PUBLISHED: 00:16 08 November 2011 | UPDATED: 14:50 20 February 2013
Is it necessary to wrap biscuits in three or four layers? Is it necessary to wrap biscuits in three or four layers? Does a cucumber actually need a plastic skin over its own? And are we really ready to go back to 50' style shopping? Danusia Hutson...
From the moment they dumped rubbish and demonstrated outside supermarkets throughout the country in the summer of 2006, the WI (or to give it its proper title, the National Federation of Women's Institutes), made excessive packaging a hot topic on the eco agenda, particularly in the grocery retail sector.
"Packaging came out as the big issue after we'd surveyed our members for the 90th anniversary of the WI about changes in lifestyle and shopping habits ," explains Jean Sheppard, from the WI's public affairs committee and a member of Burghfield WI. "We decided to focus on supermarkets and groceries because that's the most frequently occurring type of shopping."
Seventy per cent of UK packaging is used in the grocery sector and between a quarter and a third of all domestic waste is packaging, much of it from food. The WI isn't alone in its concerns. The majority of the general public too want a reduction in excess packaging, according to a recent MORI survey, and would like the government to force retailers to take their responsibilities more seriously. MORI reports that those surveyed believed retailers had made progress but not as quickly or comprehensively as they should have.
The WI campaign had asked supermarkets to get rid of unnecessary and excessive packaging on food products; to use only compostable and recyclable materials where packaging was required; to reduce the number of carrier bags given away; to donate food waste to charities or to compost. The WI also asked consumers to purchase more local and regional foods, which would reduce packaging and food miles.
Jean has recently attended a manufacturers' conference, and a retail packaging debate hosted by Asda, where attendees could bring samples of excessive packaging. "As an example we pointed out that bananas have their own packaging, they don't need cellophane bags." Asda, says Jean, has listened and the company hopes to eliminate virtually all packaging on fruit and veg and eventually to return to the 50s' style of buying produce, unwrapped, from boxes.
Packaging is of course necessary for protection, instruction, distribution and storage, but our habits and love of convenience have been responsible for the packaging issues we now have to address. Paper and board packaging waste is exceeding an annual four million tonnes, says Envirowise, an advisory service that helps business improve environmental performance and use of resources. According to Holly Firmin, Envirowise regional manager for the South East, the good news is that almost 70 per cent of consumers are now buying the least-packed product when given a choice.
The Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment, Incpen, which aims to promote and encourage more acceptable packaging throughout the entire supply chain, advises shoppers to think about what they buy. "If you don't think something needs all the packaging then don't pick it up, don't buy it. The retailer will soon get the message if products don't move off the shelves."
So what about shrink-wrapped cucumbers, a question which leads the latest WI survey, which wants to find out how much the industry has done to reduce excess packaging. Incpen says that the wrapping means the shelf-life of the cucumber is greatly improved, up to 14 days, as opposed to about three unwrapped, and the cucumber doesn't go soft and soggy or mouldy. The WI results are imminent and we'll know what the consumer really thinks.
The major supermarkets that are members of the voluntary Courtauld Commitment and agree to find sensible solutions to packaging goods included Waitrose, Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury's, Morrisons, M&S, and Somerfield, as well as manufacturers and suppliers , such as Nestle Coca Cola and Cadbury.
At the end of September, Sainsbury's introduced recyclable, reusable and reworkable packaging on 90 per cent of its organic range, and by next May on 50 per cent of all other fruit and veg.
Waitrose, which pioneered the first bag-for-life scheme in 1997, has introduced a 100 per cent biodegradable jute-based wine carrier bag and plastic bag recycling is available at all its stores. This autumn the company is rolling out eco-friendly plastic carrier bags and a stronger environmental messaging on reuse and recycling.
The manager at the Sunningdale branch, Gary Collyer, says his store had just taken part in a 'green tills' trial, where customers were no longer offered free carrier bags, and were instead encouraged to recycle previously used carrier and shopping bags. "There has literally been bags of support for the initiative! So many of our customers already use our carrier bag recycling facility, but the feedback we received during the trial exceeded all expectations. Sunningdale shoppers became green pioneers, demonstrating they are not only committed to reducing the use of plastic bags, but showing support for a potential 'bag-less supermarket' of the future."
Tesco says it planned to have all carrier bags degradable by this September and usage reduced by 25per cent. Customers are awarded points for reusing bags as well as points for returning printer cartridges and old mobile phones.
The law says that 'packaging volume and weight should be limited to the minimum adequate amount to maintain the necessary level of safety, hygiene and acceptance for the packed product and for the consumer'.
As part of its drive for a Cleaner Greener West Berkshire, the local authority's Trading Standards Service has launched an awareness campaign on the excessive use of packaging.
"The public can play a major role in helping us achieve compliance with the regulations ... and I would urge them to contact us,'' says Geoff Findlay, executive member for the Environment and Public Protection.
Prosecution under current law is very difficult. Only a handful of cases have been successful in the UK over the past year and there's no incentive for manufacturers to cut down on packaging. The last word goes to Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, chairman of the Local Government Association, who says: "Local trading standards services find their hands tied by regulations because manufacturers say it is what the customer wants. People power is now needed to put pressure on producers to cut down wasteful packaging."
Join the WI packaging debate!
9th October, Burghfield Village Hall, 7.30pm
(Open to members and non-members)
Contact: 0118 983 2229
Berkshire WI: email@example.com (contact Valerie Hudson)
Oxfordshire WI: firstname.lastname@example.org (contact Virginia Lawrence)
Buckinghamshire WI: email@example.com (contact Sara Galloway)
Incpen, The Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment
Tel: 0118 9255991, firstname.lastname@example.org
environment and energy helpline: 0800 585 794
Envirowise Helpline on 0800 585 794.