What a Waste!

18 05 2008

On Thursday Mr President wrote about the bin tax and how it demonstrated an increasing problem with politics today. Governments seem to only have two words in their vocabulary; tax and ban. If they don’t ban something they’ll tax it into oblivion, and whilst he certainly thinks taxation is more appropriate in a democratic society than bans, he thinks they’re “using a machete where a scalpel would be better suited.”

Surprisingly the post didn’t generate a lot of interest, with only one comment, yet fortunately enough the comment was a very good one. So thank you Stella. When writing a follow-up to the comment, Mr President wrote such a great deal that he thought he might expand it into a post of its own. Maybe this time you lot will comment!

Many of the issues Stella raised in that comment are incredibly valid, and actually Mr President has never denied that the issue of waste is important. He actually supports replacing plastic carrier bars for shopping with paper ones, which can be recycled, and even if they aren’t will decompose a lot quicker than plastic. They also pose no danger to wildlife. Yet what about what’s actually in the bags? There’s waste there too.

Stella raised the points about both packaging and produce and here there really is a rather large issue, in particular produce. There was a report issued the other day that showed that the average British family throws away £600 of perfectly edible (not passed the use by date) unopened food every year. That’s not just a waste of food, it’s a waste of the packaging, and comes to a national total of £10 billion of waste.

Mr President was raised not to waste food because of all the people starving in the world, but it seems that ever since the TV stopped showing so many campaigns for people starving in Africa and other parts of the world, we’ve forgotten that they still exist and that we mustn’t waste food. People need to do what he does; plan their meals when they shop and buy just what they can eat and no more. Of course people are working longer and longer hours these days which is encouraging bad habits.

Where he takes umbrage with Stella’s arguments is where she talks about rising oil prices and suggests using less plastic will lower the price of petrol. In theory using less plastic would decrease the price of petrol, but the price of petrol is no longer driven by supply and demand. Mr President trades oil futures and will tell you that if oil was purely driven by supply and demand it would be no more than $70 a barrel.

The current premium is driven primarily by fears over shortages in the event of terrorist activities, which only further justifies the use of draconian measures. That was really the point being discussed in that other post. The complaint wasn’t that the issue of waste doesn’t need addressing, but with the measures used. When talking about smoking and the lack of a 1:1 correlation his point wasn’t that we need one to do anything.

Scientific research will rarely prove a 1:1 correlation, but he argues that only when we have one can we, in a free society, justify using draconian measures. Anything less requires a level of subtlety and nuance that politicians seem to have forgotten in their zeal to get easy votes. Hence the point about machetes instead of scalpels.

Taking it back, then, to the issue of waste, what is required isn’t a bin tax, or even banning the use of plastic bags, but rather more sophisticated measures. For example tax breaks for companies that use paper bags instead of plastic. Better regulation of packaging is necessary and we need to better educate people as to how to minimise food wastage. Even if the oil price rise wasn’t caused by allowing Opec to dictate inflated prices, food prices are also on the rise, so wasting food is unacceptable.

What a shame, then, that governments still only know two words; tax and ban.


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4 responses

19 05 2008
Stella Devine

There’s some very interesting research by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago on the concept of libertarian paternalism. This is the idea of allowing free choice, but presenting the options in such a way that most people will make an optimal decision. For example, organ donation. In many countries (e.g. France, Italy, Singapre) organ donation is presumed to be consented to, unless a person elects not to donate. Their rate for organ donation is approximately 90%. Conversely, in the USA, donors must opt in to donate their organs. There, the rate of donation is around 28%, although 86% of people polled state that they approve of organ donation. I believe this question merits some consideration: How could we present the choices about consumerism and excessive packaging in such a way that people would find it easier to choose to consume less?

You’re right about oil prices, of course. An interesting hypothetical question is what would happen if we did all stop driving our cars? What if all our vehicles were suddenly replaced by hybrid cars, or effective mass transportation was introduced and heartily adopted by the population? What would the fallout be for Middle Eastern economies if there was no market for oil? Would it increase terrorism as they sought to punish us for our disloyalty?

