06 August 2020, The Tablet

The perils of packaging and waste in lockdown

The perils of packaging and waste in lockdown

Uncollected recycling around bins in Harringay, north London, in May.
Matt Crossick/Matt Crossick/Empics Entertainment

You could track the rise of ecological self-consciousness by the messages the children absorbed at, and brought home from, school. With a long family, you can see trends rise and fall. 

When Rachel was at school, she would come home and harangue us about the evils of smoking, although neither of us has ever smoked. The boys, starting from a couple of years later, and over a period of six years, were more likely to bring home stories and painted posters about the dangers of traffic. There were still more dinosaurs than endangered species in their understanding of the natural world. 

By the time Mary went to school, ecology was beginning to be a trendy topic for primary creative writing, and we still cherish a slogan, written out colourfully and fixed to the lid of the compost bin, “Are you brain dead?”, showing separate heaps of what could and couldn’t be composted. 

Sadly, the poster fell into the bin and became compost itself long ago, but the slogan still lives (especially when someone absentmindedly drops the wrong thing into the bin). 

Margaret had ecology and endangered species, both animal and vegetable, to worry about, and came home with posters about pollution, the evils of cars and the undesirability of doing the school run in them. 

Since she had always walked to school, this was not really aimed at us, any more than the small clay ashtrays the boys had brought home from craft sessions. There is always a timelag, and I wonder what are the messages today. I imagine mainly about climate change, waste, and not flying, in more normal circumstances,

There’s nothing so beady-eyed as a small child watching a parent doing something that a beloved teacher has explained is bad for the planet, so for many years we have been careful to distinguish rubbish and recycling. The eyes stay beady even when the children get bigger, and catching people out is the joy of the ecological warrior. We used to pride ourselves on the amount of recycling we managed, and on how little we had to throw away. The ordinary rubbish bin was known censoriously as “landfill”, and we had boxes for paper and card and a different one for recyclable plastics. 

We tried to make sure there wasn’t too much in any of them, buying unwrapped fruit and vegetables, refill packs of soap etc where possible, meat from the butcher not the supermarket, and taking the egg boxes back to the chicken lady at the Farmers’ Market for refilling. 

I find sourcing this sort of thing is actually trickier in the affluent south-east than further north, but we do what we can. We have had two compost bins in the garden for years, and our council recently started a new scheme to collect all food waste and compost it once a week, so we had no excuse for not composting ever. After all, are we brain dead?  Then came the virus.

Shopping changed, supermarket shelves emptied and you weren’t supposed to go out. Once Rachel arrived home, we circled the wagons, with Rachel’s little wagon diligently circling in the middle on its own, like the hole in a doughnut. We started lockdown with a bang, as Mary thought she’d picked up the virus somewhere and we were all so terrified of Rachel catching it. It was a strange time, and it feels oddly long ago now and difficult to remember. We couldn’t go shopping, so we started having supplies delivered by a friendly local small supermarket and other internet suppliers, and our ecological rubbish started to pile up. 

Food arrived in compulsory plastic bags or beautiful solid cardboard boxes. In my innocence, I offered to return these from one delivery to the next, but the delivery drivers said they weren’t allowed to accept them, which of course was sensible. But I can’t do anything with the beautiful boxes except flatten them and put them in the recycling, when they would have been good to use several times. 

If the children were smaller, we could make castles or tunnels, but sadly we just end up ramming them into the cardboard bin, which no longer seems as capacious as it used to. The plastic bags are even worse, as they arrive with holes in and with knotted handles, so I can’t get them open, and they won’t even do to line the house bins, once you have ripped them apart.

Single use plastics cannot help but be a problem, as the only places delivering food easily are the supermarkets who pack everything in them.  Our (not very impressive) market is still shut. Now that shops are opening again, everything is shrouded in plastic so that you can be sure no one else’s fingers have touched what you might be eating. But all that “wrappaging” is filling my bins, and most of it is not recyclable. We are coming into the local soft fruit season and even my friendly local farmer’s shop is using plastic boxes for fruit like plums, mainly, I imagine, to avoid people picking their own from farm boxes into paper bags. It all makes epidemiological sense, but the rubbish is piling up.

The waste footprint of hospital PPE must be huge. If we use disposable face masks, we are adding to it. Home made cloth face masks have to be thoroughly washed after every outing. Should I be washing my sturdy reusable shopping bags? Hand sanitiser stations have sprouted everywhere in the shops: more plastic bottles, more paper towels. Wiping surfaces down means either paper towels or actual wet wipes, which we were all supposed to put behind us as a bad thing, especially after disposal, one of the key elements in fatbergs. 

And each new solution brings a new problem. For years I tried to persuade the children that handkerchiefs were a better bet ecologically than tissues. Tissues meant dead trees, and disposing of them was never perfect. Handkerchiefs were long-lasting, efficient, portable, washable and reusable. Then came the virus and handkerchiefs have never even been mentioned as a possible alternative. You are meant to field any cough or sneeze with a tissue, and then immediately bin it, somewhere safe, and wash your hands again. And this in peak hay fever season. I don’t know whether catching a sneeze in a hankie counts, but my pockets don’t have enough space for that many tissues.

Shopping less often, and having things delivered, means more food thrown away, as you have so much less control of sell-by dates. Another problem is if you don’t get what you asked for, and you were counting on it for that evening. Either you try to buy things safely ahead of time and they go mouldy, because what you’ve been sent is right up against its sell-by date, or you end up having to improvise at the last minute, but in any eventuality, there’s so much waste packaging.

It’s a shame because people were beginning to take waste seriously, from micro-plastics in the ocean to exporting waste to countries much poorer and less equipped to deal with it than ourselves.  Laudato si’ made it a high-profile and practical religious question and it was gaining traction. I feel really bad about the rubbish I cannot now avoid. I can’t even go to the dump without an appointment, and my beloved charity shops, such a good place to recycle unwanted or outgrown things, are only just starting to reopen and don’t really welcome donations at the moment. I don’t know how long it will take before we can get back to our pre-Covid levels of rubbish, but I hope it won’t be long before we start trying to.

At least there was far less traffic for a while, though it seems to me to be picking up again very quickly. And it’s the school holidays. It will be interesting to see what happens when the schools go back. Will people be so worried about contact on crowded narrow pavements that previous school-walkers will have to be dropped off? The biggest danger to pedestrian children near schools has always been the person who carefully drops off their own child and then charges away at speed without checking their mirrors.

Mary produced a couple of other good posters at school (it’s no wonder she’s a writer and copywriter now, we should have seen it coming). The first one was a traffic one about road crossing (I think every school year must have covered that since cars became mainstream), and it was “Stop Look Listen Don’t be dead”, which she still defends as alliterative and punchy, though I was called into school to discuss it (did I think she was unduly anxious about road death? – yes, and I wanted her to stay that way). 

The second is a small poster, which we put on the kitchen door where it remains, though I have to admit, for the joke rather than the message, solid though that is.  It is a picture of a good, dark-haired little girl, ostentatiously picking things up off the floor, while a smaller blonde child sits selfishly playing (and reprehensibly cackling in a speech bubble) in one corner. The slogan reads “Help at all times”. 


Kate Keefe composes musical settings for the Mass and writes about the psalms. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn

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