Polystyrene is rubbish. At least in Canterbury it is, because you can’t recycle it.
So it’s not only a nasty, squeaky, crumbly, unsightly white block of nothing much, but it can only end up on our civic rubbish dump.
Which is a bit of a problem, because it takes somewhere between 500 years and infinity to decompose.
This came to mind because last week I bought a new printer. It came in a nice shiny cardboard box, wrapped in a low-density polyurethane (LDPE) bag, held in place by two polystyrene blocks, with an instruction book (also wrapped in plastic), with plastic sticky tape securing various bits in place.
The printer cartridges (plastic, of course) came wrapped in plastic foil. And of course most of the printer is plastic too.
Of all that packaging, the only bit I could recycle in Canterbury was the box. What irritated me was that both the polystyrene and the big bag had that nice recycling symbol on them.
So I looked up the council’s website. It doesn’t accept either of them for recycling. So are the damned things recyclable or not?
It turns out that they aren’t, anywhere. So why did they have that encouraging symbol on them?
Here I’m going to break with tradition, and not blame the city council. It is business that is creating this problem because it is financially better for them.
This is all because they want things nice and convenient for them, and they have no intention of bearing the resulting costs in money and environmental impact.
For example, look at the stuff you buy from your supermarket. Far too much of it comes pre–packed when, from our point of view as consumers, there is no need.
Even things we used to pick and bag up ourselves, like baking potatoes and tomatoes, come wrapped in plastic. And the reason for that isn’t because it’s better for you: it is simply so that the supermarkets can make more money by controlling their stock and speeding up the check-out process.
Packets can have bar codes, food trays reduce spillage and damage, pre-packing means less staff time spent cleaning, serving and re-stacking shelves. Less staff time, of course, means more profit.
So this corporate obsession with packaging is, in the end, about making money. The fact that all the cling film and plastic trays and shrink wrap and bags are not recyclable and thus are thrown away as waste is, bluntly, not something they consider their problem.
This is not OK. So long as retailers and manufacturers can get away with this, they will. A few, to be fair, have changed and use carefully designed corrugated cardboard in place of polystyrene. But the majority don’t care. How can we change that?
Firstly, it would be nice if the government legislated to outlaw some of this unnecessary packaging. But let’s not hold our breath waiting for that unlikely outcome.
We could transfer our custom to retailers who don’t use plastic packaging – there are at least two small ones in Canterbury – but I suspect most of us are too satisfied with the convenience of the one stop shop for that to have much impact.
So maybe we have to get more radical. Why not unpack the goods at the checkout as soon as you’ve paid, and leave the retailer to dispose of the rubbish.
This is simple, direct, costs you nothing but instead makes the retailer have to pay for the disposal. And it makes a statement. Who knows, if we all did this we might finally provoke the retailers to change their ways.
Dave Wilson is a community activist who has worked in and around local authorities for 35 years and is a Labour Party councillor in Barton Ward. He is a trustee of Kent Savers Credit Union.