The war on waste

It's the busiest shopping day of the year. But what are Britain's biggest retailers really doing about our concerns over excess packaging? Ed Caesar investigates.
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The Independent Online

This year, it has been the P-word on the lips of Government ministers and environmental campaigners, as well as the man and woman on the street. And today, of all days - Britain's biggest shopping day before Christmas - it should be in our hearts. Packaging, or at least excess packaging, has become our newest, ugliest environmental crime, responsible for clogging our brim-full landfill sites, sapping the earth's resources of energy and increasing carbon emissions. The leaking oil tanker, which, a decade ago, was the environmentalist's ultimate icon of hate, has now been brashly deposed in 2006 by the double-wrapped banana.

Just ask Ben Bradshaw, the Government's whippet-keen environment minister. Last month, he urged Britain's shoppers to leave the wasteful and excess packaging they found in supermarkets at the check-out till, and has promised to hold Britain's biggest 13 grocers to something called the Courtauld Commitment. Under that agreement the grocers will have to significantly cut back on waste by 2010, or face legislative enforcement.

Bradshaw, who as much as anyone, has been responsible for bringing packaging right to the top of the nation's environmental agenda, knows that supermarkets are, by no means, the only offenders in our over-packaged age. But he has started with the supermarkets because he knows that behaviour learned in our great cathedrals of consumption filters down through every strand of our shopping life. More importantly, the supermarkets, because of their sheer size, have the capacity to produce huge results through tiny changes. Last year, for instance, just by moving from pizza boxes to pizza sleeves, Tesco saved 7,467 tonnes of cardboard - a story that, in a variety of manifestations, is being repeated across every British supermarket chain, who realise their environmental credentials are now under serious scrutiny.

But are the retailers doing enough? And why, now, is packaging under such scrutiny? The statistics tell a story. Packaging, says the Government, has increased by an "unacceptable" 12 per cent between 1999 and 2005, and now consists of more than a third of the average household's waste stream. This is clearly bad news. But it is, at least, partially countered by some happier statistics. The British (traditionally poor recyclers, way behind their conscientious fellow Europeans) are starting to recycle in ever greater numbers. According to the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs, the amount of municipal waste sent to landfill has dropped by 10 per cent since 1996/7, while total recycling has increased to 27 per cent, four times what it was 10 years ago.

So how well, or badly, is Britain really doing?

"On waste management, generally, we score poorly compared to other European nations," says Bradshaw. "Our level of recycling has historically been low, and although they are now a lot better, we're still behind. On packaging, the signs are that there is a more encouraging story to tell. We have commitments from retailers to curb the amount of packaging on their products."

The basic conclusion of this blizzard of statistics and trends seems to be that, while there seems a general willingness (at least a notional one) to reduce and recycle waste in Britain, something is going wrong between the shop, the shopper, the councils and the Government. Too much packaging is still on our shelves, and too much of it is finishing its life rotting in a landfill site.

To try and make sense of this packaging conundrum, I visited Tetra Pak, Britain's most visible packagers, at their Wrexham headquarters. Tetra Pak is a company that produces between 2 and 3 billion cartons a year in this country alone. It also used to have a reputation in green circles for producing cartons that were "un-recyclable". That notoriety, based on the idea that Tetra Pak's multi-layered cartons could not be separated easily enough to be recycled, has proved unfounded - one can recycle Tetra Pak, but it requires a slightly different process to that for card and paper - and Belgium, for instance, now recycles 72 per cent of the company's cartons. Despite this, Tetra Pak has struggled these past few years to overcome its un-environmentally-friendly image.

Richard Hands, Tetra Pak UK's environment manager, is keen to show me the company's impressive results. The company is now carbon neutral. It has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 23 per cent since 2001. It recovers 95 per cent of its production waste. It is, as I would see in my day at the factory, thoroughly engaged in finding energy savings in new designs and processes. But where it still struggles is in encouraging people to send their Tetra Pak cartons to the recycling bin, persuading local authorities to collect its cartons, and finding paper mills to recycle them.

The company wants to reach a 10 per cent carton-recycling rate in the UK by 2008 (at present it is 3 per cent), which sounds decidedly unambitious when you think that in Germany, rates of carton recycling are well above 60 per cent. But, as Hands points out, Germany has "invested billions and billions in its recycling infrastructure," which Britain, pointedly, has not. Local authorities in this country, meanwhile, feel little compulsion to collect cartons, because their recycling targets are set by weight. Tetra Pak cartons are not only light, but they have a reputation for being difficult.

