I am delighted to see John Vidal explaining that there’s no way of making current levels of consumption “environmentally friendly” (The solution to the plastic waste crisis? It’s not recycling, Journal, 15 January). But I am alarmed when he says: “Can consumption ever be contained? Easily.” It will not be easy.
It is simply wishful thinking to say that “we can learn to just say no to buying ever more new stuff”. We are comprehensively addicted to our consumerist lifestyles; the western economic model is fundamentally predicated on consumerism; and, while the machinery of power will tolerate the sorts of marginal changes mentioned by Vidal, it will fiercely resist anything on the scale required if we are to seriously address our social and environmental crises.
I suggested in my 2016 book Bad Habits, Hard Choices that a possible solution is what I called SmartVAT. Using the obesity crisis as an example, I propose that we should increase the price of harmful products by using a higher rate of VAT, and decrease the price of helpful or “good” products through negative VAT. I present evidence that, suitably designed and presented, this approach would be considered fair by the British public, and could be fiscally neutral to the exchequer. In his 2017 book Heat, Greed and Human Need, Prof Ian Gough suggests that SmartVAT could provide an important transitional process towards a more sustainable economy.
In the end, a sustainable economy will come into being if we, as consumers, demand it. But we will need help to get there. “Just say no” is not, and never has been, enough.
• John Vidal is right to say there is no way of making our current levels of consumption environmentally friendly. However, our report is not simply promoting recycling and an end to consumer confusion.
While recycling will certainly form part of a sustainable system, it wasn’t the main focus of this research. Instead, we show that companies in the grocery sector – under pressure from the public and in the absence of government leadership – run the risk of simply replacing plastic with other single-use materials. We call for solutions that “address the systemic problems of our throwaway society, to avoid the risk of simply substituting current environmental problems with new ones”.
Vidal argues for more reuse. The final sections of our report outline how such systems are making inroads and companies are considering how to incorporate more refill models into their operations. This is cause for hope in the battle against throwaway living. Single-use culture is now such a part of everyday life that it will take a huge joint effort to break it, from government, producers, retailers, recyclers, the media and consumers.
We believe that the first step should be to consider all materials we use, not just plastic.
• I am just home from two days’ emergency care in the NHS, full of gratitude and admiration for people working there. But it seems modern medicine is built on single-use plastic. What is the cost, in money and to the environment, of the production and disposal of it all? It is clearly taken for granted, as workers and patients ask no questions about it. Do we all assume there is no alternative? Yet John Vidal says, rightly, that we must stop building these mountains.
• Here in Birmingham we now have two The Clean Kilo shops where you go with your own containers and/or bags, weigh these empty, then fill and weigh them. The shops have a large range of dry goods, cleaning materials, herbs and spices, a selection of sweets, savoury products and locally grown vegetables. The friendly staff stand ready to help people if necessary. Most of the products sold are organic. Their motto is “refuse, reduce, reuse”, with recycle as an inferior option. We need more The Clean Kilo shops and plastic-free aisles in supermarkets. This is surely part of the solution.
• John Vidal’s piece claims that excess consumption and disposal of goods of any kind is a more important consideration than the choice of materials (paper plastic or glass) that the consumed goods should be made of.
I agree, but his suggestions on how to contain consumption ignore an important fact: local governments subsidise waste. The amount of waste your household produces does not make a difference in your taxes. People who produce less waste are paying for the more wasteful households.
Jose Roberto Senna
São José dos Campos, Brazil
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