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.

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
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
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
people'I hated him during those times'
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
Dame Vivienne Westwood has been raging pretty much all of her life
peopleMemoir extracts show iconic designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Life and Style
fashionAlexander Furyon London Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late on stage in Brixton show
News
i100
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
News
people''Women's rights is too often synonymous with man-hating'
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

    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...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam