Opinion: Are We Paying the Price for Plastic Packaging?
Mark Brinkley wonders whether the building trade is ready to give up its reliance on over-packaged products
W e have David Attenborough’s Blue Planet to thank for bringing about an almost universal condemnation of our hapless and careless use of plastics. The butt of our disdain so far has been aimed at supermarkets and their habit of over-wrapping goods which already have decent protective skins. But while all this has been happening, I’ve been gently pushing towards the conclusion of an urban self-build in the backstreets of Cambridge and I’ve spent much of my time filling skips — 17 in total during the course of the build.
But whereas the early ones were filled with soil and broken up concrete, lately I have become alarmed by the volume of plastic I have been putting in
the skips. A huge amount of stuff has been bought for the new house and most of it has come wrapped in plastic, much of it quite unnecessarily so.
The worst offender was actually a mattress that came from John Lewis. It looked like the mattress just came in a cardboard box, but inside the box were two skins of thick plastic, one wrapped around the mattress and the other sandwiched between the inner film and the cardboard box. Now you need to keep a mattress dry, for sure,
but it isn’t something that is likely to break in transit and it’s also unlikely to be stored outside.
As the job moved towards its conclusion, the amount of plastic multiplied so that the last couple of skips seemed to consist of almost nothing except wrappers and padding of one kind or another.
There is, of course, a reason for all this. Many materials are routinely picked up by builders and put on the back of an open truck. If it’s raining, the goods will get wet and that’s bad news for most building materials. Even a plastic damp-proof membrane needs to stay dry, so a roll of plastic required to keep damp from penetrating the floor needs to be wrapped in something waterproof to stop it getting wet in transit. The same logic applies to bricks which also routinely get wrapped in plastic. Brickies like bricks to be dry when laid, so wrapping them in plastic makes sense.
But hark. Bricklayers were laying bricks thousands of years before plastic was invented. How did the poor dears cope? Well cope they did. Maybe they took a little more time to do it, but the results were just as pleasing, if not more so. Herein lies a clue to what is happening. We live in an age where labour is relatively expensive and anything such as plastic, which reduces the amount of time spent on site, is good news for builders and their clients. And anything that minimises
call backs – like materials damaged in transit – helps even more. Unlike labour, plastic and foam packaging is so cheap and ubiquitous that it makes financial sense to use it wherever you can in order to smooth the process of transporting and storing materials. Plastic is just so damn convenient.
So could building materials suppliers be persuaded to use less packaging? The builders themselves have no control over how their materials are delivered to site, so the change would have to be made further upstream in the supply chain. Logically, the way to do this would be via a plastic tax, which would make suppliers look for alternatives. But are we ready for such a thing? And would the tax be able to distinguish between useful plastics and throwaway plastics? While David Attenborough has shown us just how damaging our addiction to plastic is, thus far we have only paid lip service to how to confront it.
“As the job moved towards its conclusion, the amount of plastic multiplied — the last couple of skips seemed to consist of nothing except wrappers and padding”