GERARD HOWLIN: We are eating more, for less — but the cost displacement is enormous

Garbage and plastic bottles on a beach left in Kota Kinabalu beach in Sabah Borneo, Malaysia.

The ultimate cost of every product includes the financial and environmental cost of disposal, writes Gerard Howlin

The explosion of popularity in cookery and gardening programmes mirrors exactly our mass divorce from farming or preparation of food.

What was once necessary for survival is now a fetish activity.

Simply to touch real soil or raw food is to reconnect momentarily with something that is otherwise irretrievably gone.

It’s right there with scented candles and exercise, which have replaced real physical work and the relaxation you feel instantly when you were lucky enough to rest from it.

Urbanisation separates most of us from farming of any kind. Convenience mean that cooking, when it happens, is about finishing off processes of preparation that began long before, and probably far away from our kitchen sink or cooker.

What we ingest is only one example. How we live requires extraordinary quantities of packaging. It is usually plastic. It’s a delusional and unsustainable.

Yesterday, the Waste Reduction Bill drafted by the Greens and co-sponsored by Labour was up for discussion in the Communications, Climate Action, and Environment Committee at Leinster House.

It proposes a deposit scheme for drink containers, principally the evil of the plastic bottle.

The other proposal deals with its twin, the Styrofoam cup. As the Green leader, Eamon Ryan, said when the bill was debated in the Dáil “our use of plastics accounts for 6% of global oil use, half in the feedstock for the material and half for the energy needed to make the bottle or container. For every kilogram of plastic, 6kg of carbon dioxide are put it into the atmosphere.”

That’s us folks!

We are eating more, for less — but the cost displacement is enormous

It’s how we live today. Replying to that debate, Environment Minister Denis Naughten said:

“We discard an incredible 80% of what we produce after a single use.”

That’s a fact that takes us from flaithúlach to disgusting.

It is end-of-the-Roman Empire stuff. And the inevitable result will be the same. Naughten is meeting the supermarkets tomorrow.

Now there is talk in Britain of plastic-free aisles. On Manor St in Dublin 7, we have several supermarkets nearby. It’s nearly plastic sheeting from door to door. That is not to speak of what is in tins. Older corner shops are nearly gone.

But newer ones have arrived instead. They are full of things you can pick up in your hand, and put in the bag you brought with you for the purpose.

They are offering as much a different experience, as a different product.

Is that nice, or is it nonsense? Doesn’t cheap food require preservation and refrigeration or both?

The fact is that supermarkets are big because they broke the mould once. It is also an intensely competitive sector and one that is reasonably good at delivering value. They have to be to survive.

Food inflation proves that. We are eating more, for less, than ever. But the cost displacement is enormous. Don’t think about waste charges, unless you stop to think of how you live. Nobody fills your bin except yourself.

The need to radically change is underlined by the fact that since 2011 we have gone from 25 operational landfills to just two. Ireland has an imminent crisis. We are it.

We are eating more, for less — but the cost displacement is enormous

One very good thing the minister has done is to publish a clear and, I think, idiot-proof national list of what is recyclable.

Amazingly that didn’t exist. The disposable coffee cup, made from paper but with a plastic lining that is difficult to remove, is not included. So that must go in the black bin.

The issue now is advertising and education. Good to have a list out there. But it takes time and repetition to internalise it. Reality is bearing down. China which took 95% of our plastic waste in 2016, is having none of it from this year on.

Ineffective segregation is the issue. At 61kg of plastic waste, per person, per year Plastic Paddy is in first place in
Europe.

On cups I have expertise. My very first job, age 13, was as tea boy on a building site. Duties included washing every mug properly. Tea was made in the kettle and poured communally. I have no recollection of coffee at all.

That said, I have nothing against it. What I do know is that there was a long and full life before takeaway, plastic-lined cups designed to hold hot liquids.

There is absolutely no reason those who want to take away, shouldn’t have to have their drinking vessel if they want the pleasure and convenience. It’s only unthinkable because we haven’t done it.

Remember, we were in that space once with plastic bags. It couldn’t be done. The world would fall in for some unspecified reason. But Noel Dempsey went ahead and did it, as some years before Mary Harney banned smoky coal. We have gotten used to a lot of stuff we don’t need.

We are eating more, for less — but the cost displacement is enormous

We think it’s inimical to the product. But it’s waste, and it’s a cost. The ultimate real cost of every product includes the financial and environmental cost of disposal. That’s not to mention Christmas.

Cancelling Christmas, as the festival of the disposable culture it has become, would probably be the single best environmental initiative we could take. All that wrapping becomes instant waste.

As I was preparing for my career in tea, there was a childhood deeply influenced by Tupperware. It was a 70s thing. At least the novelty was. Mothers went to Tupperware parties.

In an era when most pubs were ‘men only’, it made perfect sense. Back home from these Bacchanalian events arrived exotic plastic containers that self-sealed completely. They were seminal.

Sandwiches, previously wrapped in paper and invariably squashed in
a school bag, were now preserved intact until lunch time. What went into a tupperware tub that morning was still recognisable hours later. The lunch box was endlessly reused.

Yet takeaways are swathed in cartons and plastic- lined paper containers. Wrap them in paper and, if you require more, provide it yourself. It will disable an enormous global model of wanton waste.

But businesses are innovators. That’s why they are there. They change all the time to survive.

Mr Naughten says that “every day 2m throwaway coffee cups are sent to landfill here”.

We are eating more, for less — but the cost displacement is enormous

It’s hard to visualise but it must be true. China is now closed as a destination for the untreated effluent of our lifestyle. Disposability, which is our essential idiom now, is a strange thing.

It’s embraced as a release from drudgery. But once arrived in the grip of
convenience, we seek to re-earth ourselves.

The actual feel of things is now a forgotten frisson. The joke about nothing being in the briefcase, except the lunch box was funny because it was sometimes true. Two million throwaway coffee cups, every day, paying a latte levy of 20 cents, is €400,000. Costs are real.

We can pay up-front, or we can pay anyway. You can always bring your mug up to the counter.


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