The campaign against waste: Asda's packaging cover-up

Turnips in a tub, wrapped in plastic: even the staff thought it unnecessary. Ian Herbert investigates Asda's motives
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The Independent Online

There's something faintly environmental about the Asda superstore at Pudsey in West Yorkshire. Maybe it's the dashing green fleeces the staff wear; or perhaps the store's vast glass atrium, which looks big enough to turn the entire chain carbon-neutral if someone was minded to slap on a few solar panels.

But the unexpected air of sustainability does not stretch to the fruit and veg. Apples, mushrooms, broccoli and spinach all sit on plastic trays, tightly wrapped in plastic, and so too do the "British baby turnips"- delicately nurtured only to be encased, eight at a time, in a tub.

"Why all this packaging?" I ask Sue, who is arranging the veg. "There seems too much."

"You're right, she replies," with the confidence of one who would not have to explain. That is down to Carol, the counter manager. "I think it's partly to do with the transportation," she says. "You'll probably need to ask Asda House, one of the company's two HQ buildings, which is in the centre of Leeds. "But the turnips are British. And what about these baby parsnips?" I counter, flourishing the additional evidence.

Already people are starting to stare and Carol seems to be concluding these questions are for somebody else. Except, the floor manager is on holiday and the produce manager in a meeting. Or was it the other way around? "So I'll talk to the store manager then. Point me to his office."

But miraculously, a walkie-talkie call later, Danny, the floor manager, looms into view, with a few explanations about packaging. "There is too much of it," he admits. "But there are reasons. We sell the turnips on offer [two packs for £2] and to do that we have to pack them up. We had people only around last week to examine whether enough items are going into plastic tubs like this. That's company strategy, though. We don't have the control here."

There's a higher power here though: the GSM, to those in the know, or the general store manager (Steve Beaumont) to the rest. "We just don't make the packaging strategies here. That's down to Asda House," he insists.

So to Asda House it must be - once I, the turnips and packaging are through the checkout. "Lot of packaging isn't there?" I observe, hoping to gain the support of Rita on the checkout. "Yes. They'd be better sold separately wouldn't they?" she replies obligingly, with a deftly delivered "make sure you recycle that packaging" as I sweep out.

Ground preparations are clearly required for Asda House, and who better to consult than Greenpeace, which managed to get Asda to stop stocking several endangered fish species last year after climbing the building. "Use the revolving door," offers the activist who led that protest.

So, no abseiling ropes or crampons for me - and yet there is still success at the reception desk. "Packaging? I heard something about that on the radio this morning," says the receptionist. "Take a place in the coffee area and I'll call customer services."

If Julian, the customer service manager, has been taught that the customer is always right then he passes the test comfortably with the baby turnips. "Absolutely right. They're awful," he says. "It stops you getting a full look underneath them, doesn't it?" But just when I seem to be winning the Independent campaign single-handedly, there is a catch: he will need to check this out and call or e-mail.

So the journey goes on to the top - or at least to Asda's corporate responsibility manager, Ian Bowles. "Yes, there is too much packaging," he says. "Have you looked at the spinach? It's awful." And what about the incarceration of my innocent turnips? Well, it enables the supermarket to give them a sell-by date, he explains.

Asda is tackling this issue with plans to offer "dirty produce"- which means vegetables not scrubbed of their soil. Single portion sizes are also to be reduced to limit waste, and there are to be more recycling bins installed in stores, so customers can dump their packaging in stores.

But converting all customers may be a long project, it seems. "My wife buys our packaged, pre-prepared mashed potato," Mr Bowles admits. "People just want to walk into the store, buy their meal and leave."