Donnachadh McCarthy: The Home Ecologist

Beware when buying items by mail order, because small things come in big packages
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A mantra that I always try to apply to my environmental campaigning initiatives is to “lead by example”. This week, however, it’s the complete opposite of that, and I would advise everyone not to emulate my efforts.

It all started when I bumped against a picture on the wall at home and it crashed to the floor, breaking the protective glass. AsIhad recently removed a single pane of glass from my kitchen window when retro-fitting a new double-glazing unit, I resolved to re-use this glass for the picture, in line with the good ecoprinciple of re-use.

My handyman did not have a glass cutter, so I decided to pop down to the local hardware store and get one. Once I’d finished with it for this job, I would pass it on to him.

To my disappointment, the hardware store had followed the example of the other two local hardware stores and closed down, leaving B&Q as the monopoly hardware supplier for the entire area. I cycled over to its store on the Old Kent Road but it had stopped selling glass cutters, which left the internet asmy only option.

I duly found an online supplier, and a few days later the glass cutter was delivered. It’s small enough to fit into an envelope, so I was gobsmacked to find it delivered in a huge box that would contain about a thousand of the things. It arrived with an (unsolicited) thick, heavy catalogue encased in a plastic wrapper, more internal cardboard packaging and various other marketing leaflets, all of which was followed days later with more marketing bumf in the post.

I rang my local trading standards office at Southwark council to submit a formal complaint, but they put me through to Consumer Direct, who took down my complaint details as the glasscutter supplier was in Somerset and not in Southwark. They gave me a reference number for the complaint. Before I rang off, I asked when would they let me know what happened. The reply caused my jaw to drop yet again. I was told they would not get back to me, as itwas now a matter between the state and the company I was complaining about. When I explained that I wanted to write about the outcome, I was told that I could only find out by applying under the Freedom of Information Act. Coming off the phone, I could not help but howl with laughter at a surreal process that gives you a reference number for a complaint that you are not allowed to know the result of.

I did check with Southwark council afterwards, and they assured me that if the company had been in Southwark they, unlike Consumer Direct, would keep me informed of progress with such a complaint and were very anxious to help reduce such packaging nonsense. So, if a similar packaging drama happens to you, please give your local authority’s trading standards office a ring. The more of us who do this, the faster we will reach a low-packaging consensus.

The irony at the end of this sorry tale is that I did not bother with the glass after all, and simply rehung the picture without it. This, of course, broke my first eco-rule, which is to ask if you really need what you are buying in the first place. So this week, don’t do what I do, but do as I say.

Donnachadh McCarthy works as a home and business eco-auditor and is author of Saving The Planet Without Costing The Earth (