes. Change.org is currently featuring a petition about plastic packaging, and during it’s lifetime Iceland has committed to getting rid of plastic packaging. We would all be wise to sign it then. If you’re not ‘the sort of person who signs petitions’, maybe now’s the time to change that mindset?