TERRY PRONE: Greens slash and burn as they propose to get tough on plastics

Picture: Maurice O'Mahony

Never in the history of humanity has prosperity and waste danced together in such lockstep, writes Terry Prone

Permit me to introduce you to a new class of people. This new cohort could be called the Slash Folk. Or perhaps the Dash People. Relatively new to our world, they are, but not what you would call aliens. One example? Stylist/blogger/writer. Another? Personal Trainer/Mentor/Writer. A third? Make-up Artist/Personal Dresser/Concierge.

Anyone whose business card features a rake of slashes or dashes needs to think again, because it signals the desperation of people caught in the gig economy who are grabbing any bit of money that’s going and who aren’t making enough of it in any one of the roles they claim. It’s a deadly giveaway, and the sad part is that most of the Slash Folk and Dash People are women. I’ve seen only one recent example of a Dash Man. His business card read Consultant/Disrupter/Digital Marketing. “Disrupter” is a relatively recent cliché meaning someone who overturns a business model. Now, if this man were a real disrupter, he’d be making enough money not to have such a frantic introductory card.

All of these unfortunates would be better advised to pick one and concentrate on it. The point is that it’s perfectly OK to be a Renaissance man or woman. It’s perfectly OK to do one main thing and engage in nixers on the side. One political PR man I knew got well paid to do the day job, but got his kicks and a few extra bob playing in a jazz band at weekends. He did not, however, hand around cards reading “Ministerial Advisor/Trombonist”.

The Slash/Dash thing has invaded government departments, and I hope the new Taoiseach does something about it. Once upon a time, we had a Department of the Environment, and the citizens knew that it dealt with housing and every other aspect of the built environment. It also dealt with local government, roads, bridges and pipes bringing water to homes and businesses. Now, every government department is broken up into a myriad of responsibilities and nobody can remember the central function of any of them. Media long ago gave up on the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (if that’s what it’s called) and simply call it Deeper, which is confusing, especially now that Paschal is in charge of it and almost everything else.

It’s all about mission creep, and mission creep is a bad thing. Witness what happened to the Green Party in recent years. They started out as the parliamentary wing of Greenpeace and other environmental activists and ended up as nothing in particular. A tiny party in Government, they had the double-edged sword, in Eamon Ryan, of a nerdy enthusiastic spokesperson who could pitch up and talk about just about everything, while in the process reducing public identification of him and his party with the one specific draw of the Green environment. Although the odd candidate who is known and loved, locally, has squeaked into the Dáil, the Greens have been in decline, partly because of association with a Government on whose watch the recession blew us all up, but partly, too, because they didn’t keep the protection of the natural environment as their unique selling proposition.

Protecting the natural environment comes way down the agenda of most mainstream political parties, despite being central to present and future life on the planet. It is, however, the rock on which the Green church was built. Their launch, on Saturday, of the Waste Reduction Bill 2017, is congruent with that. The bill takes what Noel Dempsey did for plastic bags. Dempsey changed the landscape by cutting through good intentions and whacking us all with a charge every time we needed a plastic bag at the cash register of our local supermarket. The public started to save their grocery bags and invest in long-term green versions and curse themselves (and Noel Dempsey) every time they forgot their bags and found themselves having to pay for plastic. Instead of plastic bags lurking everywhere, just waiting to tie themselves to the high branches of trees or on a high wind day wrap themselves around your legs or face, they became, literally, thin on the ground.

The Greens are more soft-hearted than Dempsey, and so what they’re proposing is a deposit refund scheme on glass, plastic bottles, and cans. That would mean the consumer not only doesn’t have to pay a levy up front, as is the case with buying plastic bags, but would get a refund if they brought these items back. They are proposing getting tough on single-use, non-recyclable plastics such as coffee cups and plastic cutlery. It’s arguable that twinning these two may lead to the defeat of the bill, whereas the first, on its own, might have a better chance of passing. The level of lobbying by the fast food industry around the plastic coated cups and cutlery is likely to be high.

Discarded plastics are choking the seas, destroying coastlines, and stuffing landfills. Waste, in general, has grown exponentially since, in 1960, Vance Packard’s The Waste Makers generated a transient concern about what he dubbed “planned obsolescence”. Every generation since then, right across the developed world, has needed bigger bins to cope with the waste they generate. Despite all the green bin and recycling efforts, waste generation fell by only 8% between 2003 and 2013 in Europe.

It has been suggested that the recession may have had a brief beneficial effect on waste generation, but the reality is that, in 2013, the average European generated 481kg of waste. Never in the history of humankind has prosperity and waste danced together in such lockstep. Never in the history of humankind has plastic pollution been such a challenge.

“Every year, over 110m tonnes of plastic is produced,” Mr Ryan maintains. “Of this, up to 43% ends up in landfill. According to the UN, 8m tonnes of plastic leak into oceans each year. It’s now predicted that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish and that 99% of seabirds will have ingested plastic.”

Surveys suggest that almost nine out of 10 people in Ireland like the sound of a deposit refund scheme. Just how enthusiastic local authorities would be about it is unclear, and logically, they would be the ones to operate it. Denis Naughton is quoted by the Greens as being in favour. The question is this: Will the Slash Folk support it? They’re the ones who buy almost all of their meals in cardboard containers with plastic cutlery supplied. They’re the ones who consume most of the coffee sold in once-off beakers. They’re the ones buying water in plastic bottles. You don’t see many of them arriving in Costa Coffee with their own re-usable cup, or re-filling their water bottle from the tap. They’re too busy/broke/disrupted to think much about the future of the planet unless the Greens manage to reach out and convert them as earlier environmentalists did for earlier generations, at least for a time.


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