Plastic fast update: that weekend newspaper problem

7th September 2012 by

Back in June and July I was blogging here about my household’s attempt to go cold-turkey, no-ifs-no-buts plastic-free for one month. I’ve left a bit of a gap before coming back to reflect on how it went and what we learned, and I’ll definitely be writing some wrap-up thoughts on that before too long.  But first there are some plastic-fast loose ends to tie up.

For example, the weekend newspaper.  A langurous devouring of the weekend paper and all those supplements used to be a weekly ritual in my house.  Realising we’d have to cut it out was one of the shocks of the plastic fast, because our paper of choice (the Guardian), packages all its magazines, guides, reviews, etc in a plastic bag.  As long-time readers of that paper, we were pretty disappointed, so we got in touch to explain why we were going to be cancelling the paper.

Is a pollution-causing, one-use, throwaway plastic bag the only way to keep all these supplements together?

A tweet – direct to the paper’s sustainability team – got no response, but we did get a speedy reply to an email.  Here’s how the exchange went:

Us:

Will you look for a way of packaging your Saturday edition in a plastic-free way – and keep us up to date so we know when we can start buying it again?

The Guardian:

Hi, I understand your frustration. We have written about this before and the problem is that the supermarkets demand that the various sections are already pulled together on delivery, whereas in the past it used to be done at the newsagents.

Also we have had many problems in the past of people stealing the sections they wanted, such as the guide, and then readers complaining they were missing.

What we have done is explored alternatives and also reduced the amount of plastic used in the packaging.

I have also cc’d our environment manager who may be able to give you an update.

best wishes

Us:

I appreciate that there have been some complaints about parts of the paper missing. However other newspapers, such as the Saturday Independent and Independent on Sunday, manage fine without the plastic bag. Moreover these newspapers do not use glossy paper in their magazine so it is less toxic.

When you referred to exploring alternatives, what alternatives did you explore and what were the conclusions of that process?

Have  you explored the use of paper packaging which can be used as a branding exercise, such as ‘your guardian in paper bag’, or potato starch packaging for example, which is biodegradable.

The Guardian (now from the Environment and Sustainability Manager):

Hi,

I admire and support your cause and do attempt to make changes in my own life to reduce plastics and chemicals i.e stainless steel water bottle and food containers.

But more importantly, back to the Guardian Sustainability.  We are in the process of publishing our 2012 sustainability report, but this is the link to the 2011 operations sections http://www.guardian.co.uk/sustainability/operations.

We are both committed and passionate about the environment and our impacts on it.

I have included the conclusions from our previous research into the polybagging (this was before my time), but I am aware that we should re-investigate this issue.

We focus our efforts on primary impact areas. So we have concentrated on where our paper comes from,  now 98% is from recycled or certified virgin source. We report energy consumption from all the paper mills (58% of our carbon footprint) and are planning to build a similar water database. We have reduced the the weight and density of the magazine paper, but have to consider quality which affects breakages and waste in the printing process.

We also are looking at your glossy magazine concerns in terms of the sustainability of other paper additives. Certain grades of paper, especially those used in magazines, may use a significant proportion of non-fibre (i.e paper pulp)  additives to improve gloss, brightness and other properties. Many of these additives are mineral- based and the extraction and processing of the raw materials may have the potential to result in habitat loss and pollution. This is an issue which tends to be conveniently ignored by the industry.

We are also supporting leading academic research into understanding the impacts of our Digital Media, which is too easily seen as “Carbon Lite”. The footprint of guardian.co.uk is approximately 10,000tco2e in 2011_12 (not yet published), we believe no other website has done this.

We are not perfect and we acknowledge that in our annual reports. But do try to make a difference and are committed to constantly improving.  I am more than happy for you to come to Kings Place for a coffee and chat.

So the conclusions of the 2008 study on plastic wraps:

Case study: Polybagging

The science of sustainability can be incredibly complex, as we found out when we investigated how to create a more environmentally-friendly wrapping to our weekend papers.

We have become increasingly ill at ease about the use of see-through polybags, even though commercially they are essential given the need to hold together our multi-sectioned weekend papers and the insistence of some of our supermarket clients to have our publications ready bundled.

The current polywrap is made from 100% polythene and as such is a type 2 recyclable material, but it is difficult finding recycling places, other than supermarkets that offer plastic bag recycling.

Our readers too have consistently been unhappy with the current practice with 92% saying in our reader survey that it is important the plastic is made of recycled material or is biodegradable.

Prince Charles joined the debate, writing to the chief executive of our parent company GMG in April 2008, to ask if we “have any cunning ideas about how this practice could be altered. Otherwise the Pacific Ocean will become even more clogged up!”

We had already been working on switching to alternative bio-plastics made from potato or corn starch, commissioning a lifecycle analysis of the environmental impact of polybagging in 2007.

Following an inconclusive initial report, a secondary study was commissioned which suggested that unless disposed of in the correct way through composting, bio-plastics would be more harmful to the environment than regular plastic wrapping due to the emission of harmful greenhouse gases, including methane, when disposed of through landfill.

This information led to our environment editor writing a front page splash on the dangers of these plastics, which are used by many supermarkets for wrapping food products.

While continuing to investigate an alternative, we have in the meantime taken action on our existing plastic wrap, by reducing its thickness by 20%. We have also successfully tested the use of 25% recycled polythene and hope to roll this out in 2009.

——-

So that’s where the Guardian was at.  They really went out of their way to get detailed replies to us, which is really encouraging, and the level of detail they’ve put into examining and quantifying their impact is impressive. It was also good of them to share their as-yet unpublished figure for the carbon footprint of their digital operations.  And the concerns about the environmental impact of bioplastics is troubling – something I haven’t looked at closely enough (or at all) in these blog posts.  That said, some of the Guaridan’s answers were a bit hmmm. For example…

It’s odd to blame the supermarkets’ demands when, for example, the Independent doesn’t bag its own supplements on the weekend – are the supermarkets really asking one thing of the Guardian and another of the Independent?

And then… why plastic or bioplastic at all?  If the supplements absolutely have to be bound in some way, why not in a recycled paper envelope or bag – the Guardian’s designers could even have a lot of fun with the design and branding (you could even print the crosswords on it!)

And… off the plastic topic a bit, but if glossy paper is so harmful (with “the potential to result in habitat loss and pollution”) and the industry is turning a blind eye, why is the Guardian still using it? There are plenty of non-gloss options out there – just do it!

So the Guardian (no doubt other papers are as bad or worse) has ‘fessed up in a lot of detail to the problem of its plastic addiction and other harmful effects of its production, but hasn’t really set out what it’s firmly planning to do about it, which is disappointing.  Hopefully it will be in their 2012 sustainability report, but it’s not very clear.  If they want to get in touch and fill us in on where they go next on this one, we’d love to hear from them!

[There, I managed to get through this post without going off on a rant about newspapers reporting on the environmental crisis and yet continuing to publish travel sections promoting long-haul destinations and flying, fashion spreads encouraging one-season wardrobes, Christmas features cheering on turbo-charged consumerism and… oops.]


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