Guest post by Cut While Shaving
Hi, I’m Joddle’s boyfriend. I have been quite supportive of this blog,even reading most of it, but in reality have always found it hard to drum up the same enthusiasm (or despair) about the issue in general. Sure, I have made some changes – no more plastic bags, eating everything in the fridge, buying less in general – as the logic is undeniable.
Waste, however, just seemed like her thing, her bugbear, her fight. I’ve seen waste before and never thought anything beyond “Joddle would hate that”. Working at the art fair, though, was different.
The work itself was hard. Massive great bits of plasterboard with timber frame had been pre-fabricated elsewhere (the process, I can only imagine, would have been terribly wasteful in itself) and it was our job to stand them up to make ‘walls’ according to a specified plan, making sure they were level in the process.
The boards, as everyone constantly grumbled, were rubbish.Out of shape, too much plaster, bowing in the middle, and often already broken (the latter being chucked away, rightly and wrongly, as they could ensure no real stability).
I overheard someone say of the boards: “Next year we’ll have ‘em remade.”
“What’ll happen to this year’s ones?,” I asked.
“They’ll get chucked,” he replied, looking at me with suspicion.
Amazing. I then calculated, roughly and conservatively, that there were somewhere in the range of 1,000-1,500 of these boards. They were constantly being fork-lifted in. All that timber for a four day event.
The next phase of the build to generate a staggering amount of waste occurred in order to fix the walls in place.To level the walls, you have to pack them out at either end. You could use timber to do this, which could have been reused in a multitude of ways after the job.
Undoubtedly, preparing or cutting bits of timber to shape would be immensely impractical.The cheapest and easiest solution was, of course a product: thousands of plastic little things of varying heights (called ‘packers’). Very simple solution no doubt, but it all adds up. Thousands of these things were used at every stage.
They won’t be saved during the de-rig, but left to the cleaners to sweep up and chuck away. Cheap and abundant, these bits of plastic were always lying around the place. The floor was littered with broken ones split by hammering, where they lay without even fulfilling a single use.
Then there was the cling film floor. To protect various bits of carpet and lino and, indeed, the marquee, the whole floor was covered in a plastic the thickness of an A4 plastic sleeve. The biggest marquees, by my professional estimation, were 100×300 metres, and there were six of these. (There were at least five other marquees of varying sizes, some not much smaller, but we’ll ignore those for simplicity’s sake).
That’s 18,000 metres squared of plastic that will be ripped up and discarded, unrecyclable as it is covered in plaster. Remember, that’s only part of it (just over half, by my estimate).
Finally, the coffee room. All I can say is that there were literally thousands of plastic spoons used and the same goes for plastic cups. I was good with my spork, also used for my dry lunches in a Tupperware box, but naughty with the cups. I defy anyone to not consume vast amounts of caffeine on 7 successive 12 hour labour shifts.
So why didn’t I walk straight off site, yelling “This is an outrage!” with my head held high, off into the sunset?
Well, firstly, bills. Secondly, I didn’t blame the company. This is the reality. They compete for a contract, get it by offering a competitive rate and can hardly be expected to incur additional costs with such a small margin. It’s a question of incentive and time. If the whole thing made an attempt to be zero waste, it would probably add another week’s worth of full wages into the cost. The zero waste principle would need to be sponsored because otherwise it’s just not commercially viable.
Seeing how many industries, from services to events, in the UK cannot seem to exist without high levels of waste, it seems to me that only lawmakers and grants can make the situation change – but with budget cuts and the issue not having captured the voter’s imagination I hold out little hope.
I like to cook with fresh herbs but I don’t like it when they come boxed or wrapped in plastic film. I have two options: either I buy organic herbs and feel guilty about consuming an unnecessary, (potentially) unrecyclable piece of plastic, or, I am limited to mediocre varieties of flat leaf parsley or coriander from the otherwise good Turkish supermarket.
The herbs from local independent organic stores are superior in quality, have a stronger flavour, and last longer than herbs from the Turkish supermarket (which are often on their way out on the day of purchase). The organic herbs generally come from Kentish farms, relatively local to London. The unpackaged Turkish store herbs don’t have their country of origin on display but since the other produce stocked comes from far and wide, the herbs have most likely put in some serious food miles to get to my local supermarket.
Could it be that the plastic packaging preserves the organic herbs for longer? In theory, it should. Yet considering the organic herbs belong to a higher class of produce in the first place and haven’t undertaken an epic food-miles-journey, it’s more than possible that the ‘easier life’ they’ve enjoyed manifests itself in improved shelf-life and taste. These herbs will last around five days; I don’t require any plastic packaging to *extend their shelf-life any further.
