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Issue 9 - December 1972
The Trash Trade
On Saturday November 4th, the Newcastle branch of Friends of the Earth descended upon Newcastle, carrying some 40 large cardboard boxes, a dustbin and assorted rubbish (including the ever-present non-returnables).

The aim of this particular exercise was to attract attention to the workings of the 'trash-trade' - i.e. the art of over-packaging in order to sell a product.

We certainly attracted attention, and we also gained a considerable amount of sympathy from various members of the public. But the display was only the very tip of the over-packaging iceberg. What we tried to put over in Eldon Square was the fact that we are paying ridiculous amounts for unwanted rubbish and, as Christmas looms ahead, this process will increase tremendously. What we are still working on is the hidden cost, in natural resources, litter clearance, and a fairly new aspect, that of built-in obsolescence.

Whenever a returnable, reusable form of packaging is replaced by a non-returnable throwaway one, enormous quantities of raw materials and fuels - finite resources - are wasted. In the case of bottles, each returnable bottle is replaced on average by about 20 non-returnable bottles. Twenty times more energy consumed means more danger of oil spills (remember Torrey Canyon), more pylons, more pump-storage units, more flooded valleys - ad infinitum, twenty times more raw materials means more quarrying, more dredging, more noise, more fuel consumption, and more polluting by-products. The same arguments can be applied to other wasteful forms of packaging, such as plastic milk bottles (if all milk bottles were plastic, the daily production and wastage would be over 30 million bottles), extra layers of card, plastic, paper, polythene and polystyrene on supermarket goods, the replacement of cardboard reusable egg-boxes by plastic ones which do not even afford the eggs as much protection, and so on.

The resulting consequences far outweigh any short-term gains which may be presented by excess packaging.

Whenever returnable containers are replaced by non-returnables the monetary cost of such action is borne by the consumer - that's you. Instead of 20 consumers sharing the cost of a returnable container, each has to purchase a non-returnable container.

So the cost of the product is increased, even though there is no increase in the quality. In cases where the packaging costs more than the goods inside this increase is proportionally large.

Examples of cost to consumer include:

TOOTHPASTE - costs 22-25p, although the contents are worth 3p.
CORNFLAKES - exact cost unknown, but the packaging costs more than the contents.
SOFT DRINKS - packaging more than the contents (in non-returnables).
COSMETICS - on average the cost ratio is 80:20 in favour of packing.

There are more, most of which can be seen in supermarkets and other large shops.

Basically this problem should be the responsibility of the Department of the Environment. However their attitude can be summed up in a letter sent to Friends of the Earth (NE): "It is when it is deposited as litter that packaging becomes an immediate problem to the environment, and the Secretary of State has accordingly decided to sponsor a representative one day conference on the relationship between packaging and litter." The conference was held in March and we are still waiting for the results.

However it is a step in the right direction. To refer to a report by the DOE Working Party on refuse disposal:

We have no reason to doubt an estimated £800 million spent annually on packaging in the UK, representing 7,000 million bottles (1,200m plastics), 6,000 million tinplate cans and innumerable cartons and boxes. The above report was prepared in April 1971: once again no action has been taken.

And finally, if you think that articles which are overpackaged and on sale at supermarkets are cheaper, this is only because the store buys them in bulk. The articles could be even cheaper if they were sensibly wrapped. Unfortunately the manufacturers seem to think they won't sell in this state.

It's up to you to prove him wrong, by buying other brands that are not overpackaged, by refusing excess wrappings, or even by telling the manufacturers what you think. That extra paper bag is more of a hazard than you think.

Colin Clews (FOE)