Greener packaging choices

How much packaging comes home with you and your food shopping?

Four in five people (79%) believe products are over packaged and 82% agree that packaging is a major environmental problem (source: INCPEN)

Food packagingPackaging (made from glass, tin, paper, card and plastic) currently makes up around 18% of our household waste. It has three main purposes:

  • To sell the product
  • To protect the product
  • To facilitate the use of the product

Packaging also carries vital information on ingredients, keeps hazardous products away from children and ensures goods are safe and tamper-proof. It also helps prevent small valuable items being shop-lifted.

Packaging designers have to balance all these functional demands, whilst also ensuring that costs and environmental impacts are kept to a minimum. Inadequate packaging is usually far worse for the environment than over-packaging, since 10-15 times more energy and materials are locked up in household goods and food than in the packaging around them.

Plastic wrapped cucumbersSome products we buy look over packaged, when actually the packaging is helping to reduce food wastage.  For example, a cucumber wrapped in a thin layer of plastic stays fresh for 3 times longer than a ‘naked’ cucumber. Also, the average item of food purchased from a supermarket travels over 1000 miles; by lorry/plane from the producer to the store and then by car from the store to the consumer so packaging is often a necessary requirement.

What are shops and manufacturers doing to reduce packaging?

Laws require packaging to be manufactured so that volume and weight are limited to the minimum amount necessary to maintain required levels of safety and hygiene.

Courtauld Commitment

Introduced in July 2005, the Courtauld Commitment is a voluntary agreement between grocery retailers and brand owners. 92% of the grocery retail sector in the UK have signed up. There have so far been 3 stages to this campaign and the most recent results of 2015 show manufacturing and retail waste (including waste to sewer) falling by 74,000 from 2,504,000 tonnes to 2,430,000 tonnes – reduction of 3%.

Changes from stages 1 and 2 of the Courtauld Agreements

Here are just a few examples of some of the changes made by various stages 1 and 2 of the Courtauld Agreement.

  • Toilet roll diameter reduced by 12mm, cutting the number of delivery lorries required by the equivalent of 140,000 kg of CO2.
  • Tray-less bags for chickens has reduced packaging by 68%, which means 540 fewer vehicles on the road.
  • Tomato puree tubes no longer come in cartons, reducing packaging by 45%
  • Lightening wine bottles by 30%, reducing glass usage by 560 tonnes a year
  • Replacing glass peanut butter jars with plastic, cutting packaging by 83%
  • Reducing the cardboard on pizza base mix, saving 87% of packaging

Changes from Stage 3 of the Courtauld Agreement

This document shows the supermarket case studies and how they have made changes to their packaging as a result of the Courtauld stage 3. Somehighlights of this document include:

  • Britvic: in 2014 Britvic released Robinsons Squash’d which is a pocket sized, 20 servings squash pack. The small size meant a reduction in packaging and 2,340 more Squash’d bottles fit onto a pallet and weigh nearly 600kg less, providing transportation efficiencies and carbon savings
  • Unilever: Compressed, smaller deoderant cans resulting in a 530 million tonne waste reduction
  • Co-op: launched ‘keep me’ storage advice on their packaging for bread and morning goods.
  • Sainsburys: produced a ‘food waste saving’ app with lots of help, advice and recipe ideas to use up leftovers.

The 4th stage of the courtald agreement is set to meet its targets by 2025. You can find out more about this here.

What can I do to reduce the amount of packaging I throw away?

There’s plenty you can do to reduce packaging – follow these tips to get started:

  1. Complain about packaging
    Don’t buy products you think are excessively or deceptively wrapped. Complain to your supermarket or the manufacturer and contact your local trading standards department if you believe a product is excessively wrapped. Most supermarkets have customer comment boxes, or you can contact manufacturers’ customer care numbers on the backs of packets.
  2. Buy less
    Before buying something, stop and think about whether you really need it. Buying less reduces our negative impact on the world by producing less waste and reducing the demand for products to be manufactured in the first place.
  3. Buy items in recyclable packaging
    Consider what you can and cannot recycle at home when buying products.
  4. Buy refills
    Many products are sold in refill packets so when the product runs out, you can refill the original container instead of throwing it away. Make use of the Refill Devon scheme which has hundreds of establishments accross the county, who will refill your water bottle for free.
  5. Reduce packaging by preparing meals at home
    It’s estimated that 50% of our food packaging waste is produced when we’re out and about. Cut your packaging consumption by making packed lunches at home in reusable containers such as lunch boxes and flasks.
  6. Reuse packaging
    Some packaging can be reused over and over, preventing the need to buy more. Refill empty drinks bottles for when you’re out and about and carry reusable bags for when you go shopping.
  7. Ask your supermarket for bins
    Already a common practice in Germany – write to your local supermarket to ask it to provide bins at the checkout in which you can leave unwanted food packaging. This shifts the responsibility of dealing with excess packaging from consumers to retailers.
  8. Stay local
    Shop at local greengrocers, farm shops and farmers’ markets. Loose produce can go straight in your bag, or into recyclable paper bags.