Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Unintended consequences of sustainability

Serendipity has struck. I just recovered a spam email from my trash bin that reports from the Sustainability in Packaging Conference 2011. This just happened to coincide with a BBC news report on Swiss researchers discovering that recycled cardboard packaging contains high levels of potentially dangerous chemicals that leach through inner membranes and contaminate food. So this second report casts an interesting light on the first. It shows us that this whole concept of 'sustainability' is horribly complicated and that any pretence of meaningful reporting in corporate annual statements contains a material risk of being nonsense.

Of course it is laudable that food companies have tried to use recycled newspaper packaging rather than entirely new materials; and the reported problem that has arisen was unforeseen. Recycled materials are also cheaper than new ones but it is perfectly reasonable for an ethical approach to also improve profitability. But this does illustrate that it is often far from clear that particular steps towards reduced environmental impact achieve their objectives without unintended consequences.

Take the issue of power from offshore wind turbines. Surely that is a no-brainer? Yet the weekend newspapers reported that offshore wind power in the UK will require a £100bn subsidy whereas the same carbon reduction effects could be attained by switching some coal fired power stations to gas, at a cost of £7bn. Now, I guess that part of the rationale is to achieve a more diversified energy supply, but this also illustrates that an apparently good environmental thing may not be so good after all.

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