Why everyone is getting out of their box over the fact that some supermarket packaging can't be recycled?

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

Rob Lyons wonders why everyone is getting out of their box over the fact that some supermarket packaging can’t be recycled.

A new report from the Local Government Association (LGA), a body that represents local authorities in England and Wales, has found that up to 40 per cent of packaging in the UK’s major supermarkets cannot be recycled. Markets, on the other hand, have just 21 per cent of non-recyclable packaging.

Councillor Paul Bettison, chairman of the LGA’s Environment Board, said: ‘People are working hard to increase their recycling rates, but their efforts are being hamstrung by needlessly over-packaged products on sale in supermarkets. We all have a responsibility to reduce the amount of waste being thrown into landfill, which is damaging the environment and contributing to climate change.’ (1)

It is ironic that Marks and Spencer, Middle England’s favourite shop and a recent enthusiastic convert to all things ethical, was the worst offender, with only 60 per cent recyclable packaging. The considerably more downmarket Asda was the best (70 per cent). There is, it seems, little difference between the best and worst companies.

While the issue of recyclability grabbed the headlines today, the overall weight of packaging involved must also be an issue. After all, just because something can be recycled does not mean it will be recycled and most environmentalists would argue that reducing packaging is better than relying on recycling. In terms of the amount of packaging used by supermarkets, the LGA report outlined that it varied per basket of goods purchased – from 684.5 grams to 799.5 grams. In all cases, the weight of packaging was roughly five per cent of the total weight of goods purchased.

The issue is a little more complicated than this report suggests. Packaging is essential as a means of containing and protecting goods. Far better to have a little more cardboard or plastic than to waste a greater proportion of valuable and fragile goods. While some instances of excessive packaging cause outrage – for example, cereal packets where the contents only occupy 40-50 per cent of the box – for the most part, the packaging is essential.

Also, supermarkets already have a strong incentive to reduce packaging – it cuts costs. Finding cheaper ways to package goods, using smaller quantities of materials, is therefore in the interests of business. A good example is the aluminium can. According to the consumer packaging group Rexam, the typical weight of an aluminium drinks can has fallen from 18.6g in 1983 to 12.7g today (2); Rexam also says that the weight of a plastic yogurt pot has fallen from 11.8g in 1970 to 5g today (3).

Moreover, whether a form of packaging is really eco-friendly is not as clear-cut as it may seem. For example, many assume that paper bags, which are biodegradable, are better than plastic bags. But because plastic bags are stronger, a far smaller quantity of material needs to be used. Even the carrier bags given out by supermarkets at the checkout weigh only eight grams now (see Who’s afraid of… plastic bags?). The whisper-thin plastic bags we put our fruit and veg into weigh even less.

As the website of The New Green Consumer Guide notes: ‘Paper bags are about six times heavier than plastic ones and take up about 10 times more space in landfill because the material is denser. And bag for bag they use about the same amount of fossil fuels as a plastic bag to make. Then there’s the biodegradability issue. If something is biodegradable it means it’s broken down by bugs and bacteria over a period of time. But anything that rots also releases greenhouse gases – either CO2 or, more problematic, methane. So isn’t it better to put plastic in landfill sites and have the carbon stored rather than paper when it’s released to the atmosphere?’ (4)

As long as we continue to buy stuff, we’re going to have to package it in something. New technology may help us to reduce that packaging a bit, but it won’t obviate the need for it. And this extends to the whole issue of ‘waste’. While the authorities and green campaigners may wring their hands about the amount of waste we produce, in truth it is a direct product of how much more we are able to buy these days – that is, how much wealthier most people in the developed world have become over the past few decades.

We might be able to improve the efficiency of materials-use in what we consume, but ultimately the only way we can really reduce waste is to stop consuming so much – in other words, be poorer. Now, how would the anti-waste crusaders suggest we package that idea?

Rob Lyons will be speaking at the session Recycling is a waste of time at the Battle of Ideas festival on Saturday 27 October at the Royal College of Art in London.

Read on:

Who’s afraid of…?

(1) Public attempts to boost recycling will fail unless supermarkets do more, Local Government Association, 23 October 2007

(2) Environmental footprint: cans, Rexam

(3) Environmental footprint: plastic, Rexam

(4) Plastic bags, New Green Consumer Guide

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Topics Politics


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