Wednesday, 3 January 2007

A sportsmanlike attack on the polluter pays principle

The Times is clearly a kind employer that likes to develop its staff, because occasionally it lets specialist columnists loose on its general comments page. So it was on Tuesday when Martin Samuel, “Sports Writer of the Year at both the What the Papers Say awards and the Sports Journalists' Association Awards”, wrote a typically ill-informed piece about waste disposal and the polluter pays principle.

There is a simple logic to his point that he does not ask for his food to be over-packaged or to be inundated with unsolicited mail, and that it is therefore unfair that he should have to pay for unwanted waste. Why it is beyond his wits to return his junk mail to the sender I do not know? If we all sent our junk mail back it would quickly dry up, as the sender would be hit by the cost of disposal and either they or an increasingly-unamused Royal Mail would have to pay for the return postage.

The problem with Mr. Samuel’s basic argument is that he thinks packaging is something that is done to us by supermarkets against our will: “We did not ask for green beans from Zambia to be available 12 months a year, cased in two layers of Cellophane and a black plastic tray.” Perhaps not, but if we did not buy them they wouldn’t be available. The fact that they are suggests there is a market for them; somebody, somewhere is thanking The Lord (or Tesco) that they can make that Green bean tempura they’ve been planning since Boxing Day. The rest of us are thanking whomever we see fit that companies constantly vie to offer us new opportunities – some of which we like and some of which we reject. Mr. Samuel could chose not the buy the green beans if he wanted – just as he could return his unwanted mail – and he would not have to pay to bin the waste, but again that thought seems to have escaped him.

Supermarkets do over-package goods, of course, but they undoubtedly do so for a reason. Having stood next to shoppers who are prepared to spend precious minutes of their lives hunting for the most perfect pepper, I can see why supermarkets want to cushion their wares. More to the point, though, if there is a demand for less packaging, the supermarkets will package less. Next to the GM-free, organic, fair trade, locally produced, low-carb, tuna friendly products will be the low-packaged section. The market, Martin, will provide, but only if there is a demand. Demand will be generated when the polluter pays.

Mr. Samuel has no time for the “Polluter pays” principle, however. The problem, it seems, is that he does not consider himself a polluter – at least, not by choice. Instead, he harks back to a world where wardrobes did not come flat packed but were delivered by men you called “mate”, though more often than not they were actually bought in jumble sales and had a broken leg, because Ikea had yet to drive down the price of new furniture. He longs for local shops (less choice, lower quality) and more people in manufacturing jobs (lower wages, more expensive products).

The polluter pays principle does not “presume that when we wake in the morning we are immediately the bad guys”, but it does recognise that we all have an impact on our environment and that the way to minimise that impact is to make people pay proportionally to the amount of pollution they create. At present, we pay through our taxes so that low-polluting poor people (who buy neither shrink-wrapped green beans nor lots of new furniture) subsidise rich people with houses to furnish and dinner parties to host. Similarly, it would not matter if “Tony Blair’s winter holiday equates approximately to waste pollution from your side of the street for the next 12 months” because Mr. Blair would pay for the pollution from his holiday while your side of the street would pay (individually) for the pollution they created.

Using the price mechanism to ensure that polluters pay for their wastefulness while the conscientious are rewarded with low bills is fair. It is also an effective way of making individuals pressure companies (silently, through a billion tiny purchases). It is a fairly simple but incredibly effective means of solving societies ills in an equitable manner. However, it is economics, which isn’t a subject that I imagine they discuss much over the Sports Desk.

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