I’ve noticed that it isn’t just my local organic store herbs that are afflicted by the plastic packaging plague. I’ve got a hunch it’s down to the herb farmers and/or suppliers who unthinkingly pack their produce in plastic because the organic food sector is booming and the issue of plastic-free food packaging is niche; as long as the herbs are organic, they’ll sell. I’ve been objecting to plastic-packaged herbs by not buying them – but how much difference can one consumer make? If I don’t vocally object to plastic-packaged herbs I have no chance of making the situation better or buying plastic-free herbs.
For practicality purposes, I can see why it would be advantageous to have herbs boxed in plastic in a chain supermarket environment. A sealed plastic box can have a label on it saying what it is and how much it costs. Many people can’t identify fresh herbs, perhaps because dried herbs are more widely used in domestic kitchens. Many British shoppers may also view fresh herbs as an extravagance compared to dried varieties, which they are more familiar with, and perhaps the plastic packaging makes what is essentially an over-priced (?) bundle of leaves look better value for money. Finally, if sealed in a plastic tray, the produce won’t be able to shed leaves on the floor and make a mess.
In an organic supermarket environment I would hope that procurement decisions are based on the whole lifecycle of the product including its environmental and health implications – not just what is most convenient or advantageous for the retailer. I want to buy herbs from the organic supermarket because they taste better and last longer (not because they are organic per se). At the same time, I am put off purchasing these herbs because they come ensconced in plastic. My concern is that fresh herbs – which enhance flavour but are by no means essential – cannot justify their waste legacy. I cannot accept that for my fleeting foodie pleasure a piece of plastic will have been created, that once discarded is destined for landfill or a toxic plume.
Having been silently objecting to plastic-packaged herbs in the organic local supermarkets for too long, it’s time to take action with an email request for plastic-free herbs. I’ll be contacting retailer and supplier directly and will keep you informed of any replies I receive.
Plastic trays used in herb packaging may be a relatively minor thing in the grand scheme of appalling food and plastic waste but if it eases my plastic-waste conscience it’s got to be worth a try.
As a participant in the European Youth Meeting for Sustainable Development 2011 I took part in a waste group formulating a policy document on waste management, which was to be submitted to the Rio +20 Climate Summit. An issue I championed within the group was to call for governments to ban the use of PVC in consumer products.
Our waste group prioritised waste strategy and policy recommendations which eradicate waste at source and prevent non-recyclable or non-reusable materials from entering the resource stream in the first place. In my mind, non-recyclable plastics cannot justify their waste-legacy (they don’t biodegrade) and alternative materials should be used to avoid burdening future generations with our consumer detritus.
I object to PVC in consumer items because less than 1% of what is produced is recycled; it is too difficult to recycle as too many chemical additives are used in its production. More than this, it doesn’t make economic sense to recycle, as it is relatively cheap to manufacture. An estimated 16 billion tons of PVC was manufactured in the US in 2006, according to the Vinyl Institute. At this rate of production a lot of consumer junk PVC is getting incinerated (where it releases carcinogenic dioxins) and landfilled (where it may leech chemicals).
PVC is a versatile form of plastic used in variety of everyday products. During its manufacture, in order to imbue the base polymer of plastic with its versatile qualities (supple like an electrical wire; hard like vinyl flooring; translucent like a shower curtain) it is treated or ‘plasticized’ with chemical additives that pose serious risks to human health. For more information about the risks of endocrine disrupting phthalates see here.
In the waste management policy group, we made a distinction between using PVC in consumer goods (which we deemed to be a fickle short-sighted use of the material) and in construction and cabling (for telecoms and electronics) – where it was felt their use was more justifiable in the short-term.
Our recommendation for a ban on the use of PVC in consumer products may be unrealistic, unenforceable, and even unwanted beyond the realm of waste fanatics, yet it intended to send out a clear message that we must rethink our use of non-recyclable or degradable materials. Most certainly, we have been using plastics wastefully and excessively, without thinking of the long-term environmental consequences.
If a ban were to be implemented many familiar products would disappear and with them many industries. There would be no vinyl flooring for our homes; there would be no ‘pleather’ imitation leather clothes or furnishings; no paddling pools or inflatable toys; no waterproof bags or raincoats. Such items are easy for people concerned about plastic waste to live without, but the reach of PVC is much wider, and it is probable that most people would object to such an extensive ban.
Our call for a ban on PVC in consumer products may seem extreme, but how else can we get manufacturers to use alternative materials which have a lesser impact on the environment and human health? Waste fanatics may choose to boycott PVC but the wider population will continue consuming it, and so the cycle continues…