Faux Environmentalism

“We’re tackling environmental issues by charging our customers more” seems to be a popular strategy right now for companies attempting to address environmental issues without actually making any meaningful changes. Pollution from discarded plastic and plastic based products is heading towards a toxic tipping point. Awareness of the issues of plastics in our oceans has been publicised since at least the 1980s, but until now the effect on habitats and wildlife has remained mainly the concern of environmentalists.

While some companies are truly environmentally friendly, as a species we really can’t do without plastics. The use of plastic is all pervasive and it is involved in virtually every aspect of our lives. However, this is not a post about ditching plastic entirely – that would currently be impossible, what it’s about is doing more to eliminate unnecessary plastic use.

But it has to start from the top – from the manufacturers, from big business and here’s why:

Here in the UK a “Latte levy” had been suggested which would be a tax on disposable cups used by coffee companies paid by the end user (the consumer or customer). Many disposable cups are made of a plastic/paper/card composite that is difficult to recycle in a cost effective way and so are not widely recycled. There was murmurings that it was a good idea to charge consumers to offset the cost of disposing of the cups. Notice I used the term “disposing” rather than “recycling” in the last sentence. That’s because the vast majority of plastics sent for recycling end up in landfill. So effectively the consumer will be be charged more for no real environmental gain.

Which brings us to the real question: why is the onus being put on the consumer, on the end user to resolve what is a design issue from the manufacturer? Why aren’t producers of polluting products being taxed at source to offset the cost of disposing of their end product? The conversation seems to go like this:

Big business: We’re addressing environmental issues by charging customers more help cover the costs of disposing of their packaging.
Sane person: Or you could just use recyclable packaging to begin with?
Big business: But that would involve extra costs for us that we would have to pass on to our customers!
Sane person: But you’re going to increase the price anyway to cover disposal costs which just increases plastics in landfills, without making any actual environmental changes!
Big business: It’s just not a cost we can absorb. But consumers will be helping the environment by paying the extra recycling cost.

And that is it in a nutshell: consumers do not get to choose how their product is packaged, the producer/manufacturer does that. They decide whether to use recyclable or renewable materials, not the customer. What customers decide is what/where to buy but while pretty much all producers package using unsustainable materials the consumer has no choice other than to buy plastics. As such it is patently unfair and duplicitous for recycling costs to be placed on the customer.

So here’s a message to companies out there: if you want to make a difference, start using alternatives to plastic in your packaging. Those companies that do this will see more consumer loyalty as people become more environmentally sensitive to the threat of plastics in the oceans.

If you know of companies that are producing or selling their products in environmentally sustainable/recyclable non-plastic packaging then please post them in the comments.

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