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.