ASDA and Marks & Spencer lead assault on packaging waste crisis - but will it work?

Supermarkets and other retailers are under increasing pressure to reduce their overall packaging and waste
As UK supermarkets scramble to reduce packaging in the face of growing legislation and consumer demand, Aimee Steen talks exclusively to those tackling the problem at high street stores and asks what role customers have to play

There’s not much a joint of beef can do to be offensive. Unless you’re vegetarian, in which case steering clear of the meat aisle in the supermarket is probably the best option. Lincolnshire trading standards, however, did have a problem with a Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference joint. It wasn’t too big, it wasn’t too small, it wasn’t claiming it was delicious when it actually didn’t have much on a bog-standard burger. It simply had too much packaging.

It was a landmark case, believed to be the first packaging prosecution brought against a major supermarket, but it was dropped just before it was due to be heard in October 2010. Lincolnshire council decided that the offending product had, in fact, had its packaging sufficiently reduced. Sainsbury’s claimed that the product’s packaging had already been reduced by 53 per cent and would be reduced by a further 10 per cent. All in all, we will never know whether the case would have been successful.

These days, packaging is everywhere. Whether it’s a simple foil wrapper for your crisps, a plastic bottle for your fabric softener or an elaborate construction for your beef joint, it’s difficult to buy much these days without wading your way through layers of plastic and cardboard. Packaging for food and household goods is clearly a huge contributor to waste worldwide, and legislation exists to try and reduce that waste – though it has had very few challenges in court. But what is actually being done to reduce packaging? What does it take to make what protects products that little bit greener?

In a world where large companies face increasing pressure to green up their business practices, it’s little wonder that supermarkets and brands alike appear to be making an effort to reduce the packaging on their shelves. Given that customers question the need for plastic bags, the environmentally savvy consumer naturally queries whether large amounts of packaging are needed too.

Reduced packaging

Some companies have visibly stepped up their game, with high profile advertising campaigns to boot: Persil and Kenco have both shouted from the rooftops about their reduced packaging options, and the supermarkets say they’re working away behind the scenes. Still, the day where we all keep one jar for coffee and buy refills doesn’t - at the moment - look likely to be in the near future.

Supermarkets, suppliers and packaging companies all have a role to play in reducing packaging. The issue divides broadly into two parts: reducing the amount of packaging used in the first place, and ensuring that the packaging which is used is recyclable.

The problem, according to one industry expert, is streamlining that process through the whole supply chain. Jane Bickerstaffe, director of the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (Incpen), says that unless everybody in the chain knows what’s going on, it’s very difficult to meet environmental objectives.

‘Unless you get everybody from that chain in one room, nobody knows exactly why packaging is the way it is,’ she told The Ecologist. Incpen argues that everybody has different needs and requirements: the manufacturer may need a certain strength of raw material to be able to safely hold the product, the delivery team needs to get a certain amount into a lorry, and the warehouse has to store the items within its physical constraints. It is these real world issues that make reducing packaging a much more complex problem.

From a store’s perspective, it would seem to make economical sense as well as environmental: less packaging means less weight, leading to lower transportation costs and increased profitability. There is obviously some outlay in redesigning packaging, and that decision will be weighed up by each individual company.

Intelligent approach

One company which designs environmentally friendly packaging is A.M. Associates and, according to creative director Laurel Miller, the cost of introducing such packaging doesn’t have to be high. ‘Using less material in an intelligent way can reduce the cost of packaging as well as protecting the environment,’ she says. Having designed low impact packaging using only recycled or recyclable materials for Tesco, John Lewis and Mothercare, the company views the issue of reducing packaging in a slightly more holistic manner as well.

‘Using sustainable materials protects against deforestation, and using only recycled or recyclable materials makes the most of the materials that are already in existence, thus reducing the demand for more materials to be produced,’ explains Miller.

Dr Helene Roberts, head of food packaging at Marks & Spencer, agrees that considering the bigger picture can actually lead to a reduction in costs. In launching Plan A, their aim to become the world’s most sustainable retailer, M&S estimated an initial outlay of £200m. ‘Actually, what we found was that when you really do make sustainable decisions, you can actually save money through various activities,’ she says. An annual saving of around £50m, in fact.

There has to be some driving force behind big companies changing the way they operate, and one of those forces is strictly political. The government has been legislating on packaging for over 30 years and membership of the EU has created another environmental agenda to comply with.


UK legislation in the area states general aims, but is certainly open to interpretation. Firstly, the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2003 requires that all packaging is minimised, and that it can be recycled and recovered. It is up to each producer or supplier to apply this as appropriate to their operations, and is subject to the safe packaging of items.

The Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) 2007 then hits the big players: all UK companies with a turnover of over £2m, or those who handle over 50 tonnes of packaging a year, must reduce packaging.

