Beneath our greenhouse-gas-emitting, throw-away culture, a peaceful revolution is rumbling. A radical shift in social attitude is effecting a change in the way we behave as consumers. People are increasingly daunted by the longevity of plastic and the environmental harm it can cause. Excessive packaging evokes feelings of discomfort, anger, and revulsion.
The word “revolution” comes from Latin revolvere, “to roll back” – a particularly apt definition in this case, given the efforts of passionate activists to lead us all back to a refill culture that disappeared only a few decades ago. It was a way of life that knew no alternative to buying loose commodities, carrying reusable shopping bags, mending clothes and appliances, and returning milk bottles to the milkman. It was a way of life born not of design, but by default.
Can we recreate these sustainable habits of the past? Are we capable of turning back?
A habit, by definition, is hard to break, and it takes neither thought nor effort to continue. A habit is like a body of water finding its level. It’s an automatic, default action.
Biology is all about conserving energy – for example, the processes of hibernation, fat storage, and abscission (leaf shedding). So it’s perfectly natural that we’ll develop habits to make our lives easier. Driving the same route to work every day, taking morning medication while the kettle’s boiling, and switching off lights as you leave a room are all examples of habitual actions that are performed with no cognitive effort. In fact, they become so easy, through repetition, you might not even be aware you’re doing them. Habits are basically formed out of self-interest.
The way we lead our lives is heavily influenced by personal finances.
In 1955, the average weekly earnings for a male manual worker was £10/17s.
Below are a few prices from 1955:
If a television cost you 15 weeks’ wages to replace, you’d probably be more inclined to get your old one mended. The same goes for a piece of furniture that would cost more than three times your weekly wage to replace, or a washing machine that would swallow almost six weeks’ earnings.
So what does the wage/price ratio look like in 2022?
In 2022, weekly earnings for a full-time worker on £9 per hour (slightly above minimum wage) is £360.
Here are a few average prices for 2022:
If it’s easier and cheaper to replace an old item than to mend it, then that’s what we’re going to do.
And if it’s easier and cheaper to bulk-buy plastic-packaged milk for £0.40 per pint than single pints in glass bottles for £0.84 per pint, then that, too, is what we’re going to do. In 1955, 1 pint of milk cost 7 old pence, which was approximately 0.3% of a manual worker’s weekly wage (£10/17s = 2604 old pence).
NOTE: The average annual salary in the UK is £33,000, which equates to £634 per week.
If it’s not available, you can’t have it. The way of life we look back on nostalgically was not an expression of environmental concern but a way of achieving the highest degree of comfort, health, and happiness with what was available. Just like in today’s world, adults in the mid-20th century lived their lives with self-serving goals.
The lightweight, reusable carrier bag was invented in 1959 as a sustainable alternative to the single-use paper bag. Produced in bulk, polyethylene bags were cheap, and it was in retailers’ interest to provide shoppers with complimentary carrier bags. Because carrier bags were free, they were often discarded after a single use, and by the early 21st century, billions of free bags were being circulated each year in the UK.
Since October 2015, large retailers have been required by law to charge customers for carrier bags. In the space of five years, demand dropped by 95%.
Teabags have been readily available since the 1960s. Made chiefly of paper, teabags are sealed and strengthened with petroleum-derived polymers such as polypropylene and polyvinyl chloride. Teabags are extremely convenient, especially when it comes to disposal. Those of us who grew up drinking loose-leaf tea will remember the bother of blocked drains.
In the UK, we get through more than 60 million teabags each year. There’s a lot of plastic in 60 million teabags. But not only are teabags more convenient to use than loose-leaf tea – they’re more readily available. We’ll naturally take the course of least resistance and buy what’s under our noses.
Do you remember washing up with rags? It wasn’t the nicest thing in the world to be washing dishes with a piece of cloth that your mum had cut from an old item of clothing.
It was a natural and inevitable progression from old pants to nice new sponge-scourers made specifically for the purpose.
Sponge-scourers are cheap and convenient, and it’s estimated that 400 million of them, typically made from foamed polyurethane (the sponge part) and a polyethylene mesh (the scouring pad), are thrown away every year in the UK.
The value of convenience can sometimes even outstrip the value of money. Convenience is an energy-saving asset that drives consumer demand.
During the first half of the 20th century, most commodities were bought loose. Food, sweets, toys, cleaning products, ironmongery, haberdashery, etc – all measured out by weight, volume, or unit by the shopkeeper.
However, with the burgeoning popularity of supermarkets and rapid developments in plastic packaging, housewives in the 1950s and ’60s began to gravitate towards self-service grocery shops. As people were drawn towards the supermarket, where they could pick up pre-packed goods for themselves and carry them home in convenient (and free) carrier bags, the purchase of loose goods from the local corner shop became a dying habit.
During the 1950s and ’60s, more and more synthetic textiles were being produced. Petroleum-based fabrics such as polyester, acrylic, and nylon were a lot cheaper than their biological counterparts, like cotton, linen, wool, and silk. Time could be saved by buying clothes rather than making them at home.
In the 1980s, mass production of disposable cups was driven by new food trends, as people began to eat and drink “on the go”.
Disposable coffee cups are made from a paper fibre that’s tightly bonded with a polyethylene lining. Separating these materials is difficult and expensive. So, despite the fact that all components of the cup are theoretically recyclable, the cups usually end up in landfill.
In a 2019 report by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, the focus was on single-use coffee cups. This is an excerpt from the report’s introduction:
“Most people mistakenly think that disposable cups are widely recycled, and dispose of them in on-street recycling bins. This consumer confusion shows that retailers have failed to be clear with consumers about coffee cups. There is also a lack of infrastructure to recycle them. Disposing of coffee cups in on-street bins creates a costly waste contamination problem for local authorities. This adds to the financial burden on taxpayers, who already cover 90% of the cost of collecting, sorting and disposing of waste coffee cups.”
Back to the question: Are we capable of turning back and recreating sustainable habits of the past?
Breaking a habit takes a lot of energy. And so does forming a new habit that contradicts an existing one. Making life harder for ourselves definitely goes against the grain of nature.
On the other hand, having synthesised an unnatural material that’s threatening the future of the planet, it’s probably a bit late to be playing the “nature” card.
To change our habits for the benefit of the planet will take some effort, but once formed, new habits will be as easy to continue as the old ones!
City to Sea is a not-for-profit environmental organisation committed to helping people all over the world live with less plastic.
Aqua Libra Co proactively encourages a refill culture, and we’re proud to be a partner of City to Sea’s award-winning Refill campaign. The campaign is based on the Refill app, which allows consumers to find places where they can buy loose food and other commodities, or refill water bottles. To date, there are 300,000 refill stations on the app, and there have been 400,000 app downloads.
The Refill campaign began with a focus on eliminating single-use plastic bottles, which is something very close to our own hearts at Aqua Libra Co.
Our undercounter and countertop bottling systems are designed to dispense high volumes of pure, chilled table water for a practical and sustainable alternative to packaged water, potentially eliminating hundreds of plastic bottles every day.
One base unit and three taps – one each for boiling, chilled, and sparkling water. Aqua Alto is the perfect combination of cutting-edge technology, straightforward operation, high-capacity dispense, and infinite choice of colour.
Aqua illi is a three-in-one touch tap, built in modular form for easy and economical adaptability. Available in a silky-smooth Satin Black finish or a chameleon-like polished Chrome, Aqua illi is the highest-performing tap on the market today.
Our latest innovation, the digital Flavour Tap, uses micro-dosing technology to combine natural, zero-calorie flavouring with fresh, highly filtered still or sparkling chilled water.
If you’d like to talk to us about how our energy-efficient, mains-fed water dispensers can help maximise your profit margins and enhance your sustainability credentials, email firstname.lastname@example.org or give us a call on 0800 080 6696.
You might also be interested in our Specifiers page …