It wasn’t clear what generation the grandparent came from, but either Baby Boomers: born 1946 to 1964 or generation Jones: born 1955 to 1965. After a few moments, the grandparent brought the child back to reality. If you belong to one of the above post-war generations, and many of us do, let’s get the facts straight. We are not to blame.

Let me refresh your memory. When we wanted some water, we got it out of a tap, we didn’t need to carry around water in a plastic bottle. I can’t remember anyone being made ill by tap water, but now we have been convinced that bottled water is the only healthy option. Gullible or what?

In the UK the milkman brought our milk most days, in a glass bottle. After use, we washed out the bottle and left it to be collected by the dairy, sterilised and reused. Even better, certainly in the UK, the milkman drove an electric milk float.

Soft drinks came in a glass bottle, we paid a deposit on it, and took it back to the shop to get our deposit back. The bottle got re-used, no plastic necessary thank you.

When you went shopping, and in most cases, we used a local shop. Your purchase was mainly locally produced and was put in a brown paper bag. No plastic wrapping, no plastic bag. Otherwise, most people carried a simple shopping basket.

What about takeaway? In most cases it didn’t exist, except for the local fish and chips shop. How did they serve, wrapped in a newspaper which had a plain paper lining, so you didn’t get the newsprint on your succulent fish and chips. Guess what, no plastic or styrofoam, recyclable, and I can’t remember ever being made ill by this packaging.

If you wanted your fish and chips, you went to the shop and got it yourself. If you think about it, ‘takeaway’, that means you go and get it, not delivered by a boy on a motorbike or a scooter, burning up fuel and polluting the atmosphere.

What about nappies? We didn’t use wasteful disposable (and expensive) nappies, we had terry towel nappies, washed them, and dried them inside the house our outside, no power-hungry tumble dryers. In Portugal, we have a natural clothes dryer, the sun. Most of us, me included, use the tumble dryer. Why, it’s convenient.

An estimated three billion nappies are thrown away every year just in the UK, accounting for 2-3 percent of all household waste. I don’t blame parents for using disposable nappies, if I had kids again, we would probably use them, it’s just that we need to take stock and realise the cost of these, both to our pockets and the environment.

Our ecological footprint was first class

The so-called Ecological Footprint adds up all the productive areas for which a population, generation, a person or a product competes. It measures the ecological assets that a given population or product requires to produce the natural resources it consumes (including plant-based food and fibre products, livestock and fish products, timber and other forest products, and space for urban infrastructure) and to absorb its waste, especially carbon emissions.

With each generation, we become more convenience-oriented. I am not sure how industry convinced us into using so much plastic and other non-environmentally friendly materials, but we certainly bought into the concept with enthusiasm.

Bring back the brown paper bag

Wherever you shop, supermarket or corner store, I doubt you have been offered a simple brown paper bag. Is it a cost consideration? A box of a thousand bags works out at 1 cent each and they are now much stronger than the original paper bag. Surprisingly those bags you see in rolls next to nearly every shop section, especially fruit and vegetables don’t seem to be any cheaper. Suppliers list them at between 1 and 5 cents a bag. Biodegradable bags that you see in only a few ‘premium’ supermarkets are at the more expensive end of the range at between 2 and 4 cents each.

Interestingly, we have had plastics a lot longer than you might think. One industry site says ‘Since the dawn of history, humankind has endeavoured to develop materials offering benefits not found in natural materials. The development of plastics started with the use of natural materials that had intrinsic plastic properties, such as shellac and chewing gum. The next step in the evolution of plastics involved the chemical modification of natural materials such as rubber, nitrocellulose, collagen and galalite. Finally, the wide range of completely synthetic materials that we would recognise as modern plastics started to be developed around 100 years ago.

We all must act if we want to save the planet

Reflecting on how we used to handle packaging and waste generally, it’s clear that many of our previous generation’s practices, such as water out of the tap, refundable soft drink bottles etc were very environmentally friendly. We have been sold convenience and bought into it big time. Our major consideration isn’t the environment, it's convenience. That’s something we can all do something about if we really want to.

Politicians and commercial enterprises will listen to the public, but only if you ‘shout’ loud enough. This isn’t a generational issue, it’s an issue for us all. Ask your supermarket if you can have a paper bag instead of a plastic one.

We do have the power and ability to make changes, do we want convenience or to take steps to make a real difference to the environment? It’s your choice, every generation including youth.

Nobody is to blame. Everybody is to blame.


Resident in Portugal for 50 years, publishing and writing about Portugal since 1977. Privileged to have seen, firsthand, Portugal progress from a dictatorship (1974) into a stable democracy. 

Paul Luckman