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Blog : Posts tagged with 'plastic'

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Greenwash

In which we consider how to package coffee sustainably


When I was growing up, back in the heyday of capitalism, “caring for the environment” was seen as a bit of a fringe activity. In school, we were all taught how important it was; but in the real world, nobody really paid much attention.

Fast forward to today: companies are falling over themselves to be Environmental, and to show that they Care with big green hugs, pretty flowers and all that. But in many cases this is pure greenwash: an attempt to look caring because they know that caring sells, because ticking the “environmental!” box makes their company look good. Look at the details, and there’s often no real benefit.

One advert that’s been out recently has been particularly annoying us. Kenco, who make reasonably tasty coffee, but whose advertising campaign is annoying, silly, and patronising. “We tried using 100% less packaging,” they lie, “but it didn’t work. So we’re using 97% less packaging instead.”

All well and good: less packaging equals less materials used equals less weight equals less fuel used in distribution. Sounds nice, on the surface. If you look at it with a longer-term eye, though, things aren’t quite so clear-cut. The traditional packaging, as you probably know,* was: glass jars. One of the oldest packaging forms there is, and one of the greenest. It’s so easy to recycle that we’ve been recycling it ever since it was first invented; all you do is clean it and melt it. OK, there was a period of 200 years or so when we didn’t bother; but glass recycling was one of the first forms of recycling to be widespread in this country in the modern period. Even back in the days when, as I said, I was growing up and nobody really worried too much about the environment, we would still take a trip to the village “bottle bank” once a week. I loved to take each jar from the bag, and jump up to get it in the hole, trying to get as loud a smash as I could.**

What have Kenco replaced their glass jars with? Plastic packets. What’s the recyclability of plastic packets in this country? Virtually nil. Can you reuse them for anything? Virtually nothing. So, we go from glass jars which can be easily reused or recycled, to plastic packets which are useless after you get them home, and have to go for landfill. Change in packaging weight: a 97% drop. Change in waste produced: an increase of enormous proportions. Not quite such a good-looking result. Moreover, glass is made from sand, of which there’s no great shortage; plastic is made from oil, which is getting harder and harder to find. Oh dear.

The big disadvantages of glass packaging, of course, are weight and bulk. Less packaging weight means lower transport costs, and less fuel used. Yes, true, this is a good thing for the environment. It’s even better for Kenco, though. I suspect there’s one single big purpose behind this change: cutting Kenco’s transport costs. Their purpose in the world, after all, isn’t to heal the environment, and it isn’t even to make reasonable-tasting coffee. It’s to make money for their owners, by a) selling more coffee and b) lowering the cost of producing that coffee. Trying to persuade us that their cost-cutting is good for the environment will, I assume, help them sell more coffee to some people. In the long run, though, it’s a much less sustainable way to package. It’s not really as good for the environment, as they’d like us to think.

* and still being produced, of course

** And that’s not counting glass milk bottles and fizzy drink bottles, sold on deposit and reused many times over by the manufacturers since, ooh, the railways first came along and made large-scale distribution practical.

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Spearhead From Space

In which FP gets worried that the PM is a potential Doctor Who villain


Since the election, I’ve felt a bit sorry for Gordon Brown, what with all the people who have rushed to gloat and put the boot in since his progressive downfall started. Last week’s Have I Got News For You featured a montage of his strained-looking toothy smile, his clunky body-language, as if the ability to smile and shake hands smoothly was indeed what really mattered in a leader. I can sympathise partly because my own smiles are often as bad as his, especially if I’m trying to pose. When I’m smiling for the camera, everyone else shuffles their feet and small children run away crying; so when people make fun of Gordon Brown for suffering the same problem, he definitely gets my sympathies.

People’s reaction to his clunkiness, though, just goes to show how much people are concerned today with style and slickness over intellect; and Gordon Brown’s defeat, which people are already treating as much less narrow than it actually was, is only going to reinforce that. When we see David Cameron and Nick Clegg standing together, I get an uneasy squirming horror-film feeling that something is not quite right: that we’re not watching real people, but some sort of shiny artificial human-mimicking lifeform whose twin bodies are slowly converging onto one set of features. By the end of this parliament, we’ll be ruled by Cameregg, one creature with two identical bodies, identical faces with features so blandly generic you could barely pick them out from a crowd. Ed Balls, and the Miliband brothers, might well be part of the same species: some sort of bizarre alien trying to put on a human face but turning into an inhuman everyman. It might just be the effect of modern spin-driven media-friendly politics – or maybe the Autons are real after all.

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And more on art

In which we look at some non-inflatables


Something else that got done in London the other weekend: we popped along to the Serpentine Gallery, to see the Jeff Koons show that’s on there at the moment. His first major show in Britain, apparently; his first major show in a 20-odd year career.

The Serpentine can seem quite a small gallery, at time, and we both soon realised that it wasn’t going to take us very long to get around the Koons exhibition. Before long, it felt like we’d seen all he had to say; before long, we were back at the front door.* The sculptures in the exhibition consisted of pristine replicas of inflatable toys, balanced precariously, or suspended from chains. According to the captions, all were made from cast aluminium, carefully finished to look exactly like the real thing. We had a hard time, in many cases, believing that they weren’t the real thing. Some were strangely interlaced with garden chairs or decorative ironwork; in those cases it was obvious it would be very hard to get real inflatables to behave like that. It was hard to think, though, that the other, uncorrupted inflatables shouldn’t be gently swaying in the breeze. We wanted to do some forbidden poking and prodding, to see if the sculptures genuinely were made of heavy aluminium.

I thought little again about it until the other day, when, in a quiet moment, I read Waldemar Januszczak‘s Sunday Times review of the show. In which he said:

Poking one of the show’s infla­table lobsters with my finger — which you, of course, are not allowed to do, and I was not supposed to, either — I found it solid, weighty and metallic, its convincing sense of weightlessness achieved with obsessive trompe l’oeil paintwork.

Hurrah! It wasn’t just us who wanted to prod the things: a respectable art critic wanted to do the same! Moreover, being a famous and well-respected art critic, he got away with it without being chucked out. I suspect that we wouldn’t quite have got away with it.

Januszczak, incidentally, found that the show put dark S&M thoughts in his head. It wasn’t something that immediately came to mind when we were there; but, the more I look back, the creepier the show felt. The juxtaposition of plastic, heavy chains, images of cartoons and trains spliced behind and in front of chopped-up pictures of bare skin, all has a disturbing weight behind it. The Koons show we saw was superficial on the surface, but there is always a risk of it coming back to haunt.

* after which we went on to spend rather longer in the gallery bookshop.

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