A lesson in packaging myths: Is shrink-wrap on a cucumber really mindless waste?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

 

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...

Wrap star

…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."

Bagging area

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."

Bio hazard

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.

Life and Style
A teenager boy wakes up.
life
Life and Style
Researchers have said it could take only two questions to identify a problem with alcohol
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Critics say Kipling showed loathing for India's primitive villagers in The Jungle Book
filmChristopher Walken, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanssen Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale
Life and Style
Playing to win: for Tanith Carey, pictured with Lily, right, and Clio, even simple games had to have an educational purpose
lifeTanith Carey explains what made her take her foot off the gas
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Duncan Campbell's hour-long film 'It for Others'
Turner Prize 2014
Life and Style
food + drink
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hadley in a scene from ‘Soul Boys Of The Western World’
musicSpandau Ballet are back together - on stage and screen
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'
tvCilla review: A poignant ending to mini-series
News
i100
Life and Style
Bearing up: Sebastian Flyte with his teddy Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited
lifePhilippa Perry explains why a third of students take a bear to uni
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Alan Sugar appearing in a shot from Apprentice which was used in a Cassette Boy mashup
artsA judge will rule if pieces are funny enough to be classed as parodies
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Food and Beverage Cost Controller

    18,000 to 20,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our fantastic leisure client i...

    Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive

    £20 - 24k: Guru Careers: A Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive is needed t...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Day In a Page

    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
    This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

    Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

    Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
    We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

    Inside the E15 'occupation'

    We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
    Witches: A history of misogyny

    Witches: A history of misogyny

    The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
    Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
    'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style