Mealy-mouthed ministers, greedy drinks giants

Mealy-mouthed ministers, greedy drinks giants

Let’s begin with an old story. In 1992, a freight ship crossing the Pacific from the factories of China to the toyshops of Seattle ran into a storm.

Several containers containing bath-time toys were washed overboard, where the action of the sea opened the containers, releasing almost 30,000 plastic ducks.

Within two years, plastic ducks were washing up on the beaches of Alaska. By 2000 — eight years after the storm — they were fetching up on the volcanic sands of Iceland. For those whose geography is rusty, Iceland is in the Atlantic Ocean. They have since turned up on beaches all over the world.

The story’s worth repeating, because plastic ducks are funny. We notice them. But, for some reason, we don’t seem to notice plastic bottles so much, not least because they are transparent. Yet take a walk on a beach almost anywhere and you are certain to find them.

On their annual beach-cleaning weekends over the past ten years, the Marine Conservation Society has picked up a total of 102,000 bottles.

The reason for chucking a bottle away is obvious: once you’ve consumed its contents, it is no use to you. Some of us recycle the plastic. Great numbers of us do not: the campaign group Recycle Now estimates that in Britain alone, 16 million plastic bottles are not recycled every day.

They estimate that by the time of the next election, this country will have discarded another 29 billion bottles. (Their advice to anyone unsure about whether a bottle is recyclable is that ‘if it’s plastic and shaped like a bottle, it is’.) The thing about plastic is that it is well-nigh indestructible. Which means the plastic bottles we throw on the ground or into the sea now will still be ruining the natural world for our great-grandchildren.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Our great-grandparents didn’t bequeath us a world littered with plastic bottles because plastic bottles did not exist. Soft drinks came in glass bottles. When you returned the empty bottle, you were given back the few pence deposit paid when the drink was bought.

The modern mechanism of disposable bottles implicitly decrees the containers are worthless. The approach passively encourages littering, which is why the Daily Mail has launched a campaign to introduce a new deposit system aimed at reducing the blight of plastic bottles that are not recycled.

You might expect governments to act. Creating ‘a cleaner, healthier environment, benefiting people and the economy’ is listed as the top priority of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It has long been trying to shake off its reputation as the most useless government department in Whitehall, but on plastic waste it runs true to form.

Saving the world from litter is the responsibility of someone called Lord Gardiner of Kimble (no, I’d never heard of him either — turns out he came to his current eminence fired up by tireless work for the Refreshment Committee of the House of Lords). When asked about trying to change attitudes by introducing a deposit scheme for plastic bottles, he said the Government had looked into the idea and decided it would be ‘an expensive exercise’. More expensive, presumably, than altering the landscape, poisoning wildlife and making the world uglier.

It is high time that mealy-mouthed ministers took themselves off for a little more refreshment, in the hope that it might give them the guts to tell the soft drinks industry that some things matter more than the bottom line of the balance sheets of multinational corporations.

We have, after all, been here before. The manufacturers of plastic bags fought tooth and nail to prevent the Government forcing shops to introduce a 5p charge, so that customers used fewer of them.

I remember returning from a visit to Ireland in 2002, and bumping into Michael Meacher, Tony Blair’s then environment minister, on a street in Covent Garden. The Irish government had just introduced a tax on plastic bags, which had immediately cut their use by 90 per cent. ‘Why can’t we have a similar tax?’ I asked him.

Much though he was distrusted by Blair, Meacher was a good environment minister. ‘I like the idea,’ he said immediately, then added, ‘but I’m told it’d be expensive, and the industry doesn’t like it.’

And so it did not then happen, and countless more plastic bags were dumped on the landscape because the manufacturers could afford to lobby hard, because Tony Blair wouldn’t say boo to them and because the civil servants at the department lived down to their reputation for spinelessness.

For all their affected cuddliness, the Liberal Democrats also failed to bring in a plastic bag tax during the Coalition years.

In October 2015, after a long campaign once again by this newspaper, the Conservative government finally introduced a 5p levy on single-use plastic bags. Within months, there had been an 85 per cent fall in the number being used. Simples, eh?

So the Government has conceded the principle of compulsion can work when you are seeking to achieve environmental benefits. But it has yet to do anything about introducing an incentive for people not to chuck their empty plastic bottles on the ground.

There is an obvious difference between the plastic bag tax and talk about a return scheme for plastic bottles. The plastic bag you were given by the supermarket was unused. Who knows where the used plastic bottle has been?

So the soft drinks manufacturers would have to take a break from thinking of new products to make us even fatter and devise effective ways of cleaning the receptacles they expect us to put to our lips.

But cleanliness is surely intrinsic to their business and it might even turn out to be cheaper to make new containers from recycled plastic than from scratch.

Recycling bottles surely cannot defeat the wits of an industry which took Del Boy Trotter’s idea of bottling tap water and used it to make a fortune.

Del Boy’s product was called ‘Peckham Spring’. Coca-Cola bottled tap water in Sidcup and called it ‘Dasani’. A number of supermarkets tried similar stunts.

Individual bottles of ‘natural’ water and fizzed-up sugared water sell for about £1. If people are stupid enough to pay those sort of prices for a product they could get from the tap for a fraction of a penny, then they are certainly able to cope with the extra few pennies which might be necessary for the recycling process — and which you would get back if you return your bottle and claim the deposit.

Who knows, perhaps the drink companies or retailers might even absorb the cost themselves? Silly thought. Because the drinks companies loathe this idea.

When old codgers talk about children 60 years ago eagerly collecting discarded soft-drink bottles, and ask why the tradition cannot be revived, they ignore one crucial element.

G lass bottles were designed to be capable of reuse. Plastic bottles are intended to be thrown away. The fast-food industry can stick as many ‘please dispose of this thoughtfully’ stickers on their products as they like. But they are living a lie.

They do not imagine the plastic bottle having a possible alternative life. They have engineered it to be thrown away.

The drink companies are simply blathering when they throw up their hands in horror and say it’s not their fault their empties are scattered all over the countryside. Because it is their fault, at least in part.

Every time there is some ghastly high school shooting in the United States, the boneheads of the National Rifle Association come out with platitudes about how ‘it’s not guns that kill people, it’s people.’ Yes, of course it is. But it is a lot harder to shoot someone if you can’t get access to a gun.

Something similar is true with the soft drinks industry. Empty plastic bottles lie about our roadsides, litter our parks and wash up on beaches because a vast, multinational business wants people to stick bottles to their lips, and doesn’t care what happens afterwards.

The public consumes these products because they suit our increasingly mobile lives. But when half of us decline to act responsibly, governments have to act.

We can continue to foul the nest we all share. Or we can decide to do something about it. Doubtless, there will be bleating from the corporations. But someone has to be the first to take a stand.

The citizens of America, Brazil or China may continue to chuck discarded plastic bottles on the ground for a while.

But here’s something in which Britain could set an example. Let’s just tell the manufacturers to get on with it.

Article courtesy of The Daily Mail. Original found here.

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