I haven’t written on this blog for quite a while and thought it was about time I came up with another post. Usually I write about writing but occasionally I feel the need to have a rant about something Out There, in the hope that that will make me slightly less helpless in the face of all the dreadful things we are doing to ourselves and the world.
Those of us who are old enough to remember where we were when we heard President Kennedy had been shot may also be old enough to remember what shops were like in the time before supermarkets. (Yes, there was such a time – honestly.) You could go to the grocer’s and buy half a pound of mixed biscuits, scooped from a large tin into a white paper bag, have your bacon sliced for you from one of the sides that stood ready on the shelf behind the counter, or have your sugar weighed out into blue paper sugar bags. In the mid-to-late 1950s our local Sainsbury’s had long marble counters down each side of the shop, each counter divided into sections according to the foods it sold. All the cheese would be hand cut and weighed, the butter shaped with wooden pats and the bacon and cold meats freshly sliced as needed. Your cheese or butter or ham would then be folded in greaseproof paper and put in a paper bag.
Of course you could also buy such things as wrapped butter and boxes of cereal and packets of biscuits, but if you did you were careful what you did with the wrappings. Butter papers were kept to grease baking dishes, cocoa tins and cardboard boxes were used to put things in and fancy biscuit tins were kept for years and refilled with cakes or biscuits. C0rnflake packets were often printed with toys to cut out and assemble. If you bought lemonade or cream soda, you washed the bottle out afterwards and took it back to the shop to get a penny for it. When I was a small child even yoghurt came in glass jars that you handed back to the milkman, and it’s only with the demise of his job (were there any milkwomen?) that we’ve stopped using glass milk bottles and putting them out to be refilled by the dairy.
It was only when supermarkets arrived that packaging became imperative. If customers are to serve themselves from the shelves, everything has to be sold in neat manageable units that don’t require the intervention of an assistant. And increasingly those units began to be wrapped in plastic. At first the plastic bag seemed a wonderful invention – capable of keeping things dry and stopping them leaking, handy and space-saving – but slowly and then ever more quickly plastic began to take over, not only for wrapping food but for containing all sorts of things that before hadn’t needed such elaborate containers, from clothing and toys to kitchen utensils and DIY equipment. Once safely packaged – often in a cardboard box in a non-reusable plastic pack with a paper or cardboard insert and additional plastic wrapping – the item can be stacked on a shelf or hung on a hook so that the customer can simply pick it up. The inevitable question when you take said item to the till is: ‘Would you like a bag for that?’ so that in addition to all the packaging we can’t escape we also end up with yet another plastic bag that then gets thrown away. Even if you recycle it, there’s still no good reason why you should have had it in the first place.
I don’t know what proportion of manufacturing industry is now devoted to the manufacture of packaging, but it can’t be insignificant. Hundreds of thousands of people are employed in thousands of factories making an incalculable number of packs that are designed purely to be thrown away. Although I try to be careful with what I buy, I’m constantly appalled at the piles of plastic food containers that I amass – and that’s only the stuff that can be recycled. In addition there’s all the non-recyclable material that ends up in landfill, non-biodegradable and choking the soil. But even if the material can be recycled or composted, there’s the waste of its having been produced in the first place – the paper and cardboard (think how much paper there is in tea bags alone), the bottles and pots and jars that could be reused many times if only we were geared up to do it, the myriads of carrier bags that we could use again, except that if we’re not careful we accumulate so many that we seem to be drowning in them.
As well as deploring the devastation that all this unnecessary manufacture (and the energy that is used in recycling it) causes in the world, I continue to be shocked at the sheer wastefulness. In my childhood, not all that long after the end of World War II, the prevailing attitude was still ‘waste not, want not’. People had had to make the best of scarcity and eke out what little they had, so that the idea of wasting anything was painful. Before the advent of built-in obsolescence manufactured goods were made to last, and repaired rather than thrown away. The imperative of continuous and never-ending economic growth is forcing on us not only all the consumables that we never knew we needed but the endlessly spiralling amount of packaging that accompanies them. Surely it must be possible to call a halt and return to simpler ways.