Therein lies their problem: not in the f make-up of their product, which, as a thin, durable package covering only the essentials, should be Bradshaw's dream (try taking the excess packaging off a carton of milk), but in their image. While Tetra Pak continue to find paths to recycling more of their product - touring the country and persuading local authorities to collect their cartons - their story tells you one notable thing about the war on excess packaging. It tells you that this is a battle about, and for, hearts and minds.

Hearts, mostly. Walk around any of the large supermarkets - which, because of their sheer scale, have become the front line in this war on waste - and see how you feel about the packaged and the un-packaged. At the Marble Arch branch of Marks and Spencer in central London, one descends an escalator to the food hall past slogans four-foot high declaring the company's environmental credentials. "After your sandwich disappears, so will the packaging" blares one.

But in the food hall, the loose, fresh produce, such as fruit and veg, as well as the over-packaged varieties of the same, sit side by side. There are four pears, covered by a thick plastic covering, sitting on a moulded Styrofoam base, with a picture of a pear on the label and a price on the top. This, according to Friends of the Earth (FOE), is one of the worst packaging crimes - a small quantity of fruit mercilessly suffocated in layers of plastic.

"Do you see that at the greengrocer's?" asks Sandra Belle, FOE's supermarket campaigner. "Fruits have their own packaging. Supermarkets are still using far too much plastic ... this [example] is unforgivable. It's entirely about marketing and adding value to the product, and nothing about protecting."

Look below the four-pear pack, though, and one sees the same type of English pears, lying loose in a cardboard crate. Disregarding the pros and cons of packaging pears, I try and ask myself which product I actually want to buy. And the answer, shameful to admit, is the criminally over-packaged variety. The pears in the crate look a bit unloved; the pears in the plastic look clean and fresh (although it is entirely possible the reverse is true). Oddly, though, I repeat the experiment with loose and packaged carrots, and my feelings are entirely the opposite. The packaged carrots look meek and sweaty, the un-packaged instantly chompable.

If there is a conclusion to be drawn from this entirely unscientific experiment it is that our emotional responses, to buying food in particular, are complex and unscientific. The supermarkets know this. Even shoppers who might prefer the big grocers to cut down on packaging can, as part of their daily shopping routine, be lulled into the easy option. It is one reason why, despite positive noises on this issue from Britain's supermarket chains, all those stores still sell a huge number of products that are grossly over-packaged.

But that said, real progress has been made. The trade magazine The Grocer recently surveyed all the major supermarket chains on this issue, and found that packaging had spun its way up every company's agenda. Tesco, for instance, is now reusing retail-ready packaging (ie. the boxes and other packages in which products are delivered to stores) for soft drinks and flowers, and awarding club card points to customers who reuse bags. Sainsbury's has put 500 products in compostable packaging, and introduced recycled carrier bags. Asda is redesigning all its own-label products in the next 18 months to reduce the weight and volume of their packaging by 10 per cent. Morrisons is aiming to replace plastic with carton-board on fresh food. Somerfield is recycling 60,000 tonnes of cardboard and 3,000 tonnes of plastic from its stores every year. Waitrose has reduced packaging waste by 15 per cent in the past 12 months.

"They are falling over themselves to prove their green credentials," says Bradshaw. "We are already seeing evidence of improvement. But it's quite patchy, and can also be quite confusing for the public. For instance, one or two of the supermarkets are pushing degradable bags, which don't have a clear-cut environmental benefit. They can actually be worse for the environment than a plastic bag, particularly if the consumer puts it in his normal waste stream."

What is clear is that, in the past six months, the supermarkets have realised that inaction on packaging is not an option. They must be seen to be doing something. "What we have seen have been individual areas where the supermarkets have made some good improvements," says FOE's Sandra Belle. "But they are drops in the ocean when you consider the problem of waste as a whole."

Jennie Price, the chief executive of the Government's Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), agrees that while big retailers have started to take this issue seriously, lip service will not be sufficient. "They have some great plans in place, but now we need to see impact on the shelves," she says. "I think now is the time for the supermarkets. If they are serious about this issue, they have to create an entirely different shopping experience. And if, this time next year, people do not see genuine change in the supermarkets, they will be criticised. They have a window of opportunity now to do something. And if they don't, people should rightly feel cynical about their motives."

But why has this issue arisen now?

