Reusable packaging in the UK: cost the major factor

| 29th June 2009
Unpackaged, Amwell Street
An increase in shops that encourage customers to bring their own containers could mean a sea-change in the world of packaging

An increase in shops encouraging customers to bring their own containers could mean a packaging sea-change

When it comes to reusable packaging and the environment, consumers are keen to do the right thing, but it seems sparking a refill revolution in Great Britain means getting the price right first

With recycling, as with so many other green initiatives, the Europeans are way ahead of us. In the Netherlands, Denmark and Finland respectively, 80, 90 and 98 per cent of all soft drink and beer packaging is refillable.

The fact there is a financial incentive attached to reusing your empties helps, of course, but given Great Britain’s unenviable reputation as one of the heaviest-drinking countries in the EU, the implementation of such a scheme here could net us all a small fortune.

For Britons, it seems, money is the main factor when it comes to reusing and refilling generally. Published in the journal Packaging Technology and Science, new research carried out for Boots reveals that although most people would like to use reusable packaging for environmental reasons – cutting down on household waste and the use of natural resources – the bottom line is the bottom line.

But returning bottles and cans is only one small part of reusable packaging, according to lead researcher Dr Vicky Lofthouse of Loughborough University

‘People had seen refillables in a very narrow way, that was why we had to start by asking what we meant by refillable,’ she says. ‘Whether it involves bulk buying of olive oil, people using refill sachets to top up a main bottle of detergent or buying pearls of facewash instead of full bottle, we came across at least 15 types of "refillable" product.’

The research revealed that only 26 per cent of people had used self-dispense style refills (such as refilling toiletries), while 55 per cent had positive experiences where the original packaging was swapped for a new product (milk bottles, ink cartridges).

‘There are a wide range of business and sustainability advantages to engaging with refills. If refillable packaging is designed carefully and applied to appropriate products it has a great opportunity to reduce household waste, and also reduce the amount of natural resources needed to package and deliver goods to the consumer,’ says Lofthouse.

Why not here?

Considering the positive benefits for businesses, consumers and the environment, and given the excellent results achieved in northern Europe and Scandinavia, why isn’t Britain refilling its boots?

‘We’ve made a commitment to reduce packaging and wee’re working in partnership with retail organisations to achieve this goal,’ said a Defra spokesperson. ‘There’s no reason why some of the initiatives seen in Scandinavia shouldn’t work here, but it’s probably down to cultural differences that they haven’t as yet. These schemes are just one of the options we’ve looked at in our new packaging strategy, Making the Most of Packaging’.

Included in the 83-page strategy for recycling, packaging reduction and reusability are pledges to: review a ban on aluminium and glass in landfill; focus on increasing the recycling rates of aluminium, glass and plastic, as well guiding manufacturers to maximise recycling potential – WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) will continue to work with manufacturers to reduce packaging; make it easier to crack down on manufacturers of excessive and unnecessary packaging, and encourage consumers to report offenders to Trading Standards; work with manufacturers and local authorities to increase the number of materials that can be recycled; encourage refillable and reusable packaging across a range of products.

The Food and Drink Federation responded to the strategy by declaring its ambition to send zero food and packaging waste from factories to landfill by 2015.

‘Recovery and recycling are also important elements of any strategy and we look forward to working with the Government to improve the country’s recycling infrastructure and to increase capacity in new technologies such as anaerobic digestion,’ said director of communications Julian Hunt.

Despite good news on the recycling front – figures released in April reveal that almost two-thirds of all packaging produced in 2008 was recycled, with UK businesses contributing to the recovery of more than seven million tonnes of packaging waste, of which 6.6 million tonnes were recycled, saving roughly 8.9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide – the amount of packaging produced every year far exceeds what is recycled.

Half of all household waste that ends up in landfill originates as a purchase from supermarkets or conveniences stores, and 20 per cent of all rubbish put out by households is retail packaging. The UK packaging manufacturing industry has annual sales of £10 billion and a workforce of 85,000, three per cent of the UK’s entire manufacturing workforce.


The Unpackaged way

Catherine Conway, founder of Unpackaged in Amwell Street, London, where customers receive a 50p discount on their purchases if they bring their own containers, thinks the UK’s increasing waste problem will precipitate a refill revolution.

‘There’s no harm having a financial incentive for people to reuse and refill, but I think it’s financial pressure that will mean more people doing it in the future,’ she says. ‘With landfill sites almost full we can inevitably expect to be getting charged for rubbish collection or have some kind of pay-as-you-throw initiative. There are pressures like the European landfill tax, but I don’t think really being felt yet.’

A 1999 EU Directive set a deadline of 2013 for reducing the amount of biodegradable waste going to landfill by 50 per cent on 1995 levels, but delays to the construction of PFI waste plants may mean councils – and thus taxpayers – being hit with fines of £366 million.

‘The price of disposing of things will definitely go up – if local authorities have the balls to pass it on to consumers I can certainly see people’s attitudes changing,’ says Conway. ‘This will give consumers an excuse to leave excessive and unnecessary packaging at the point of purchase, putting a kind of backwards pressure on supermarkets, which I welcome.’

The success of the shop has also pointed up the link between unpackaged food and a healthier diet and community.

‘Packaging is linked to the way we eat – if people are eating fresh fruit and vegetables, buying ingredients and cooking them themselves then they don’t need to be overly packaged. Since starting up Unpackaged in 2006 we’ve seen a massive rise in people buying ingredients and cooking at home rather than eating out, and have built up a real network of wonderful small producers – we get cakes from a nearby baker, salad and herbs from a garden project on a local estate. Buying without packaging means buying local, and by extension buying healthier, less processed food.'


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