A shock on the roadside: we’re getting tidier

By Robert Matthews
Copyright 1999 Sunday Telegraph
November 14, 1999

If future historians want to gauge the preoccupations of ordinary people today, they would do well to trawl the pages of England's parish magazines. Certainly the one that drops through my door every month accurately reflects what I care about on a daily basis: speed limits for cars, better bus services, and summary execution of pet owners whose dogs foul the pavements.

And where else but in a parish magazine could one read of the precise nature of the litter collected along a stretch of road in Oxfordshire back in 1978?

In the current issue of Cumnor Parish News, John Hanson reports that a local survey found the average content of each mile of verge in the locality to be: 500 cigarette packets, 150 drink cans, 65 crisp packets, 40 chewing gum wrappers, four cardboard boxes, three carefully tied bundles ("not opened!"), four Chinese take-away foil dishes, one plan of the security arrangements at a West London business ("passed on"), and -- inevitably in this rural spot -- "two articles of underclothing".

One hardly dares think what those same verges contain today, in these fast-food, throwaway times. But Mr Hanson has a surprise for his readers: there is far less litter in the same area now than 21 years ago. Mr Hanson suggests that this must be because there is a greater environmental awareness; recycling and refuse collection must also play some role in the remarkable turnaround.

Quite possibly so. But I suspect our own misconceptions may also be involved. In surveys, people have been asked to estimate what proportion of total waste is constituted by fast-food packaging: burger cartons, chip packets and the like. Typical estimates are in the range 30 to 40 per cent; in fact, it makes up less than half of one per cent of all waste. Small wonder we are not knee deep in the stuff.

This surprising fact is one of many highlighted by Lynn Scarlett, a recycling consultant with California's Department of Conservation, in her contribution to Fearing Food, edited by Julian Morris and Roger Bate (Butterworth Heinemann £15.99) -- a book providing an excellent corrective to much perceived wisdom about the links between food and the environment.

Ms Scarlett points out that, despite what one might think, packaging is not there just to turn the whole world into a tip: it actually serves a purpose -- protecting and preserving. Were it not for tinning, sealing and wrapping, we would be forced to throw away a far higher proportion of food itself. As it is, about half of all the world's food never actually reaches anyone's mouth: insects, bacteria and fungi get to it in transit.

In countries with relatively low levels of packaging, such as India, the amount of wastage reaches 70 per cent. In America, with its obsession with packaging food thoroughly, the level of food wastage is just 17 per cent.

Indeed, one can quite reasonably argue that packaging has actually contributed to the preservation of natural habitats, by reducing the amount of land that would otherwise have to be devoted to crops to make up for the wastage.

Packaging finds another supporter in Dr Indur Goklany of the United States Department of the Interior, whose chapter in Fearing Food highlights its role in one of the great miracles of the millennium: feeding a world population that has tripled in size to six billion mouths in just 70 years.

Fertilisers and pesticides have also played a vital part in this miracle, not always to the benefit of the environment. As Dr Goklany readily accepts, the misuse of agro-chemicals and irrigation methods has become all too plain in recent years. Yet he points out that the ecological cost of not using them would have been far higher.

In an astounding calculation, Dr Goklany estimates that since 1961 the use of packaging, fertilisers and the rest have spared about 14 million square miles of the world's natural habitat from having to be turned over to agriculture.

That is equivalent to an area almost four times the size of the US' -- or, put another way, the disappearance under the plough of an area four times that of England and Wales every year for the last 40 years.

Agrochemical scientists have few friends among the public these days. Perhaps we would all do well to reflect that without their ingenuity there would be far fewer verges in which to rummage about for litter in the first place.

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