19 05 2008
Mr President

I’ve heard about that approach to organ donation and think it’s a very smart way to approach such things. I’m a prime example. Here in the UK organ donation is opt-in, and although I’ve always said I’d be fine with being a donor, I’ve never actually gotten round to getting a donor card to indicate this. It’s really just apathy and laziness at work.

If it were opt-out, this sort of apathy wouldn’t be a problem. In fact apathy is probably the single biggest problem we have to combat for many issues; people are too busy to care (look at food waste).

Although I can’t think how we could apply the same approach to excess waste and packaging, if someone can, that seems a far more intelligent way forward than bans or taxes. Why aren’t our politicians looking at it?

Heh, I hadn’t thought about that point about cars. If we did stop consuming oil the middle eastern economies would crumble. How could they afford to fund terrorist activites any longer? Perhaps, in a strange twist, reducing our need for oil would help fight terrorism?

Hybrids are an interesting topic really, the conventional hybrids are actually less fuel efficient than our normal petrol-driven cars but hydrogen-driven cars seem more likely to be the right way forward.

The only real issue with them is filling stations. It’s not easy to transport and store hydrogen safely (it’s far more flammable than petrol) but we’re already making good strides forward.

19 05 2008
Stella

What if there were incentives or rebates for buying small fridges? How about making supermarket trolleys smaller? What if we had a fourth bin (the first three are rubbish, recycling and compost) to collect unopened non perishable food to be distributed to the needy?

In major cities in Australia (sadly, not where I live!) the supermarket chains are beginning to offer e-ordering and home delivery. The system remembers what you ordered last time and creates a shopping list for you. As smart fridges are adopted into more homes, it should be possible to adapt this function to help people buy less instead of more. For example, get nutritionists on board at the design stage of the fridge, to load it with software so that you punch in the number of people in the household and the fridge organises your meal plan, recipes and shopping list. Wow, I love that idea so much I am feeling warm and fuzzy all over.

Was it hydrogen that blew up the Zeppelins? Seems like a big marketing challenge to overcome. Another alternative to using cars so much is to change our lifestyles. If I didn’t have to be at work on the other side of town by such a ridiculous hour every morning, I could walk. More walking would also solve the burgeoning obesity crisis and probably the health care crisis too. Wait, I’m going to go and write all this down at australia2020.gov.au

19 05 2008
Mr President

I see someone’s been thinking very laterally, what with the smaller fridges and smaller supermarket trolleys. My local supermarket has already been doing this, but they also keep the larger ones, so it’s not even as if it’d be that hard; they’d just have to ditch the large ones.

The idea of having a bin to collect unopened and non-perishable food for the needy is a fantastic one, and a perfect example of how we can allow people to basically be as apathetic and lazy as they want to be yet still combat the problem. How hard would it be to throw food into that bin instead of the rubbish one? It’d make a huge difference.

A lot of supermarkets use online shopping over here but I don’t think it’s really done much to reduce what people buy. Yet the combination of online shopping with smart fridges seems like the way forward there, and a perfect example of using technology smartly. It’s a great idea that will actually allow people to waste less food and get around their usual complaint of not having enough time to plan or shop.

In fact the use of smart fridges would give people more time, not to mention the idea that, using nutritionists, we could actually use it to help people be healthier in their diets. Given that obesity is as much of a problem as food wastage this kills two birds with one stone. Like you I think we need to change the way we work. It would reap just so many benefits, cut down obesity, reduce our need for cars and allow parents more time with their kids, not to mention reduce stress.

Hydrogen is what was in Zeppelins but I’m not sure that would be that much of a turn off. Let’s not forget the Hindenburg disaster was in 1937, this is 2008, over 70 years later. Technology has come a long way since then, and it’s not as if petrol hasn’t caused its fair share of explosions. Nuclear disasters have done little to stop environmentalists touting it as the solution to all our problems (I’m unconvinced).

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