The law of unintended consequences

Change can be complicated.  There is often resistance, time needed to adapt and nostalgia for the way things were and the possibility that it might not work.  But as a species, we are always changing – who we are, where we are, how we do things, what we do and what we use.  If we hadn’t changed, we would still be living in caves, hunting mammoth and communicating in grunts.

As it is, most of us buy food from huge supermarkets which we travel to in precision engineered vehicles before heading to a home with electric lighting, heating at the touch of a button and an array of gadgets to entertain us.  Our food is grown and sometimes prepared for us by people many miles away, and we can choose from thousands of different food items – not just mammoth or berries!

Mankind has changed and adapted in order to make these progresses – they weren’t essential for our survival, but they have made our lives a whole lot better!

Change can have mixed results

However, for every change that has happened and continues to happen, there are some unintended consequences – some good, some not so good and some downright dreadful!

In recent times, as change has happened at increasing speeds, there has been less opportunity to understand the outcomes.  If we go back 50 years, when plastic first became a mass market item, we all thought this was an amazing solution to storage and distribution.  Tupperware parties were fashionable, and no smart home was complete without an array of matching containers.

The plus point is plastic containers are great for food storage giving produce a longer shelf life, keeping it dry and free from contamination.  Producers love it because it offers a light weight, durable and mouldable packaging solution which reduces transport costs.

If we had stuck to this type of use for plastic, we probably would have been fine, but we were seduced by its versatility and usefulness.  It quickly made its way into disposable products and that’s where the ‘unintended consequences’ come in.  It’s not the fault of the product, which is great, it’s the way we use it that causes the problem, and particularly how we dispose of it.

As a result, plastic has become a pariah, with everyone trying to outdo their neighbour, boasting about how ‘plastic free’ they are.  And in the rush to demonise plastic, we could be causing further unintended consequences.

Less packaging can lead to shorter shelf life

Marks & Spencer, in their attempts to move towards being a zero-plastic retailer, tried to reduce the weight of the plastic packaging in their food products.  This led to a marked reduction in the shelf life of their foods, and thus more wastage which is costly to the store and to the environment.

Other retailers, thinking they were doing the right thing, moved from plastic bags to paper bags.  Whilst the recycling potential for the paper bags is far better than plastic, they can often only be used once so are not as durable, and the carbon footprint of paper is higher than plastic!

We are seeing some great ideas for using recycled plastic, but we may be overlooking some unintended consequences relating to the breakdown of the material over time.

One such innovation is making roads out of recycled plastic.  This sounds great – it could be more durable, and from the videos I have seen looks a lot easier to lay than tarmac.  However, we already have a problem with the tiny bits of tarmac that break down, get washed into the watercourses and end up in the food chain.

We can assume that plastic roads will also breakdown over time, and those minute bits of plastic will also filter into the watercourses and end up being eaten, sometimes having attracted lots of equally harmful substances prior to being ingested.

Slow down and consider the consequences

So perhaps we need to slow down a little, take some time to consider what harm we could be causing, and test our inventions a little more before we rush headlong into adopting the latest amazing invention.

Perhaps we need to be more like the tortoise than the hare – get there slowly and safely rather than skedaddling so fast we don’t understand the consequences.

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