The simple act of compelling larger retailers to charge 5p on plastic bags in England at the end of 2015 has had a dramatic effect on people’s behaviour – you now see shoppers emerging from supermarkets with trolleys filled with an assortment of reusable household bags rather than the one-off sort. The insistence of the industry that this was unnecessary regulation proved groundless and shops and their customers adapted remarkably quickly! It’s amazing what a small levy can do to change behaviour, although it only goes so far.
Sales of SUVs are booming once again in America and elsewhere, presumably in response to the fall in the price of gasoline. More alarming still, one reads accounts of the discontinuation of small car lines by well known manufacturers. Meanwhile outside the forecourt, plastic bottles and cans proliferate on the sides of urban thoroughfares and country roads. It’s not clear to me whether the Herculean task of cleaning up this mess is the responsibility of the Highways Agency or of the local councils, but it’s clearly a huge financial burden.
Either way, it seems that there are limits to what enforcing existing rules or creating new ones can achieve in encouraging all of us to be more respectful of our environment. Surveys have shown that in many countries, people consider littering normal behaviour or, at the most, a very minor transgression. Of course there’s a very wide variation in what is considered acceptable; in some parts of the world there is little public tolerance of this kind of thing.
Perhaps there is another way to tackle the problem. No so long ago, the milkman collected empties and the famous cantilevered Coca Cola bottle had a deposit! Lynyrd Skynyrd even wrote a song about it:
Well I used to wake the mornin’ before the rooster crowed
Searchin’ for soda bottles to give myself some dough
Brought ‘em down to the corner, down to the country store
Cash ‘em in and give my money to a man named Curtis Lowe.
In other words, in those days some value was attributed to the glass content in the bottle. This is clearly not the case with the plastic in the water bottles and the metal in the cans which now lie discarded in their emblazoned glory where they have no place to be! If the consumer enterprises that bottle and can drinks were to guarantee some value for the glass and plastic from which they are made, we might see a lot less of them lying around or floating about in our seas and rivers.
This would not come without some cost because I’m proposing that the bottlers & canners should guarantee those residual values regardless of the vagaries of the market value (i.e. a fixed price per bottle or can) in order to encourage fundamental change in the way these items are viewed. In return, as well as a supply of recyclable material they would benefit from reputational advantages to their firms.
I have one further suggestion for our friends in industry, specifically the mining companies. With sluggish growth forecast, some of these behemoths are currently deferring investment in new projects citing low commodity prices. They too have reputational damage to make good as the Samarco dam burst in Brazil, and the BP Gulf spill before that, have shown only too well. So why not consider the stock of obsolete computers and dead cars as a resource equivalent to the metal ores currently extracted and go into the recycling business big time? As the recent expression of interest in the Port Talbot steelworks by Liberty House shows, this is not as farfetched as it might seem although it would require a fundamental change in attitudes by all parties including the unions. And of course there is no reason why the same thinking could not be applied to other materials like plastic assuming the extraction and reprocessing technology is there to harness.
Sheikh Yamani, perhaps the best known Saudi Oil Minister, described plastic as one of the “noble uses of oil.” That might have been true in the seventies but it certainly isn’t regarded that way anymore. In conclusion, let me say that if anyone is wondering about the title of this blog (Don’t throw litter in Portuguese), it is a sign you see everywhere in the Brazilian Pantanal along with other placards requesting people to respect the forest animals. Even the more remote and beautiful areas of the world (and indeed space) suffer from the unwanted discards of modern life.