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

A A A

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."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions