Has packaging gone bananas?

We might think that putting fresh fruit in impenetrable plastic containers for our 'convenience' is the apotheosis of an industry gone mad. But can we simply blame the packaging manufacturers for society's wastefulness? Malcolm Macalister Hall unwraps a £9bn business

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Got a family to feed, or just feeling peckish? Go into any supermarket or corner store and look around, and the first thing you'll see isn't food: you're looking at cardboard, glass, metal, polyvinyl chloride, polypropylene, high-density polyethylene, polyethylene terephthalate - in fact, aisle after aisle of packaging. At the checkout, you'll get some low-density polyethylene (a plastic carrier bag) to take it home in. And then, most likely, it all goes straight in the bin.

Got a family to feed, or just feeling peckish? Go into any supermarket or corner store and look around, and the first thing you'll see isn't food: you're looking at cardboard, glass, metal, polyvinyl chloride, polypropylene, high-density polyethylene, polyethylene terephthalate - in fact, aisle after aisle of packaging. At the checkout, you'll get some low-density polyethylene (a plastic carrier bag) to take it home in. And then, most likely, it all goes straight in the bin.

Anyone with environmental scruples will conduct the last part of this operation with a heavy heart. Going shopping and then throwing away a pile of paper, cardboard, foil and plastic is, depending on your point of view, either a chore - or an environmental crime. Our relationship with the packaging that protects, preserves and glamorises the products we buy is fraught.

Felicity Murray edits the packaging industry's leading business title, Packaging News. She says that when people ask what she does for a living, she steels herself for the inevitable rant, always along the same lines: there's too much packaging, it's infuriating, and it's impossible to open.

A poll of 2,000 over-fifties published by Yours magazine this year showed that 97 per cent of respondents thought there was "too much excess packaging". Many resorted to knives, scissors and pliers to get at their purchases. And a 2002 study for the Department of Trade and Industry reported that 88 people had, ludicrously, injured themselves using a knife to open the packaging of a new knife they'd bought.

"Packaging has so many benefits, and makes life easier for us, but the sad thing is that it's something we take for granted," Murray says. "It's only when it goes wrong, or you can't open it, or you're trying to stuff it into the bin that you think, 'There's too much of this stuff...' Otherwise, most people don't even think about it - it's just part of life."

It is, and in mind-numbing quantities. And it's unavoidable. Packaging manufacturers in Britain employ 100,000 people; the industry's annual turnover is £9bn. Next year, to package chilled and frozen ready meals alone, Britain is expected to use 32,000 tons of plastic trays. UK households throw away 460,000 tons of plastic bottles a year, and use an average of 330 glass bottles and jars each. Only 30 per cent of this glass is recycled; nearly 1.5 million tons is just dumped.

Annually, we use about eight billion carrier bags. Globally, about 400 billion cans for food, drinks, industrial products and aerosols are made each year. And the global bottled-water market grew by nearly 10 per cent last year to near tidal-wave proportions: 155 billion litres. Given that much is sold in half-litre measures, the number of (mostly plastic) bottles used and thrown away hardly bears thinking about.

Without modern packaging, however, most of us would probably starve. Britain's "can't cook, won't cook" society eats more chilled ready-meals than any country in Europe. The industrialised food-supply systems that have been adopted in developed nations depend on centralised processing, long distribution chains and long shelf-life for products - hence the "modified atmosphere" (mostly nitrogen) in which many fresh products, including meat and salads, are sealed. (Sealed in normal air, they would quickly deteriorate; oxygen allows bacteria to thrive.)

The industry says good packaging such as this has reduced food wastage in the supply chain to below 2 per cent, whereas in developing countries it can reach 25 per cent. Packaging has also been driven by changing demographics: more people live alone, and often both partners in a couple work. There's a desire for convenient food, with a longer fridge-life, in a range of sizes. We also buy more stuff than we once did. It all means more packaging.

Sensitive to criticism from consumers and groups such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, and forced by European and domestic legislation to reduce waste (and, of course, wanting to cut its own costs), the packaging industry has been "lightweighting"; reducing the quantity of raw materials used in packaging. A yogurt pot is now said to be 60 per cent lighter than it was 30 years ago, and a plastic soft-drink bottle one-third lighter. Most plastic carrier bags are half as thick as 20 years ago. Drinks cartons are 16 per cent lighter than 10 years ago. The industry insists that despite a huge rise in packaged products, the total weight of materials used has changed little.

With anything up to 40,000 product lines in a supermarket, packaging not only plays a vital marketing role in attracting buyers; it also keeps out bugs, protects products in transit and preserves them on the shelf, and provides space for instructions and information. It must be child-safe or child-proof, pensioner-friendly, and sometimes have anti-tamper and anti-theft properties.

"We're ambivalent in our views about packaging because we want things that are in good condition, and we need them for our health. Yet there are these negative associations of waste and litter," says Jane Bickerstaffe, the director of the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (Inc-pen), set up in 1974 by manufacturers and retailers partly in response to campaigns by Friends of the Earth and other groups.

Bickerstaffe says that alongside Incpen's code of practice for responsible packaging, and legislation that includes powers for Trading Standards to fine companies for excess packaging, there is another powerful force that limits it: "Industry needs to keep its costs low, and packaging is a cost. So there is a natural incentive not to use any more than you think you need."

There is leeway here; in items that can be seen as gifts, such as Easter eggs, boxes of chocolates or bottles of malt whisky, the packaging is usually classed as part of the product. In some cases, though, retailers have insisted on "excess" packaging to try to deter shoplifting.

"The retailer is the one who interfaces with the customer, and therefore he is king," Bickerstaffe says. "It was retailers who demanded blister packs for high-value things like camera films and batteries. They are packaged in more than they need for strict protection. Retailers found that too many of them were walking out of stores without being paid for, so they wanted something that wouldn't fit in a pocket so easily."

But the new industry buzz words are "tagging" and "intelligent packaging". Tagging (or radio frequency identification) consists of a small silicon chip and antenna attached to packaging, which allows the products to be tracked by radio link through the supply chain. It will also automatically log in consignments and locate them in supermarkets' cavernous storage areas.

This may, at last, save frustrated shoppers from those listless sales assistants and their "if it's not there, we haven't got it" mantra. "The availability on-shelf of any product is only about 92 per cent, so there's almost a one in 10 chance it won't be there. When everything's tagged, supply chains will be much more efficient," says Ann Stirling Roberts, a director of PIRA International, the leading UK packaging consultants. "When a product's not on the shelf, in more than 50 per cent of cases it's in the supermarket's store - but no one knows where it is. It's one of the biggest causes of 'out-of-stock'. With this system, staff can go to the storage area with a reader and locate an item immediately."

She says tagging will start in earnest in the UK next year, first on bulk consignments moving through the supply chain (the cost of tagging individual items is still too high). Tagging will also have a security role. "At the moment the [grocery] supply chain in Western Europe loses goods worth about €25bn (£17.5bn) a year, and more than half of that loss is theft," Stirling Roberts says. "Once products are tagged, you will be able to see where they're disappearing."

Meanwhile, some food packaging in Europe already carries printed panels that change colour as the use-by date approaches, or if the pack has not been refrigerated correctly. Stirling Roberts says she expects these to become common in Britain in the next two years. In five to 10 years, she says, there will be "intelligent" packaging which, a PIRA report this month says, could include packs with "freshness" indicators, cooking "done-ness" indicators, temperature sensors and animated LED displays with information about the product, its origin and its storage history.

"At the moment we rely on a use-by date to tell us whether food's OK, but that doesn't tell us if it's always been kept at the right temperature," she says. "What's really going to make a big change is when we have batteries that can be printed on the package. In the longer term, we're looking at printed electronics, organic rather than silicon semiconductors, and active tags that will communicate with the fridge and cooker in your wired kitchen." These tags will automatically update electronic shopping lists as products are used, and set cooking times and temperatures.

Retailers are currently asking suppliers to pick up the cost of tagging, and, as Stirling Roberts puts it, "there are some issues there". Still, she says consumers will notice "huge changes" in the next 10 years. "It will be about adding consumer value, and consumers having interactive, intelligent packaging that does things for them."

She has seen one firm demonstrate a "talking" milk carton. "If it's left out of the fridge too long, a temperature sensor picks that up, and a synthesised voice device attached to the carton says, 'I'm too warm, put me back in the fridge.'" Such a device could also be used to remind people to take medication. "So most of these technologies already exist; it's just that the cost is currently too high. When we get printed electronics, they'll come right down."

This shiny new shopping utopia may not be such good news for the environment. UK councils currently collect about 30 million tons of household waste, litter and corner-shop refuse a year. It's been growing at close to 3 per cent annually. Excluding "heavy" industries such as quarrying and mining, another 70 million tons of waste comes from commerce and industry. About 10 million tons of used packaging enters the UK "waste stream" each year.

While the figures may be skewed by slightly different methods of counting, the UK is near the bottom of the European household recycling league. We're expected to recycle 17 per cent of household waste this year, compared to the Netherlands' 59 per cent (Europe's highest in 2003), and Portugal's 4 per cent (the lowest). Though cans and glass can be recycled endlessly, we only recycle about half our cans and 30 per cent of bottles and jars; 1.5 million tons of glass are dumped in landfill, which is where 75 per cent of our household rubbish ends up.

The packaging industry now finds itself under scrutiny as never before, as tough EU targets are set to reduce landfilling and increase recycling. The other option - incineration - provokes fierce opposition. There are 15 municipal incineration plants in the UK, which produce electricity or heat from waste, but they are a constant target for campaigns by environmental and local resident groups alleging that greenhouse gases, toxic ash residues and dioxins produced by the burning of unsorted rubbish and plastics are a serious threat to the environment and to health.

In the recycling and environmental debate, the packaging industry feels it is often unfairly singled out. "I think it's because packaging is so visible in the dustbin," says Ian Dent, the chief executive of the Packaging Federation, which represents UK manufacturers. And, insisting that consumers have got their environmental priorities back to front, Incpen has produced figures claiming that a household would have to recycle all its glass bottles for 400 years to save as much energy as it would do by switching from a gas-guzzling four-wheel-drive to an economical family saloon - for just one year.

"People forget that packaging only amounts to about 3 per cent of the UK's total waste [from all sources, including quarrying and construction], so the amount of attention it gets in the overall scheme of things is totally disproportionate," Dent says. "There is an emotional difference between the number of units of packaging consumed as opposed to the weight of packaging consumed.

"In the soft-drinks sector alone, if we hadn't lightweighted we would have put another 400,000 tons of packaging on the market if we'd stayed at 1998 container weights. Packaging is seen as part of that problem, but what it's trying to do is deliver more products for less weight of packaging."

In attempting to "lightweight" and cut production and transport costs, the industry has moved away from heavy containers such as tins and glass to more plastic (much pet food, for example, now comes in pouches). The industry says this has brought environmental benefits, because lighter packaging saves thousands of lorry-trips. But it also means even more plastic, which, because of its many types, is the hardest material to recycle; for best results, it usually needs to be sorted and cleaned. When it becomes contaminated with micro-electronics from the new generation of "intelligent packaging", recycling is likely to be harder still. The easy answer, for local councils and the industry, is incineration.

"One of the arguments of the plastic packaging industry is that it's fine to burn plastic because it's got a high calorific value," says Mark Strutt, senior campaigner with Greenpeace, which has waged a long war against incineration. "But, as well as the pollution, especially dioxins from PVC, you're basically burning fossil fuels, and that is a global warming issue. What we need to do with plastic is reduce: we can't look to recycling to solve the problems." He says the average household dustbin contains a large amount of plastic packaging that could be recycled, but only a minority of councils accept it in kerbside collections.

"When you talk to consumers about waste, one of the first things that comes up is the amount of packaging they have to put up with," Strutt says. "And they're clear that they'd rather not have it. But they don't have any choice in the matter. Waste is a major environmental problem in this country, and packaging is a significant part of that."

An EU directive on packaging waste sets industry targets for recycling and recovery of packaging material. ("Recovery" usually means incineration producing heat or electricity.) The target for plastic is one of the lowest: 22.5 per cent by 2008. And last month, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) downgraded its estimate of the amount recycled in 2003 by 80,000 tons - and called in the police - after an investigation found evidence of falsification of industry recycling certificates by "a number of reprocessors and exporters".

Meanwhile, container-loads of the UK's waste paper and used plastic are being shipped to China to feed its voracious new industries. "I've spoken to [Greenpeace] colleagues in China," Strutt says, "and they say this plastic comes in unsorted and often contaminated and is being dealt with in poor conditions, and basically it's exporting waste and a form of dumping. How environmentally sound can it be to ship plastic halfway round the world?"

Although packaging producers and users in the UK supply chain already pay a levy towards recycling and recovery - about £70m in 2002 - Strutt says the solution is full producer responsibility.

"Every company that produces something - whether it's packaging or a product - should be responsible for it at the end of the line. Retailers should have to collect their packaging and be physically and economically responsible for it. That should go back up the chain to the packaging producer. It would then be in their interests to design those products so that there is low or zero disposal cost. That will encourage re-use and good environmental features in design.

"That's why we need producer responsibility, and legislation on it. Clearly we're not advocating that we should have no packaging at all, and we wouldn't deny its role in preserving foods. But it's often used for other reasons - marketing, security, the convenience of the retailer. It's clear that a large part of packaging is just to make things look good and make them saleable. It's not about conservation of food or anything else."

NOT SO FANTASTIC PLASTIC

There are about 50 groups of plastics, with hundreds of different varieties. Types commonly found in packaging include:

* Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), used in fizzy drink bottles and oven-ready meal trays.

* High density polyethylene (HDPE), used in bottles for milk and washing-up liquids.

* Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), used in food trays, cling film and bottles for squash, mineral water and shampoo.

* Low density polyethylene (LDPE), used in carrier bags and bin liners.

* Polypropylene (PP), used in margarine tubs and microwaveable-meal trays.

Source: Wastewatch

A NATION LAID TO WASTE

The UK produces more than 430 million tons of rubbish every year from all sources (industry, commerce, quarrying, construction, household and litter).

The energy saving from recycling one glass bottle will:

* Power a 100-watt light bulb for almost an hour

* Power a computer for 25 minutes

* Power a colour TV for 20 minutes

* Power a washing machine for 10 minutes

Figures for England released last month show that only 14.5 per cent of domestic waste was recycled in 2002-03. The rate for 2003-04 is expected to be 17 per cent, and the target for 2005-06 is 25 per cent.

Only 5.5 per cent of plastic bottles used in the home are recycled.

Councils in Britain spend more than £100m a year collecting and landfilling plastic bottles which, if sold, would realise a value of £50m.

About 20 per cent of all the aluminium produced in the world is used to make drinks cans for the US market.

Of global oil production, 4 per cent is used to make plastic, the most-used packaging material.

In a year, the average UK household buys 4,300 items of all kinds, from TV sets to chewing gum. These purchases weigh 2.8 tons and are packed in 190kg of packaging.

In 2002, the Environment Agency interviewed 2,516 people in England and Wales about their household rubbish. Among the responses were:

* 41 per cent said they had recently thrown something away that they felt could have been recycled or re-used, but didn't know how to go about it; 19 per cent mentioned plastic.

* 74 per cent said they would be either very likely or certain to return their bottles and containers to supermarkets if they were given refunds or discounts for doing so.

* Half said they disposed of pesticides and chemicals along with their "general rubbish", while 8 per cent simply poured them down the drain.

Sources: British Glass; DEFRA; Environment Agency; The Canmaker; Incpen; British Plastics Federation; Wrap; Recoup

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