Sunday, 4 May 2008


I went in a cafe and they were giving out free copies of the FT Weekend supplements. The papers were wrapped in plastic and one of them had a pretty good article about plastic.

One thing I learnt was that although plastics are harder to recycle than other materials, because they are so much lighter they are sometimes the greener option. For example:
- If you look at the total consumption of goods in the UK, plastic is used to package 53% of them. If you look at the total packaging weight of all those goods however, plastic only accounts for 20% of the packaging weight.
- Glass is the opposite - only 10% of consumed goods in the UK are packaged in glass, but glass makes up 20% of the total packaging weight.
- An Austrian study in 2004 found that eliminating plastics from the supply chain would increase the weight of packaging used by a factor of four - because all the alternatives are heavier.

So although it takes oil to make plastics (well, most of them), it may well take more oil to ship around the alternatives.

A couple of Supermarket examples bear this out. Supermarkets score points with consumers by elimating plastic packaging from the shelves, but this either leads to more packaging being used during shipping, or more wasted food:
- The Co-Op now sells cucumbers without wrapping them in plastic. The Cucumber Growers Association claims that more packaging is being used to transport them, while they lose a week of shelf life and get more frost damage in the consumers fridge.
- M&S found that apples sold on a plastic tray covered in plastic film needed 27% less packaging than apples sold loose, because the loose apples had to be moved via a succession of cardboard boxes.
- If the UK, food waste in the supply chain runs at about 3%. In countries with more basic infrastructure, such as India, it may be as high as 50%. Modern packaging such as plastic is one of the major reasons for this.

I found all this interesting because it seems to show that now politics and business are more focused on environmental responsibility, people are really looking at things in detail and finding out that they are not as simple as they may have seemed. I have long thought that consumers bear a lot of responsibility for the massive resource usage of humans, and that ethical consumerism could be a real force for change. This relies on clear information about the source of products and their resource usage. But is also relies on things being fairly easy for the average consumer to figure out. Is glass packaging better than plastic for example?

As Dick Searle, of the 'Packaging Federation' says:
There's a moral question here - Are consumers always right? Are they well infomed enough to guide these decisions? Is listening to them actually the right thing to do?

Source for the stats: FT Weekend Magazine, April 26/27 2008.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A couple of comments I would like to make. (I'm sure a lot of them would be resolved if I read the article).

1. You haven't shown that there is any effectiveness within politics and the corporate world. MS say that plastic covered apples are more friendly but are they actually selling them covered or not?

1b. An extension to the previous point: How can corporations be motivated by long term considerations when they are driven by short term agenda (next quarter profit/loss report)? OK so its possible that they could reduce their spend and waste by using plastics by even so if consumers are turned off by this idea then it is moot surely?

2. Isn't the real problem that the structure of plastic consumption is such that the problem goes away when its "actual" cost is reflected in the products? Part of this surely is that we import food from Botswana for example but not from Norfolk. India may lose 50% of their food but I would hazard a guess that they don't import to the same degree and hence have the same environmental impact as British consumers have.

3. Why are plastics so cheap? They are not a candidate for recycling perhaps but that does not seem to affect its price and, hence, usage. Given that oil is increasing in price will this mean that plastic will be used less and less?

4. Finally isn't there a race to the bottom here? Relying on "consumers" to dictate to the market seems to me to be ineffective as "consumers" (forgive the excessive quoting) are limited by the choices presented in the market. Can they be said to make "authentic" choices given how and where we source our food from? Even if this were true, if consumer A could pay 50% more for apples than B and that they both have genuine concerns for the environment in the medium term A will be considerably worse off for the same level of environmental impact with B free riding on them. Hence why would anyone enter into the race to use environmentally sustanstable alternatives at all?