Saturday, May 3, 2008

These Footprints Are Not Made Of Carbon

A year ago or thereabouts, the fashion nation was gripped by Not A Plastic Bag fever. People queued out of shops in the middle of the night for it, and very many exchanged hands on eBay in excess of £ 250, especially in late February, when they still had not hit Sainsbury's nor We Are What We Do. I found the craze entertaining to watch and read about, mainly because I recall the day I was first made aware of the bag itself, pictured in British Vogue at the beginning of the year as it was waxing lyrical about Anya Hindmarch. I thought in passing that it looked nice and that I would maybe get one eventually. There was no eventually about it. If you were seeking a Not A Plastic Bag, you were in for the very long slogging haul of hunting for an FBI most wanted.

Considering my carefree attitude to it all, you may be surprised to hear that I ended up with four, one brown (UK version) and three blue ones (USA version). I kept the brown one, where I currently stash my yarn, and scattered the others on eBay and to my mum. Recently, I noticed that I have pretty much phased out plastic bags, not because I carry one of Anya's green props, but because I make the effort to get the reusable bags out of the car and into the supermarket every time I go. Still, I am 20 years later than my dad, who phased out plastic bags in the eighties, when footprints were something you would leave with your feet and were certainly not made of carbon. Which got me thinking about the phenomenon at large. When I started work at the office after the uni, in 2001, carbon footprint was an unknown, unheard of concept. Global warming had only just started to rear its head in slightly more high-brow magazine, but it certainly wasn't poised like venom on everyone's lips as it is today. I recall old episodes of Ab Fab, with Edina being so deliciously politically in-correct and so deliciously right on every account while extholling the virtues of doing whatever one wants to do. She used to buy cheap Eastern European junk for her shop for little more than peanuts and got the little old woman still attached to it! It was ok to live dangerously at the time; it was ok to leave your computer on standby at night without a vatful of be-spectacled fascists vomiting a pie-chart at you and ranting that you will save yourself enough for half a Starbucks if only you shut down your computer every day of the year. Oh and the planet will also be grateful.

Yes, of course, the planet. I wonder about it sometimes and wonder what it thinks. If I were the planet I would pick up stones and throw them at office buildings, but I would not get upset at the pensioners that decide not to recycle the five tins of cat food they use every week. If I were the planet I would not resent the number of local papers thrown in the general rubbish, but I would probably go ape over the millions and millions and millions of papers that end up in an in-tray that nobody bothers to recycle anyway. The naivety of the We Are What We Do movement is perfectly spectacular and totally irritating. While in principle it is true that very many people doing small actions originate big changes, let me make an example of what really does happen all over the place where these very many people work for example, just to put my own efforts in context. I was training at a very large centre recently with free access to half-liter water bottles. Every table in the room consumed on average 30 bottles a day. Every room on the course consumed on average 180 bottles a day. The entire course consumed on average 1080 bottles a day. They all went into the rubbish. In the regular, bad-for-you, black rubbish bags that exist pretty much the world over. So I ask you, what difference do my very own 3 plastic bottles a week when there is one of many other places in the world that throws out 1080 plastic bottles, and that is for one session of one course over one day only? My mum and dad claim that mine are going to be three plastic bottles less that are clogging up the planet. But does all of this stuff even get recycled properly? And most importantly, has it ever occurred to anyone that rearing a calf for six months uses more energy than my boiling kettle will over a course of ten years?

I come from a family of serial recyclers and I also happen to be a vegetarian. But even I am now getting fed up with the Carbon Footprint Police; it was great to do something good when nobody noticed, now it has become so fashionable that it is irritating. Now it is so cool to recycle that I am almost put off by it. I want to collect plastic bags and be seen everywhere going crinkle crinkle crinkle with lots of bags dangling off my arms. Meanwhile, somewhere in the world and probably not very far from my own house, from this desk, from this very computer, batteries, lightbulbs, cables, mobiles, monitors, plugs are thrown out one hundred a second, maybe much more than that. One only has to reflect upon how much energy is used during a big-scales Hollywood production to be put off recycling for years. One only has to visit India to realise that there is no point in recycling at all. Yet, I personally cannot even take the lift anymore without some over-zealous message stapled by the side of it claiming that my 15 seconds journey up four floors uses enough energy to power the whole of Birmingham. Think before you ride. Wait a minute, I thought I was getting the lift, not a rocket? The office is full of recycling containers; for paper, for foam cups, for plastic bottles. Interestingly though, there is no container for paper cups, yet we have a Starbucks in loco which, yes, you've guessed it, pours drinks in paper cups. There are about one thousand people on my floor only; most people have Starbucks coffee multiple times a day. I have on average forty Starbucks a month and that's I alone. You do the un-recycled maths.

Last year, when I returned to the office after the Christmas break, I found a calendar on each desk. You know the sort, square, propped on a clear, plastic CD case. These were We Are What We Do calendars. Come June, fifty-six of these were piled high in my proximity, their indestructible cases gleaming under the ever-present overhead lights. I emailed We Are What We Do reproaching them for producing desk calendars that come in clear plastic cases, notoriously difficult to get rid of and recycle, and also reproaching them for giving them away on their website on a one-and-one free basis come March. I also offered to collect as many as I could, working my way throughout all floors and dispose of them sensibly, if only they could indicate where CD cases are recycled. They never replied.
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