Overarching both of these is the European legislation, the European Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (2004). This sets targets for the reduction of packaging waste, reviewable every five years, in relation to both recycling and recovery. According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the UK met the last target in 2008 with the recovery of around 65 per cent of packaging waste. In contrast to the 1998 level of 27 per cent, this is a positive move; however, more can still be done, and targets for the years up to 2020 are due to be set following consultation.

Bodies such as Defra and the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) work with the industry to improve packaging sustainability, and voluntary agreements such as the Courtauld Commitment compel retailers to act within set targets. Laws and agreements are laid down, but prosecutions are few and far between.

Consumer power?

Criminalisation is not necessarily the way forward, but packaging laws weigh heavily on the views of the consumer. The minimum packaging must be used ‘to maintain the necessary level of safety, hygiene and acceptance for the packed product and for the consumer’; does this place too much emphasis on what the consumer thinks, rather than what manufacturers should actually be doing?

Putting the onus on the consumer isn’t necessarily the best idea, according to Incpen's director. ‘Consumers have been told that packaging’s a big environmental issue and therefore they are responding to that by saying, "what are you doing about your packaging, retailers?"’ says Bickerstaffe. ‘I’m not sure that they are right to think it’s such a big problem, and I don’t think they’re in a good position to say, well, that’s too much and that’s enough. I think as an industry, across the board, we need to do a much better job of explaining what the packaging’s doing there.’

Bickerstaffe points out that the potential wastage of food is actually a bigger problem than the waste packaging produced. ‘If you’re buying a cucumber and you’re going to eat it tonight, you don’t need any wrapping on it,’ she points out.

‘But if the shop’s cucumber doesn’t sell for three days, then they are quite sure that the one that’s not been wrapped will not sell because it will have lost so much of its water content, it just looks dull and it doesn’t crisp anymore. So a little tiny bit of plastic on it extends that shelf life for 14 days. When you think of all the resources that you’ve invested growing a cucumber, and the energy in moving it around the place, it’s a good use of resources.’

It’s a sentiment echoed across the industry. Asda’s head of corporate sustainability, Julian Walker-Palin, says that in its parent company Walmart’s Indian operations, 40 to 60 per cent of product can end up as waste before it even reaches the consumer as supply chains are less efficient. So, he points out, it’s a question of optimisation. 'There’s a lot of inefficiency and a lot of waste of resources in packaging,' he says.

Each supermarket is approaching the issue of packaging in different ways, and Asda, in association with WRAP, has recently run a trial on in-store vending machines for fabric conditioner. Customers at five stores could get a reusable container for the product, which they would then bring back to the store next time to refill.

Measuring waste

The supermarket is currently analysing feedback, but Walker-Palin says the response has been largely positive. ‘Most of the customers we’ve spoken to bought into the trial for environmental reasons rather than purely the economic reasons, and I must admit, I expected the opposite,’ he says, alluding to the fact that they ensured it was the cheaper option to go green. He acknowledges, though, that such a scheme could not be rolled out en masse: ‘We can’t ask our customers to come back with 50 different types of packaging to refill.’

The way that waste is measured could be set to change, however. Past targets have generally been based on weight of the packaging, whereas a general consensus now suggests that this is not the best option. ‘If you solely focus on weight, then you can reach a bit of a glass ceiling,’ explains Walker-Palin. Initial consultation for future guidance from the government outlines aims related to total carbon emissions rather than waste by mass, which could change how the whole idea of reducing packaging is viewed.

Reducing packaging and providing alternative options is an important area, but equally important is the need to recycle. M&S emphasises the need to not only make products recyclable, but to also create a demand for recycled materials. Their plastic packaging is made up of around 80 per cent of recycled plastic, something they see as very important.

‘We can create an end of market for those materials when they are being recycled,’ says Helene Roberts. ‘So when you do put your PET bottles outside of your home and the council comes to collect it there needs to be somewhere for that to go, there needs to be a high value market in order to re-use that as a material, and that’s what we’ve created. Literally, it’s about closing that loop.’

Positive signs

Supermarkets all set themselves various targets, and their attempts to achieve them can viewed as positive. Tesco set an aim to reduce packaging weight by 25 per cent by 2010, though has adjusted this target to 15 per cent in light of new views on weight as a measure. The supermarket aims to reduce packaging across both its own products and branded products that it carries.

Asda had a target to reduce packaging by 25 per cent by the end of 2009, and has since surpassed that target by two per cent. M&S aims to reduce packaging by 25 per cent by 2012, and has so far achieved around 20 per cent. In addition, 91 per cent of its current customer facing packaging is recyclable or compostable. The company acknowledges a desire to get that up to 100 per cent, but points out that there are some products – like a joint of beef – which need investment in its packaging to be able to extend its shelf life.

The packaging industry is a complex area and it is clear that there is some way to go. It is also clear that more consumer education is needed, along with a holistic approach. The public may be faced with a larger packet and wonder why there is so much waste; but if that packaging is optimised to make the product last longer, it has less environmental impact in the long run than saving a few grams of plastic.

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