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Consumer choice

Updated Tuesday, 1st August 2006

Jane Bickerstaffe provides some ideas about how to be an environmentally friendly shopper

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milk containers

Packaging and the Environment

According to many surveys, consumers want to buy environmentally responsible goods, and they want them packed in "environmentally friendly" packaging; some even say they are prepared to pay more. However, there is little clear guidance on what is good or bad in environmental terms.

For example, is packaging that is refillable, easy-to-recycle, or biodegradable better than packaging that is non-refillable, difficult-to-recycle or inert?

From our experience and research over twenty five years, we believe the answer is that none of these properties determine environmental impact. A "good" pack is one that protects its contents and performs all the other functions expected of it (eg being easy to open, carry clear instructions for use, and help market the goods) with the minimum use of resources throughout its lifespan.

Although there are ten times more goods on the market today compared with 20 years ago (which means an increased number of packs), surprisingly, the weight of packaging in household waste has stayed roughly the same.

This is mainly because companies in the packaging business have developed new ways of using less material to protect the same amount of goods - yoghurt pots are 60% lighter than 30 years ago, milk bottles 30% lighter, food cans 40% lighter and drinks cartons 16% lighter than 10 years ago.

This is in stark contrast to other items, such as newspapers, which have doubled or trebled in size! Despite this, people are still given advice about packaging that is confusing and that is unlikely to help the environment. The following article discusses some examples.

Buying Loose Unpackaged Goods

For many people "fresh food" means little or no packaging. We are given this impression when we buy foods from a delicatessen counter, or help ourselves to loose fruit and vegetables. But the shop or supermarket is at almost the end of the food distribution chain. At all previous stages in the chain, fresh foods need protection, and they tend to need more secondary or transport packaging than foods that are pre-packed.

Fresh foods also generate an additional flow of potential food waste along the whole food chain. Less than 1% of prepared foods (fish fingers or apple pies) is damaged on the journey from factory to shops, while 10% - 20% of raw ingredients (fish or apples) go to waste.

Prepared foods don't just save time and effort they also generate less waste, despite the packaging. Food preparation wastes (peelings, skins, fat) are generated at the field or factory where often they can be used for something else.

Avoid Over-packed Goods

Avoiding over-packaged goods is not always a judgement that shoppers can make because:

  • people only see the packaging on the shelf (primary packaging) and do not know how much secondary and transport packaging is required, so are unable to make a judgement about what may be excessive;
  • it depends on what people want - a bottle of whisky in a decorated box is not over packaged if it is intended as a gift; it might be if it is for one's own use.

There is always room for improvement but very few goods are over-packaged because product manufacturers have to pay for packaging and therefore have a direct commercial drive to spend as little as possible to keep the cost of their goods competitive.

Why Package?

Product manufacturers have to take account of:

  • consumer needs (e.g. ease of opening for an ageing population)
  • environmental aims (e.g. minimum use of resources)
  • effective protection of the goods (the cost and danger of damaged goods or spoilt food is far worse for the environment and public health than using a small amount of extra resources to provide a stronger pack)
  • complying with legal requirements (e.g. health and safety standards for food, conveying sufficient information, tamper evidence)
  • providing goods at a price people can afford.

Buying the Biggest Size

It is true that bigger containers use less packaging per gram of product but it is far from certain that buying bigger reduces overall waste. We tend to consume more if we have more, and people who live alone often cannot use, or eat, enough before the product "goes off".

Demographic trends show that an increasing number of people are living alone or with only one other person. In the 1960s the average UK household was 3.1 people; today its is 2.3 people, 0.4 cats and 0.3 dogs. There needs to be a wider range of pack sizes so that people can buy an appropriate amount depending on the size of their household. This will help avoid wasted products and reduce used packaging.

Buy Reusable or Recyclable Packaging

Reusable containers have to be part of a reusable system. One of the reasons why some reusable refillable systems are no longer in operation is because the containers were not returned for refilling. More practical advice is to tell people that if they choose refillables they should make sure they do return them.

All packaging is technically recyclable. In reality, recycling some things some of the time does help the environment, but there is a level above which it does more harm than good. And that level depends on a host of factors that need to be decided at local level. These are different for different materials and change over time.

Neither recycling nor reuse systems are environmentally good in their own right - they are both industrial processes that use energy and have their own environmental burdens.

Current law, however, sets a 50% recycling target for packaging, regardless of where it ends up or what state it is in. No one knows if this is a sensible level and it is quite likely that we will end up collecting some materials for recycling even when there is no environmental gain.

Choose Degradable Materials

Some materials degrade, others are inert. Neither property reflects the environmental nature of a material.

Most plastics are inert. Special plastics can be manufactured to breakdown in sunlight (photo-degradable) but it is not a solution to the problem of littering. The Tidy Britain Group says that people make litter and only people can stop littering. Other inert materials, such as glass, are just as objectionable if littered. Some degradable items, such as food waste and dog faeces, are even more unpleasant if littered.

The real solution to litter is a comprehensive programme including education and cleansing so that all waste is disposed of carefully and thoughtfully.

Plastics can also be manufactured to be biodegradable but this is not necessarily a desirable property if they are destined for recycling or a landfill site. The safest materials to landfill are those that are inert. Biodegradable materials produce methane gas, which needs to be controlled, and leachate (water run-off) which can contaminate nearby watercourses if it is not properly controlled.

How Do I Become an Environmentally Friendly Shopper?

The environmental impact of packaging depends not on what it is made of, but on how it functions in protecting its contents, and on where and how it is used. Any assessment of environmental impact therefore has to take account of the pack itself, the product, and consumer needs. This in turn means that wasted product as well as used packaging has to be taken into account and, more importantly, energy use has to be considered.

Energy saving in the home will benefit the environment far more than any waste reduction measures. Choosing a car that does 40 miles to the gallon instead of 20, will save the same amount of energy in a single year as recycling a household's glass bottles for 400 years! Participating in local recycling schemes is helpful, but we need to understand that local councils should only collect materials that they can sell on to reprocessors. That can vary over time and they should not expect to be able to recycle everything they throw away.

Other Tips:

  • Support local shops
  • Invite a friend or neighbour to shop at the same time and share the car journey
  • Don't buy more than you need - to avoid the product being wasted; and buy it appropriately packaged - unwrapped, if you want it for immediate consumption, large bulk quantities for a party, single portions for eating alone, long-life for storage, or decorated for a gift.

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