The ugly face of conspicuous consumption

Did you have a great Christmas? We did in our family, a time of year when everyone gets together – parents, children, siblings, cousins – to simply enjoy each others’ company in a relaxed atmosphere.

Plenty to eat and drink, lots of great conversations, and the pleasure of giving and receiving gifts.

There is a dark side, though – packaging and waste.

We’re probably typical among many families in the UK in that we now have a few boxes and bags full of the packaging left over after you unwrap your gifts. Boxes, cartons, paper, that sort of thing.

We recycle all such stuff, and the local council does a pretty good job with kerbside recycling programmes.

But a lot of the stuff, especially plastic, won’t get picked up in the next recycling collection next week as it mostly can’t be recycled, so I’ll be making a trip to the council’s waste centre to dump it. I have no other choice really.

A small personal concern about disposing of such waste becomes more alarming if you expand it to look at what happens nationally.

From The Independent:

Britain will discard more waste this Christmas than ever before, with an estimated three million tons of rubbish – a tenth of the annual total – accumulated over the next few days.

Barely a quarter of jettisoned goods, packaging and uneaten food is likely to be recycled, with the rest incinerated – spewing pollution into the atmosphere – or dumped in landfill sites where heavy metals can seep into the ground. The European Union has become so exasperated with the Government’s failure to improve recycling that it has threatened legal action. The row centres on repeated delays to the introduction of the EU waste electrical and electronic equipment directive, which would cut dumping of televisions, computers and other electrical goods.

Here’s a summary of that EU directive.

While each one of us can exercise personal responsibility regarding disposing of packaging and unwanted products, it’s down to the government to make the processes simple, easy and effective.

Surely it is as simple as that. Isn’t it?

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Armin

    I think the problem is a different one: The focus is too much on recycling instead of avoiding.

    Example: My sister gave me a flash memory card for my camera. I assume you know how big a standard compact flash memory card is.

    Any thoughts how big the plastic packaging around it was?

    About the size of paperback. Or in other words, several times the size of the memory card. Admittedly it had to hold several sheets of paper with pointless advertising and “usage instructions”, all of which I immediately threw away (well, recycled).

    None of this I needed, let alone wanted.

    And I can think of many many more examples like this.

    Yet we get bombarded with this stuff. That’s where it needs to start, avoid it, not recycle it.

  2. neville

    Agreed, Armin, yet there’s precious little evidence that manufacturers are making genuine efforts on a broad scale to reduce unnecessary packaging.

    Lots of talk but little action.

    So this is one of those occasions when government action for the benefit of society as a whole is a good thing. Like introducing that EU directive where there’s also lots of talk but little action.

    No wonder nothing actually happens other than individual action, on a very small scale.

  3. Chris Marritt

    Packaging seems to be the only industry I can think of (at the moment) where the needs of the consumer are absolutely the last concern.
    Speaking as a parent of young children, the packaging on toys gets more infuriating by the year. Scores of twisted plastic ties ensure that children can see what the toy is as soon as they unwrap it, but are lucky if they get to play with it for another 20 mins as some exasperated parent struggles to free it from its confines.
    And above all this, it’s all absolutely unnecessary after the point of sale – which I guess is the crucial point.
    Manufacturers of toys and memory cards are only likely to reduce the amount of packaging they use when it doesn’t result in them losing shelf space to a competitor, which means regulation is the only answer.

  4. neville

    I may be the last person who wants to see government regulation, Chris, but this is a case for it, undoubtedly.

    Trouble is, governments drag their feet as evidenced by this particular EU directive and our government.

  5. Tim

    But..even recycling doesnt work for the UK. We simply compress the waste into containers and ship it to China…using more resources. Why dont we recycle directly?…probably because no-one wants a new recycling plant built in their neighbourhood with hundreds lorries making deliveries each day. Its the same principle as MRSA – stop it at the source, dont treat the symptom :)

  6. dan light

    hey Neville,

    saw your post last night, and tentatively suggested to Ems this morning that there was something slightly absurd about me wrapping up half a dozen presents on christmas eve so that they could be torn open by an excited child less than twelve hours later.

    my question to you and your readers – what’s the alternative? is there a commercial opportunity here? i’d be prepared to put my money where my mouth is if someone could give me a less wasteful solution without robbing Lola of the excitement of unwrapping her presents.

    one solution is simply to buy less presents. this was the first year my family attempted a ‘secret santa’ approach to present-buying, with each of us buying a single gift for one other family member. this worked very well. indeed my gift was a beautiful young Pyrus Katsura which is now sitting in the garden sucking in carbon dioxide – i guess you can’t get much environmentally friendlier than that!

    at least we live in the Borough of Hackney, which has had mandatory recycling in place for some time now. we put out glass, plastic and paper/cardboard in green boxes supplied by the council, and are also able to give them all our kitchen waste in a separate blue box. We’ve ended up composting the latter at the bottom of the garden, and our overall mentality on these sorts of issues has changed significantly. there’s a lot more we could be doing, but this has definitely set us in the right direction.

    as far as regulation goes, I think this is where local government has a big part to play. i take genuine pride in living in a London borough where mandatory recycling is in place, and am happy to see my council tax spent putting this on the agenda. you need only look at the US to see how a federal government, sitting firmly in the pocket of industry and big business, is now coming under palpable pressure to legislate in a way that’s more consistent with the groundswell of locally-led initiatives such as those of Governor Schwarzenegger in California.

    Governor Schwarzenegger. Not sure I’m ever going to get used to saying that.

  7. Nathan Schock

    Excellent post, Neville. Dan, our family has a collection of Christmas present bags that we’ve received over the years and we reuse them every year to package our presents. We still get the joy of opening the gifts, but it doesn’t fill our trash with wrapping paper. (It also saves a few dollars).

    As for the packaging, the problem seems to me to be one of economic incentive. If packaging companies were made to pay the full cost of burying their waste in a land-fill, perhaps they would decrease the amount.

  8. Geoff Dodd - mindset

    Yes, avoid the product. There is far too much packaging these days and I think I know who pays for it. The consumer pays for it and for landfill costs and by living in the industrial environment.

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