September 29, 2008

Greenwash on the daily commute

Just around the time that carbon emissions and global warming became a major public issue, last year, we started seeing a massive push by London’s free papers the Metro, the London Paper, London Lite and City A.M. to pump out as much newspaper into as many public hands as physically possible.  More staff were hired to push the papers out, esacalators were awash with paper, and every empty seat on the tube was, and still is, laden with a choice of several free papers.  There is something deeply incongruous about this. Even if these papers use 100% recycled paper, their creation requires it to be manufactured, printed, distributed via trucks, pushed out, collected, carted off by energy consuming trucks and reprocessed using more energy.  The paper companies get paid by advertisers for the number of papers that are pushed into the market, whether they are needed or not, so every effort must be made to push them out faster and more widely across our capital.  Energy consumption is an integral and growing component of free papers. 


Imagine the frustration of these companies when they see people leave papers behind on the train so that others can read them. Re-use by multiple readers is one way that energy can be saved, but advertisers don’t buy it, and every time someone picks up a used paper this reduces their chances of pushing out a freshly minted one. A major new effort of free paper firms then, is to prevent people re-reading old papers. The way they’ve gone about this is clever as well as manipulative, and we should be ashamed if we fall for it.  Firstly, they have installed plastic recycling bins with acclaimed green credentials outside stations, so papers can be irretrievably placed inside and recycled, but NOT re-used.  Secondly they have embarked on an advertising campaign to persuade commuters that if they do not take the paper home to recycle it, the the READER is to blame for the melting of the polar ice cap, desertification and other environmental damage.  

 London paper recycling cartoon

On the surface, these efforts appear green, but they are hypocritical and self-serving, aimed at appearing green while enabling more wasteful production.  There is something gentlemanly, erudite, and polite about leaving papers on the train for others to read, something that has existed in British culture long before free papers.  Imagine if, instead of recycling bins, the companies put re-use racks in stations so people could pick up a used paper.  Imagine if people were encouraged to leave papers on the tube for re-use, and if train companies were offered recycling services by the paper companies, instead of installing new bins on the streets.  It is true that advertisers would take some persuading to account for re-use.  It is easier to count shiny new papers but, if you believed in helping the environment, wouldn’t you lead this change in thinking?One day, free papers will be wirelessly sent to our devices for the daily commute, but until then it is up to each one of us to vigorously hold companies to account and point out that we know more about helping the environment than marketers would like to believe.  I encourage each of you to write or text the London Paper to tell them what you think of their ads.