A lesson in packaging myths: Is shrink-wrap on a cucumber really mindless waste?
It's easy to picture the 10 million tonnes of packaging we get through in Britain each year as a towering, dirty mountain of pollution and doom. Or, if it's more useful, imagine the equivalent weight of 35 jumbo jets a day or a quarter of the contents of your bins.
However you do the maths, packaging is bad news for the planet, and as Christmas consumption reaches a peak, those mountains, planes and bins only look dirtier.
But packaging is not necessarily evil, as veterans of the industry point out in a new book. In Why Shrink-wrap a Cucumber? The Complete Guide to Environmental Packaging, Stephen Aldridge and Laurel Miller unpack various myths to show how, done well, packaging can please the planet as much as it can producers, retailers and consumers.
"People have an awful lot of preconceptions about packaging," Aldridge says. "Everyone also wants do the right thing, environmentally, but sometimes that's not for the best."
Aldridge accepts that there are too many egregious cases of over-packaging as manufacturers compete to "shelf-shout" the loudest. "In the Sixties toys came in a box with a picture on the front," he says.
"Now you get massive Easter egg-style boxes with huge vacuum-formed domes and unnecessary layers of cardboard. There's no excuse for it."
But the designer and consultant, who has advised dozens of top brands, adds: "An environmental view should always be at the core of a design project rather than a box to tick."
While the more we strive to use less packaging, Aldridge says, its greenness or otherwise isn't always as clear as polyethylene...
…that's the plastic used to sheath the book's titular cucumbers. The miles of plastic used in the process might seem unnecessary, and have been the subject of well-meaning anti-packaging campaigns (if an apple or a potato can go naked, why not a cucumber?).
But research shows that a wrapped cucumber lasts more than three times as long as an unwrapped one. It will also lose just 1.5 per cent of its weight through evaporation after 14 days, compared with 3.5 per cent in just three days for an exposed cucumber.
A longer life, Aldridge writes, means less frequent deliveries, with all their consequent energy costs, and, crucially, less waste. Globally, we throw out as much as 50 per cent of food, often when it perishes. It typically goes to landfill and gives off methane, a greenhouse gas.
"The cucumber example is significant because it demonstrates that how consumers perceive materials is important in environmental retailing," Aldridge writes.
"Some materials, such as glass, hardly seem to register on their environmental radar, while others, particularly plastics, are never off it."
Few items of packaging are seen as synonymous with environmental destruction as much as the plastic carrier bag but their replacement with cotton or heavier plastic bags isn't necessarily great for the planet.
"A recent Environment Agency study found that a cotton bag would have to be reused approximately 130 times before it became as environmentally efficient as a single-use bag," Aldridge writes. "If the 'single-use' bag were reused just three times as a shopping bag the cotton bag would have to be reused 393 times to achieve the same carbon footprint."
Of course, he adds, that doesn't take into account the effects of bags that end up in waterways, for example, but the superiority of "bags for life" very much depends on their genuinely prolonged use.
A slimline tonic
Remember those all those Blue Peter recycling campaigns when magnet sales presumably soared as children checked their drinks cans for steel? Pretty much all cans are now made of aluminium but they remain a symbol of litter and waste. Technology, however, means that much of the packaging we use is far greener than it might appear.
"Remember the scene in Jaws when Quint crushes his beer can with one hand?" Aldridge asks. Back then, a typical can weighed 60g and took a macho man to crush. "Now it weighs 14g, with a wall thickness thinner than a human hair. Anyone can be a Quint today."
Research reveals similar secret slimming in other common packages, from yoghurt pots to plastic bottles.
Less is more
Inevitably, many of the improvements in packaging have come not because corporations are noble but in response to demand from consumers and the realisation that less can be more.
"Barely five years ago mobile phones would have come in very high quality large gift boxes with hidden compartments, pull-out flaps and drawers," Aldridge writes.
"The simplicity of the iPhone packaging was an antidote to this approach while Amazon's restrained and beautifully detailed Kindle carton has shown that it is perfectly possible to produce clearly environmentally friendly packaging in a creative way.
"By comparison the iPhone pack now looks almost over-the-top."
Plastic isn't so fantastic when it's consuming gallons of oil and giving nothing back while it festers in landfills for 500 years. But bioplastics, which could be the solution to these ills, have a long way to go before becoming a truly green solution. "Bioplastics grown from crops remove land from food production," Aldridge says.
"The EU has already moved to limit biofuels from crops. They are also tough to compost. Normal local authority composting is often not adequate to break down the bioplastic within a realistic timescale, but anything looking like packaging is very unlikely to be collected for composting anyway."
He adds there are promising signs as the industry develops conventional, recyclable plastics than can be grown from crops and more sustainable traditional plastics.
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