Waitrose has decided that what we all really want to do is have our food without all that excessive packaging. Well, maybe we do, maybe we’re mad enough to desire that. But the backing insistence here is that we must save resources. We must spend less of the world’s stuff on packaging our food that is, thereby saving resources. At which point this experiment becomes mad, entirely nutso – more so than Waitrose granola, that nutso.
Because the entire system is set up to increase resource use, not save it.
Our first look thought about the food itself:
So, to as the Chesterton’s Fence question. Why did we start packaging dry goods in the first place? The answer being that we found we had less waste that way. Sealed packaging is rather more difficult for weevils, flies, rats to get into. So, they ate less of the expensively grown food that we wanted to chow down upon.
Out in those places where they don’t package food the FAO – the food bit of the UN – tells us that entirely 50% of all food grown rots between farm and fork. Unpicking that idea of packaging food just doesn’t seem all that sensible really.
However, there’s another resource this expends more of – our time. Time being, given the arrow only pointing in one direction, the one truly non-renewable resource we’ve got. It’s also one that’s scarce. Few of us go into that long dark night complaining that we spent too little of our brief sojourn standing in supermarket queues. So, how do we get our food with the least human time having to be devoted to the task of our getting our food?
Probably with one spotty teen overseeing a packaging machine which creates nice little portioned amounts that tens of thousands of us can just grab off the shelf, right? Rather than all tens of thousands of us having to line up and measure it out ourselves.
So, packaging saves that second resource, our time, as well as the food. And then there’s where this whole Waitrose experiment becomes truly insane:
The shake-up – part of an 11-week trial – starts at the store entrance, where the cellophane wrap has been removed from all flowers and indoor plants and replaced with 100% recyclable craft paper and fibre-based pots. For those who have arrived unprepared for the opportunity to ditch all conventional packaging, reusable plastic containers are for sale ranging from tiny pots to 3.6-litre food canisters. In the fresh fruit and vegetable section, packaging has been removed from 160 lines – 75% of Waitrose’s fresh produce offering. Dozens of lettuce heads spill over a display, like a market stall. Pak choi, mangetout and spinach are piled high. Customers can put them in compostable bags or reusable cotton bags. Soft fruits and tomatoes, which are vulnerable to damage, are contained in cardboard punnets.
Isn’t that all lovely?
Hey, wait! Did they say reusable cotton bags? But we’ve got the numbers on those. From the government even:
We can even construct a little spectrum here. How many times do we need to reuse a bag for it to have as little resource use – and thus environmental effect – as just the one use of those thin single use plastic ones? Obviously enough, the single use that we’re told not to use has a value of one here. The bag for life must be reused 35 times. A bag for life from recycled plastic 84 times. A paper bag must be reused 43 times – yes, paper. A cotton bag 7,100 times and an organic cotton? 20,000. Which is the environmentally friendly option here? Clearly and obviously the one that everyone insists we must not use. So much for fashionable nostrums then.
Those cotton bags are going to be reused 7,100 times are they? Well, no, they’re not. That would be to use one every day – every single day – for 19 years, 164 and one quarter days. Not just one, but to use that one, that first one plucked off the pile. Or, actually, given the time of our lives spent shopping in Waitrose, more than our own usual lifespan. The cotton bags use more resources than the plastic ones we’re all abjuring in this experiment. And we’re doing this in the name of saving resources.
Yep, that’s insane. What’s worse is that there’re enough people out there who’ll go along with it, thereby making society as a whole poorer as a result. We’ll be poorer by what we could have done with these resources that we’re just wasting instead.
Think it through for a moment. Three mantras of our times – supermarkets mustn’t waste food because there are hungry people out there. That work life balance is just terrible and we should all have much more leisure. We must reduce the scarce resources we devote to packaging. We’re going to accord with these mantras by wasting more food, using more of our time to do so, while increasing the resources we devote to packaging. Yes, quite, it’s so insane it can only be a result of politics, isn’t it? We’ve actually an entire party devoted to such too.