What a load of rubbish!

Last week there was a lot of rubbish on TV and radio. Literally. On Thursday I watched Channel 4’s Dispatches, snappily titled Bin Wars. And Friday evening the topic of recycling popped up again on Radio 4’s Any Questions?. Apparently Britain is drowning in its own garbage and the government can only think of extreme measures to control it.

One comment from former journalist and MP Michael Gove met with applause from the Any Questions? audience, ‘If you make it easy for the British people to do the right thing they will.’

Make it easy, now there’s a thought… Part of the problem here is that of packaging. Most consumer goods, from eggs to televisions to teddy bears come wrapped in a various assortment of cardboard and plastic. There are, of course, some things we buy that are arguably already about as minimally packaged as they can be. Liquid, for example. But even here, there are steps that drink manufacturers and supermarkets can take. Anyone of my generation might remember the days when fizzy drinks came in glass bottles which were ‘recyclable’ – you took them back to the shop and got 10p in return. So not only were our parents and grandparents recycling long before it was fashionable (or enforced), but provided they could spare the 10p for sweets, they had an enthusiastic workforce of children willing to cycle to the shop to do the ‘recycling’ for them. Of now we pay the local council to take our recyclables away. In many other European countries, however, The Netherlands, Germany and Austria, for example, do have active bottle recycling cultures, for glass beer bottles and plastic pop bottles. What you do is simply take your empty, rinsed bottles back to the supermarket, where they are exchanged for a voucher, the value of which you redeem at the checkout against your shopping, which might include another bottle of something you’ve just recycled. That way you only pay for the drink, plus a contribution to the cost of recycling.

Now, what interested me about this debate wasn’t particularly the politics or environmental issues surrounding recycling, but what life would be like if we didn’t have any packaging. Packaging on food products isn’t used just to make the food look nice and persuade us to buy products, although marketing is part of the reason for it. Without packaging, there would be no atmosphere control that helps maintain the quality and shelf life of some delicate products; and where would manufacturers put all the information about ingredients, nutrient content and allergen warnings that they are required to do by law?

Like governments, it seems consumers around the world are in two minds about packaging. There are many reasons why we need it on some products (though I am certainly not saying all products). In fact there is probably enough scientific literature available on various aspects of food packaging to create a mountain of paper comparable to the cardboard and plastic one the media is so worried about at the moment. Luckily, it’s also available electronically.

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