"It's pressure from consumers," says Price. "We're still not at the stage where many people will reject a product at the point of purchase because it is over-packaged. But, f many people have the experience that when they throw something away, they realise it is grossly over-packaged. They are rightly asking, 'Why have I got all this stuff?' As more people recycle, more people have to separate the different types of material. It's irritating if you're deluged by packaging."

The recyclers, though, are still in the minority. In Britain, at least, we are a nation that continues to delight in the packaged.

"Packaging is an extraordinarily vigorous and enjoyable form of popular culture," argues the design expert Stephen Bayley. "Providing packaging is recycled, the negativism surrounding this issue is largely misplaced. It's a primary design exercise, a minor form of art. It's significant, surely, that the best packaging design has been done for the most insubstantial of products. We only understand scent, for instance, by what the packaging and the bottle look like."

Bayley here pinpoints a big problem for the anti-packaging lobby. As much as it is incumbent upon the supermarkets to "do something" about the amount of packaging they use, on an item-by-item basis, products in supermarkets are nowhere near the worst offenders. Look at any number of potential Christmas presents, triple-, quadruple-wrapped for extra anticipation. Look at scent. Look at make-up. Look, please look, at crackers, whose very purpose is to deliver huge quantities of packaging for very little result. All these luxury items only exist in their (sometimes ludicrously overwrought) packaging. Are we still allowed to enjoy them?

"I don't advocate brainless excess," says Bayley. "The best packaging is economic in every sense. The really great carrier bags are things that people actually want to preserve. People actively preserve Amsterdam Airport Duty Free bags, because they're so wonderful. The same with Chanel bags. People don't throw away what is beautiful. We couldn't live without packaging, or, at least, we wouldn't want to. What an extraordinary dull world it would be if we didn't have it."

What has happened, though, in a more packaging-conscious age, is that designers are increasingly being asked to make economy beautiful. Thomas Lingard, the corporate responsibility manager for Unilever UK, thinks the results could be spectacular.

"What we have to ensure is that we are still able to be creative," he says. "Sometimes, constraints can force you to [do that]. At Unilever, at least, we're keen to ensure we don't get blanket restrictions on certain types of material. Our strategy is to think about the product as a whole, and in order to do that, you need the full range of packaging materials available to you. We need designers to make the call - they are best informed to do so.

"From our point of view, we look at packaging as only a part of the overall product design and delivery, not as an issue on its own. It's important to think about the total life cycle of a product and packaging together. Sometimes, less robust packaging might have a smaller environmental footprint, but is more likely to get damaged in transit. That results in product wastage, and that has a negative effect on the total environmental footprint."

In this new environment, there will be a premium on innovation. At Tetra Pak, for instance, the designers have come up with several products that they believe could give them a head start in the new war to create packaging of aesthetic and environmental merit. As an alternative to tinned tomatoes, for instance, Tetra Pak have created a cuboid container, already on sale at Sainsbury's, that performs the same function. Not only is the cuboid "tin", at 18g, a third of the weight of normal tins, it is also, unlike the cylinder, able to be stacked without wasted gaps, thereby saving energy on transport, and space on the supermarket shelf. Tetra Pak say the results of their trial have been "very encouraging" and are looking forward to rolling out the range in a number of other products.

So, while packaging may mutate in the coming years, it will never disappear - how could it? Packaging does not just surround the stuff we want, it is the thing we want. In a world full of competing commercial choices, packaging - the great signifier of value - shows us which road to take. Most importantly, packaging gives us context, and it is this ability to deliver context that may offer us the greatest escape route from clogging our landfill sites and killing the planet.

You can already see the new packaging emerging, in the country's forums of debate, and among a popular movement driven by consumers. "If you'd asked the retailers a couple of years ago," says Price, "whether the amount of packaging they produced was an issue, they would have said 'no'. We have the packaging regulations. We've taken out all the layering and the weight that we can. This problem is fixed. Whatever packaging exists now is what you really need...

"But now, suddenly, they're finding there are still lots of gains to be had - individual products are still over-packaged; there is still scope for reducing weight and layering. They've recognised that the public think this is important. And that's the big step forward."

The big step forward now needs to turn into a run. If every shopper in every supermarket knows that the manifold plastics that choke a banana will soon enter the waste stream - and that the same banana has been lovingly packaged by nature with a robust skin; that a canvas bag will take that banana home as well as a plastic one - then that is the only packaging they need.