Thursday, 23 February 2012

Bottle Out

When I was in Berlin about five years ago with my sister, we were surprised to find that nearly all of the beers and lagers sold in supermarkets were in plastic bottles. Was this a response to on street waste? I've no idea to be fair, the areas we frequented were ridiculously well kept, but that could have been down to all number of things. However, we noted at the time how much safer plastic would be at things like festivals and open air events. 

And it seems that way of thinking is starting to infiltrate the NI consciousness. Bottle Out is an initiative in the Holylands and wider Belfast area to raise awareness about and to reduce the number of broken glass bottles in communities and on the streets. This pilot programme in Belfast aims to engage all concerned, including the local council, our local hospitals, the PSNI, vintners & breweries and students, to look at alternatives to glass bottles. Trish Morgan from the City Church heads up the campaign, which takes into account the social and natural environmental factors involved, stating: 

"Its a fine line asking for breweries to consider alternative packaging one of the reasons is about safety which could be at odds with environment as that would currently be plastic pcts. My issue is the brewreries are not showing any interest to change due to cost factor! So by drawing down proven data from A&E at The Royal belfast Im hoping stats will get government on board to help break the current impasse." 

Recent advances in PET technology means that the plastic bottles available today are a vast improvement on those common in the late 1990s, when they were promoted, though not especially popular, on the European and Australasian music festival scene; they now afford a much longer shelf life to the beer (around 6 months) and are far easier to recycle. You still don't really see this in the UK/ROI though, despite the fact that they are common for soft drinks. The debate between glass and plastic is one that divides a lot of environmentally conscious people. Plastic obviously has the advantage of not being so easily broken, reducing its hazard potential to children, animals and sanitation workers, as well as other individuals in cases where bottles are used as weapons. It also has the potential to be recycled into more products than glass, which is limited mostly to other glass products and insulation materials. But it would be wrong to assume that plastic is always a viable environmental alternative to glass. It's not. It still uses a lot of chemicals in production and deteriorates in quality after multiple recycling processes. So perhaps the answer lies in encouraging re-usable options for glass - keeping the bottles off the streets and helping the environment along the way. I've always thought that a joint producer and consumer responsibility action plan is needed. If producers and retailers were to offer incentives for the return of glass bottles, would that encourage your average hard up student to return them? For example, a loyalty card could be topped up on the return of bottles to the local off licence or supermarket, with credit offset against the price of the bottle to the manufacturer. Obviously this wouldn't be much per bottle, but when returned in bulk and credit built up, it could shave a few pound off a carry out once in a while (and not enough to be accused of encouraging irresponsible drinking).

But as ever, the elephant in the room is always going to be the ongoing social issues in the Holy Lands that need to be addressed. I lived in the Holy Lands off and on in the early 2000s. I have to admit that we had the tendency to be right bastards when we wanted to. Trouble is, the Holy Lands is widely regarded as a mid week doss point for so many people - home is still a bus journey away, where one takes laundry and goes to vote. As a result there's a reduced need to take pride in the area (though I must stress that this is not across the board and plenty of students who live in the Holy Lands are just trying to enjoy university life and keep their heads down). It's not helped that in recent years the area was exploited by careless development - while it may be better now, when I lived there the sanitation provisions were woefully inadequate, with not nearly enough bins for the number of people crammed into the converted houses, meaning that rubbish build up and rats was a big issue. There would be periods during the summer when areas would be ignored by rubbish collectors, while bins were set on fire and the paltry Kerbie box for recycling was not nearly enough (nor was it likely to stay put/in one piece). QUB and Jordanstown Students Union representatives work with community groups to try and reduce the impact and conflict during heavy drinking periods such as St Paddy's day and Halloween, and there have been some improvements, but there is still a long way to go. 

I'll not pretend to have all the answers in this respect, or even do the issue a disservice by trying to skim over ideas in this article, but if you have an interest in helping out in the area over the upcoming St Patrick's Day celebrations you can contact Trish at Bottle Out at, or either of the student's unions: