Peppers in plastic, passion fruit in a sweat - how much of this packaging do we need?

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The Independent Online

It was just a medium-sized shopping-bag's worth of groceries - yet like a conjurer's hat, it created a huge mound of packaging.

A simple exercise by The Independent at the weekend illustrated a profound truth: that whatever the promises of supermarkets to change their ways, packaging, and over-packaging, are still an absolutely essential part of the deal they offer us.

We put together a bag of 14 household items and although they came from seven stores rather than one - to show how universal the phenomenon is - they made up a typical shopping bag. There were basic vegetables, fruit, breakfast cereal and cakes, washing powder, and one item for household odd jobs. Plus a small Valentine's gift - getting in early, as it were. Total cost: £23.44.

The first thing to say about the Indy's bag is that a generation ago, almost all of the items in it would have been sold loose. Even those which at one time had to be wrapped in some way, would have been wrapped less - once rather than twice, say. But now they all came swathed in clingfilm, plastic, paper and cardboard, to the extent that when it was eventually all discarded, it made a substantially bigger pile than the bare groceries themselves.

The second point to be made is that some packaging, as we shall see, was so unnecessary as to verge on the farcical.

But don't just take our word for it. To get an outside opinion we went to the Women's Institute, that venerable village-hall organisation which in recent years has reinvented itself as a doughty consumer champion. The WI has a bee in its bonnet about unnecessary packaging, and last summer held a day of action to highlight the problem. Members from branches all over England and Wales saved their packaging for a week then took it back to the checkout, saying "here - you take it".

Prominent in that campaign was Isla Arendell, a member of the WI public affairs committee. Isla, a social worker from Chepstow who is married with two children, took her own pile of plastic, cardboard and clear wrapping back to the Chepstow branch of Tesco, and persuaded them to take it off her hands. So we asked her and Katie Austin from the WI head office to run the rule over our own pile of over-swaddled groceries.

They shared our view that some of the packaging being foisted on the shopper was simply ridiculous. At the top of the list was the shrink-wrapped swede. This item, 35p from Morrisons supermarket in Camden, north London, was unchallenged in its nonsensical supremacy.

Ms Arendell was particularly scathing about two sweetcorn cobs, bought from a Tesco branch in Fulham. "This looks absolutely dreadful," she said. "Look how they're sweating in the bag. They don't fit properly and they're rolling around. If they had been picked with their leaves on, they would have been far fresher, and effectively protected naturally."

General groceries were just as heavily overwrapped. Ms Arendell looked at a pack of 12 iced fairy cakes (£1.08 from Asda), which were encased in cake wrappers, then in a plastic tray, then shrouded in coloured wrapping. "This a is a great example of what we object to. The packaging here is for a marketing campaign that's appealing to children. The cakes are wrapped three times - cases, tray, clear wrapping - yet they're sturdy enough and appealing enough just to be in their cases."

Her colleague Ms Austin said: "We warmly welcome the Independent campaign, because as you can see clearly from these items, there is simply far, far too much packaging. It's not only making a big contribution to waste, it's often making you buy far more than you want to, and severely limiting your choice."