Waste basket: Minister backs campaign to cut packaging

Yesterday, we highlighted excessive packaging of consumer products. Readers inundated us with their tales of wastefulness
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The Independent Online

Politicians across the divide and scores of consumers yesterday gave their strong backing for The Independent's anti-waste campaign.

More than 150 intensely irritated readers sent in examples of the excess plastic, surplus cardboard and unwanted clingfilm that modern retailing has foisted upon them against their will. Now the Environment minister, Ben Bradshaw, has invited people to take action against the over-packagers.

Those who think their shops are wilfully adding to the volume of waste should report them to their local council, who have a responsibility for cutting pollution, the minister said.

Mr Bradshaw reflected a growing mood among consumers, which was strikingly evident in the flood of e-mails The Independent received: real annoyance, verging on anger, at the excesses of the ubiquitous packaging phenomenon.

The Independent's campaign also had widespread political backing, with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats expressing support. Readers cited example after example of over-wrapped items, from vegetables to toys, from electronic goods to toothpaste, even porridge.

Emily Parrott, a musician from Oxford, instanced Marks & Spencer ready-made porridge as a particular packaging horror story. (It comes in a black plastic bowl with a see-through plastic lid and a cardboard sleeve. You zap the contents, eat it and chuck it away.)

She said: "I was astonished such a product should even exist. All that packaging and energy put into something that is just as easily made from scratch in a normal bowl. I was so disgusted I didn't even buy it."

The big supermarkets have pledged to take action. M&S said they would take The Independent readers' views on board but said the porridge was designed for convenience. It would be taken into a company review of all packaging with the aim of a 25 per cent packaging reduction by 2012.

Tesco defended its packaging policy, detailing the environmental measures it is taking and saying it was "committed to making sure our packaging is not excessive". A spokesperson said: "Reducing our environmental impact is something we take extremely seriously and we aim to reduce waste and carrier-bag usage and increase recycling."

But politicians, led by Mr Bradshaw, came out strongly behind the irritated customers. Mr Bradshaw created a stir recently when he suggested consumers who do not want the waste that comes with supermarket produce can tear it off, leave it on the counter, and let the staff deal with it.

Yesterday, he urged consumers to report excesses, to shop the shops. " If people feel they are being presented with over-packed goods, they can complain to the supermarket manager. There are regulations against excessive packaging, so if that doesn't work, report the shop to the trading standards authority."

Under legislation passed in 2003, the weight and size of packaging on goods sold by retailers has to be "the minimum amount to maintain necessary levels of safety, hygiene and acceptance for the packed product and for the consumer". It also has to be "manufactured so as to permit re-use or recovery."

After making his call for consumer action last autumn, Mr Bradshaw called managers from all the main supermarkets and representatives of small traders to his Department of Environment office to show them goods he had bought on the way to work that morning. "It looked just like the exhibition photographed in The Independent, only it was not just food, there were also electrical goods for instance," he said. "They reacted positively, because they realise there's a constituency out there concerned about the environment. There is a huge sensitivity among retailers about being singled out as polluters and there is a growing competitiveness among them to be seen to be doing the right thing."

Mr Bradshaw's boss, David Miliband, the Secretary of State for the Environment, said: "I welcome The Independent campaign. The Government is enthusiastically implementing the EU directive on packaging to reduce its environmental impacts, and we are encouraging retailers to cut packaging levels by 2010. But it's vital that pressure from government is complemented by pressure from consumers."

Peter Ainsworth, the Tories' shadow Environment Secretary, said: "We strongly welcome The Independent's initiative. There is mounting public irritation at the quantity of unnecessary packaging. All companies and supermarkets should endeavour to reduce the packaging we see, and the packaging we don't see in depots and warehouses"

The Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell, said succinctly: " Shoppers are fed up with fighting their way through layers of cardboard and plastic."

