Saturday cartoon by Ralph Underhill

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1 Reply to “Saturday cartoon by Ralph Underhill”

  1. “But why should we even have the option of buying damaging products?”

    There are a few product categories where the arguments are clear cut – lead shot in shot gun cartridges is one – but for most product categories things are much less straightforward.

    Nearly any product you can think of involves some level of harm to the environment in its production, use or disposal but we quickly run into problems if we suggest that they should be banned. Take cars for example. They are a major source of air pollution, noise pollution and the road networks required to allow them to drive around slice up the countryside and wildlife habitats. There are therefore very strong arguments as to why we should aim to be less dependent on cars but, if I am honest, I would find it very difficult to manage my life without a car at all and I can see that there are many people for whom their car is even a lot more essential for ensuring a reasonable quality of life than it is for me. It is clearly not an option for the government to ban cars.

    With respect to plastic packaging the situation may seem to be clear cut. We have all seen the awful pictures of massive floating islands of plastic in the oceans and of sea-birds, turtles, fish and other marine life tangled or choked by this stuff and then there are all the micro-particles of the stuff that are less visible but perhaps even more harmful. It is a major problem that requires a drastic solution. I am not convinced, however, that simply banning plastic packaging is that solution. If plastic packaging only had downsides compared to other materials a ban would be easy to justify but plastic is used because it offers significant advantages as well. For example, a plastic drinks bottle weighs much less than a glass bottle of the same volume and therefore requires less energy (and consequently produces less air pollution and green-house gas emissions) to transport it from factory to shop. I don’t pretend to know where the balance lies between the environmental impacts of plastic versus glass bottles, but am simply making the point that the issues are not just black and white. For some product categories, at least, plastic represents the best packaging option available. By the same token, of course, there are examples where single-use plastic is not the best option and shopping bags and coffee cups are perhaps obvious examples.

    I understand that a cartoon is not the place for a nuanced weighing up of all the pros and cons of a particular course of action and, by making a satirical point that makes us think, the cartoonist can justify a somewhat simplistic approach. I believe, though, that it is important to recognize that many of the environmental issues that face us are complex and often not amenable to single, simple solutions and that, potentially, actions taken to address one problem can sometimes exacerbate another. It may sometimes be possible to ban the use or production of a clear-cut environmental villain but it seems to me that in all sorts of product areas we will continue to be obliged to struggle over complicated personal choices in the purchases we make and that in making these choices we will often have to compare apples with pears.

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