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Pollution and Packaging

Global Political Solution Needed

Pollution and Packaging

Pollution is defined as—to contaminate, as with poisonous or harmful substances.

Deciding what is harmful is not as easy as many will think. Consider light pollution. Anyone walking a street in the dark will not think of street lights as harmful, yet a night sky watcher will consider the light as a pollutant. The food processing industry does not consider the gases and packaging materials they use to prolong the shelf life of their products as harmful, yet many health-conscious people do.

As with so many very important subjects, media reporting seems to get in the way of rational debate. There does not seem to be an unbiased view, no factual records, just a lot of opinions claiming to be true.

I have been trying to make sense of the BBC web report on air pollution in Britain.

Pollution is bad; every sort of pollution, from NO2 to light pollution, from heavy metals in the sea, to dog crap on the park lawns. Pollution is bad.

But if people are to act to reduce pollution, they need to be told the truth. Exaggeration and distortion are not going to be convincing.

The headline presentation of the BBC web report, together with the photographs, would give the impression that Britain, as a whole, is killing everyone with polluted air.

Only when you get down to the body of the report does it say:

"In the study, each area is rated on a scale from one, least polluted, to six, most polluted. More than four in five postcodes in Great Britain fall into the least polluted category (1).

The scale is worked out based on a probability that each area will break the annual legal limit for NO2. Areas fall foul if they average more than 40 micrograms of NO2 per cubic metre."

Note: over 80 percent of areas have the low rate for pollution. 

Note: scale based on a PROBABILITY (that is someone having a guess at what the figures might become and this is a very biased guess, made to suit a pre-set agenda).

If I type in my own post code to check pollution levels here, it says level one, safe, etc. We have a very busy local road and a long section of the main A12 running through our post code. We also have a “light” industrial estate, shops, and thousands of homes. If we are level one, we have to assume it is because we are also a semi-rural area and there are farm lands, public parks, and a great many trees alongside the brook that runs through our area.

Nature in general and trees, in particular, are very good at absorbing and using gases we call pollutants. At school, we were taught the carbon cycle, part of which is the absorption by trees, which turn the carbon held in CO2, etc.,  into solid wood.

One of the factors in global pollution is the destruction of rainforests; the reduction of the number of trees acting globally. The Amazonian loggers may be mostly responsible, but every local authority can also help stop this reduction of trees. Those local authorities, which cut down publicly owned trees because of some spurious health and safety notion (which is used as an excuse to save money on proper maintenance), should be prosecuted under environmental laws.

Get honest. The very important work of reducing pollution is not helped by presenting distortions as fact. The United Nations takes vast amounts of tax payers' money, surely global pollution problems should be one thing they spend this money on. No, not a vast bureaucracy of anti-pullution “officers,” but agreeing and enforcing global strategies on all forms of pollution. The first step is simple; any tree cut down must be replaced with another tree within six months—worldwide, no exceptions.

The UN could fund experimental tree planting in areas now classed as desert. We all know unstoppable climate change is slowly taking place. Use some of the vast UN resources to anticipate where trees can grow in the future. Get proactive. Not talking about agendas for a meeting about where to hold a meeting, but actual action.

The main media focus, at the moment, is on pollution from vehicles and the polluting effect of discarded plastic packaging. Both of these are very important, but much rational and objective consideration is being lost in a storm of sensational headlines. Both sides of the debate are willing to use distortion and suggestion rather than factual knowledge.

Consider cars. They are far less polluting than they were in the 1950s, but there are vast numbers more of them. The exhaust emissions are not the only thing contributing to vehicle pollution. We have to consider the whole process, from digging up the metallic ores and breaking down the crude oil for fuel and plastic components. We have to think about how a scrapped vehicle is dismantled and recycled. We have to put the production of the energy source into the mix. If an electric powered vehicle needs replacement Lithium-based batteries after five years and the vehicle is considered at the end of its designed life after ten years, while a diesel engine vehicle can go 20 years with the same engine, then these are factors that must go into any evaluation.

Much is made of efforts to recycle plastic packaging, but so little factual information is available. Local authorities proudly proclaim they recycled 50 percent of rubbish. Is that 50 percent measured by weight or volume? Given that empty plastic bottles take up a lot of space for very little weight, this is an important consideration. I worked in the plastic processing industry for many years and I would still find it very hard to tell exactly which polymer any particular bottle is made from, so how are they recycled? How much of the material put in recycling bins is actually reused or reconstituted for reuse?

The charity shops do a great job in recycling clothing and furniture, some even in electrical white goods. Do these get included in claims of the amount recycled? The second-hand car trade is actually a recycling industry.

The media is showering the public with horrific images of plastic waste in the oceans. The media focuses on the production of these items as if the producers make them and tip directly into the sea.

How do so many used containers end up in the water? They should not be there. Even one item is one too many, but it is not the manufacturer who puts them there. If the amounts described in the press are valid, then it is not even only people picnicking on a beach who leave rubbish, there is far more than that. So how does it all get there? Almost all the plastic used in packaging can be burnt if we use the correct type of furnace with exhaust gas capturing techniques. They could generate electricity while burning the plastic waste. It should never end up in the sea. Again, it is letting the media frenzy sensationalise everything that is preventing rational study and comprehensive solution-finding.

Stop grabbing headlines,  start finding out why and how the plastic ends up in the sea and not in a furnace, generating electricity.

In the 1950s, food packaging was in glass or paper. Relatively few people had home refrigeration and most food stuffs came to the retailer in bulk and they measured out what the customer asked for. It would be interesting to find honest figures for the incidence of food poisoning in the 50s per head of the population compared to now. Glass can be recycled more economically than plastic because of several factors, it is easier to decontaminate and there are less variations in the basic chemical make up being two factors. Paper was reused and then, in the 50s, burnt when lighting the fire to heat the home. These days,  we recycle paper along with newsprint and cardboard and this seems to be effective.

Can we go back to shopping 50s style? Not with the vast populations we have now. Image the queue at the check outs if things had to be weighed and packed into a paper bag for each item bought by each customer. Practicality has to be considered. Will consumers accept shorter shelf-life and higher prices that arise from that in order to reduce packaging to just glass or paper? I doubt this.

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