Is it ever ethical to use packaging?

Ethan Greenhart

Topics Science & Tech

Dear Ethan,

I am a loyal user of local shops and organic produce. However, on a visit to my elderly mother recently, I was browbeaten into helping her shop at the local supermarket. By the time our visit was complete, I felt overwhelmed by the plastic bags, plastic wrappers, cardboard boxes, trays, liners and all the other packaging. People actually live like this! What can I do to stop this?

Martin Foyle,

Dear Martin,

I must first scold you for giving into peer pressure and subjecting yourself to the supermarket experience. The world will never change unless those of us who are enlightened are prepared to change the behaviour of others, whether we like it or not.

However, I sympathise with what you have been through. There was a time when I, as a lonely student, dabbled in the festering world of ready meals, microwave ovens and other such convenience living. Easy living for the hard of thinking. I never realised how miserable I must have been. Now I grow as much food as I can and buy the rest, soil and all, from local organic suppliers. Two sturdy cloth bags are all I ever need. Not an inch of clingfilm in sight. And as the great John Humphrys says, feeling ‘the life-force of an organic lettuce’ coursing through your veins is enough to make anybody feel good.

Now let us consider just what the consequences are for the planet of that packaging. Every year in this country, we produce about seven or eight million tonnes of the stuff. They say it is to protect goods from being damaged; that is, protected from the damage they would otherwise be exposed to as they travel food mile after food mile in gas-guzzling juggernauts to be thrown on shelves by de-motivated and under-educated teenagers who would rather be obliterating their brain cells with stupefying substances or getting each other pregnant. Or both.

Packaging not only uses resources and creates mess; the whole sorry infrastructure of sterile, resource-grasping retail is built on their ability to wrap it all up. And if it’s not there to protect our mass-produced perishables, it’s there to flog them to us. No amount of hyper-coloured, gawdy wrappers can make sugary cereals, murderous hamburgers or nutrition-free convenience meals ‘fun’ – unless you are so stupid or complicit in the whole mess that you are easily pleased. Sadly, most of the population appears to fit into that category. Martin, why do so few of us care enough about others?

Thankfully, the editors of my favourite newspaper, the Independent, do care. (Naturally, read strictly online. Keeping us informed is no justification for felling millions of trees.) They have recently launched their Campaign Against Waste. Their intrepid reporter Guy Adams marched into a Tesco store demanding answers from the man stacking the shelves (Dwayne) as to why his pizza needed a polystyrene tray, clingfilm, two plastic sachets and a cardboard box. ‘The combined waste produced by this simple item would fill an average kitchen bin. It’s absurd; it’s unnecessary; and it provides a neat, 12-inch symbol of a rampaging epidemic’, says Adams.

Rampaging epidemic!! Exactly!! But Adams didn’t stop there. Oh no! He immediately went to Tesco’s head office (sadly, by car) to confront them: ‘I march into reception (it’s decorated like a branch of Tesco) brandishing a pizza box, and clear my throat in a Churchillian manner. “I am one of your 30million customers, and I have come to Cheshunt in the hope of speaking to somebody about the packaging on your pizza.” The receptionist looks alarmed. She picks up a telephone. In the doorway, another security guard appears. He escorts me to the car, with a piece of paper containing the freephone number of their customer service centre in Dundee.’

As Adams rightly notes – it’s not only the pizza that is being covered up!

We must go further. This requires direct action. I marched into my local Tesco and started filling my trolley with food. (I had no intention of buying it, naturally.) Shrink-wrapped vegetables, chilled curries, frozen pizzas, toilet cleaners (why sterilise our living wastes?) – all scooped up and wheeled around. Then, at the checkout, I presented it all for payment – minus the packaging!! The conveyor belt soon ground to a halt as the pasta sauce and bleach and baby carrots and cat litter merged into one big brown and odorous sludge, dripping and oozing into every corner of the machinery.

They tried to crush me, Martin. They brought the forces of the state down upon me and marched me away to the cells. Sheba arrived, absolutely furious. As we walked home, she looked at me firmly and said ‘Never again!’. The allusion to the many holocausts we face – including the holocaust of our precious resources – was all too clear.

Ethan Greenhart is here to answer all your questions about ethical living in the twenty-first century. Email him at {encode=”” title=””}.

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Topics Science & Tech


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