Packaging, fellow-plastivists remind me, is not just about plastic. The current zest for over-packaging involves a range of materials, including paper, all carrying an environmental cost.
One particularly bad example comes via the sale of hot drinks on trains, which I was reminded of on a recent GWR journey. I was sitting in the same carriage as the buffet car, and tried to refuse the plastic lid which came with the paper-plastic cup. ‘You HAVE to have it,’ the man told me grumpily, ‘And a paper bag to carry it in, too.’ He added that the measure was in place to protect other passengers, but he didn’t care about me.
I emailed GWR about this policy which, if memory serves, was only introduced a decade or so ago. I’m pleased to say that GWR wrote back with a full explanation which demonstrated their awareness of the issues and detailed their plans for future improvements.
Only joking! This is what Karen from Customer Services actually wrote:
‘Thank you for contacting us regarding lids on all hot beverage’s this is for health and safety reasons, as we must think of the safety of all our passengers.
This is for own safety as well as other passengers. Passengers can not use there own cups unless they have a safety lid.
Thank you for getting in touch if you have any further questions please don’t hesitate to get in touch’
The cup half-full among you may notice something positive buried in this dismissive response: the acknowledgement that it’s possible to avoid disposable packaging entirely by using portable cups. And at least one train company, Arriva, is actively encouraging passengers to do this.
Next, I wrote to Amazon to let off steam about my ongoing beef with finding a small item in the bottom of a large box which then needs to be stuffed with packaging material because it’s too large for the item it contains. The latest example was a big box at the bottom of which lurked a couple of proof copies of my latest, particularly little, book.
The response was surprisingly emotional. Abinaya wrote back on behalf of what aspires to be ‘the earth’s most customer-centric company’, saying that she ‘highly appreciated’ my feedback. She went on:
‘Alex,the packaging methods we use have typically proven over time to protect item effectively. We take full responsibility for the safe delivery of your order, and if your order is damaged in any way, we’ll replace it free of charge.
‘As you know,Amazon is registering complaints regarding parcels damaging in transit,there’s a strict order from leadership to follow protective packaging guideline’s.This is one of most important policy which fulfilment team adheres to.
‘I really thank you from bottom of my heart for this feedback,we always love to hear from you.’
For me, what these responses show is the failure of companies to take the problem – and arguably, their customers – seriously. Supermarkets are responding quickly to the rise in consumer concern about packaging, although it remains to be seen how deeply the changes will go. But sometimes more – or rather less packaging – is possible than off-the-ball organisations are prepared to admit. A case in point comes from my own Wiltshire Council, whose website says that all household waste ‘should be bagged’. (Click on the section ‘Avoiding smells and maggots’.)
When I wrote to clarify whether it was really necessary for me to keep on buying plastic bin liners to go into landfill, the response contradicted this:
‘There is no policy to state that the household waste must be placed inside black bin bags. The bin is put onto a mechanism on the back of the lorry and the contents just tipped into the back,’ wrote Sian. ‘By doing this the bin would need regular cleaning and unfortunately this would have to be your responsibility.’
Fine. And so a single email brings to an end decades of unnecessary bin liners. The lesson for people wanting to reduce their consumption of packaging seems to be ALWAYS ASK: for their own reasons, many organisations are reluctant to advertise the greener alternatives.