'The supermarkets don't need to do it'

Billy Bragg Musician

There is way too much packaging used. Supermarkets will slice up a bloody apple and put it in packaging. A lot of the rubbish on our beaches in Dorset is plastic and polystyrene. We recycle cardboard and newspapers, glass and plastic bottles but there is nowhere to recycle the general plastic.

Anne Widdecombe Politician

A great deal of packaging is completely unnecessary. You can understand why they do it - to stop deliberate contamination - but it ends up impossible to open. I can't count the number of times I've broken nails trying to open packaging. Everything comes in a plastic bag inside a cardboard package.

Donnachadh McCarthy Author and Campaigner

Ninety-nine percent of my shopping is supermarket-free. The only time I go to one is when I need organic wine, which means I produce half a wheelie bin of rubbish a year. It shows you it's do-able and that supermarkets do not need most of the packaging that they use. The waste is ridiculous.

Patrick Holden Director, Soil Association

There is a debate about organic food having an identity and the danger is that it involves extra packing. But there is a way around this: you can have a small sticker labelling the food such as the edible, impregnated symbols on organic bread. We have a personal obligation to reduce the carbon footprint.

Simon Fanshawe Comedian

Packaging drives me crazy. I got some soup bowls as a present and each one was wrapped in three boxes and with lots of paper on top. It's very annoying but what can you do? We can try to recycle - or we can tell the shops that we're not going to buy stuff if it's wrapped up in unnecessary packaging.

Lionel Blue Chief Rabbi

It does bother me that there is so much packaging in supermarket food. Like many older people with a touch of rheumatism, I find it can cause lots of problems. I often end up having to use a nail file to get at the stuff. I am trying to cut down on buying things which have too much packaging.


Waitrose croissants

'They used to sell croissants in minimal packaging but I recently found out they have double-wrapped larger packaging.'

Martin Carr, Sheen, Surrey

Waitrose: 'We plan to minimise packaging in the first instance and transfer the remaining packaging to biodegradable.'

Sainsbury's bananas

'I can't see the reason for so much packaging for fruit and veg. Why do we need packaging at all and why don't they provide biodegradable bags with all fruit and veg?'

Sandra Regan, Didcot

Sainsbury's: 'We already have a target to reduce our use of packaging by 5 per cent every year.'

Tesco ready-meal pizza

'One pizza has a cardboard box, then plastic wrapping and a foam tray. I've stopped buying them because the packaging makes me so angry.'

Mitesh Shah, Hemel Hempstead

Tesco: 'We are committed to making sure packaging is not excessive.'

Flash memory card

'I was astonished when it arrived in a 2 x 1.5 x 1.5ins cardboard box, shrink-wrapped to the base, enclosed in its own 6ins long plastic display case and further enclosed in a plastic storage case. What a waste.'

Robert Ashton, Brighton

Staples declined to comment.

Recycled lavatory rolls

'It defeats the whole object if you're buying something that's recycled but you find it's in non-recyclable plastic. I'm seriously considering looking into alternatives for all products that are damaging to our environment.'

Steve Chatterley, South Wales


'The container was about 3ins tall but, when I opened it up, I found it was barely full to 1in. The rest of it was air. It's infuriating to buy something which has oversized packaging.'

Donald Smith, Haddington, Scotland


'Why does toothpaste need to be sold in a box? Why not, like Biros, have one large box sitting on display and in that box have a dozen or so tubes that people can just put in their basket, It would reduce the waste of a lot of cardboard.'

Pritesh Shah, Harrow

Bagged carrots

'Maybe we have become spoilt as consumers but it all seems so unnecessary to put something such as carrots in a plastic bag. It serves no purpose other than a misguided attempt to make something more sellable. I spend most of my time in the kitchen dealing with the fall-out from all the packaging, stuffing plastics and containers in the bin.'

Martin Clarke, Ottershaw, Surrey

Tesco 'Finest' apples

'The encasing on a lot of fruit and veg 'Finest' products can't be recycled and when I get home and unpack, I've got 20 different cases that I can't recycle which leaves me feeling really bad. I'm just going to stop buying items from this range because I don't want the waste.'

Allison Burns, London