How Much Packaging Do We Really Need?

Discussion
Oct 29, 2007

By Bernice Hurst, Managing Director, Fine Food Network

A headline grabbing report from the Local Government Association (LGA), claiming that up to 40 percent of packaging used by supermarkets cannot be recycled, has provoked vociferous explanations and defense from both the British and European organizations representing packaging manufacturers.

Paul Bettison, speaking for the LGA, described many products as “needlessly overpackaged.” The report concluded that an average shopping trip produces so much rubbish that the British Government may miss European recycling targets.

Immediate response came from EUROPEN (the European Organization for Packaging and the Environment), UK-based non-profit organization INCPEN (Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment) and the British Retail Consortium.

EUROPEN, a Belgium-based industry and trade association dedicated to exploring issues around packaging and the environment, said that “successful packaging policies will be those which are environmentally, economically and scientifically sound, as well as socially and politically acceptable.”

In a statement about the LGA report to FoodProductionDaily.com, EUROPEN said that food waste levels are “shocking but no-one is doing more to reduce them than the packaging industry… Good packaging helps prevent this by keeping food fresh for longer and by helping us buy food in portion sizes that suit our needs.”

Using recycled content also means the packaging needs to be heavier to do the same job, the statement pointed out. “Perhaps surprisingly, some packaging has to weigh more than its contents or it couldn’t do its job. For example champagne needs to be packed in a bottle that is 95 per cent of the total weight or it would not survive the journey from the vineyard to home, or contain bubbles.”

They also claimed that under-packaging is “ten times worse” than over-packaging. “Supermarkets and their suppliers are reducing packaging but, more importantly they are making sure they use enough packaging to help stop food waste which is a much bigger problem.”

Jane Bickerstaffe, director of INCPEN, added that all the energy and materials involved in manufacture is lost if products are damaged or spoiled due to inadequate packaging. “The whole point of packaging is to make sure the food is safe and wholesome all the way through to when it’s consumed… It would have been helpful if the survey had explained that far from being ‘rubbish’ the packaging saved far more waste than it generated.”

In addition, Richard Dodd, head of media and campaigns for the British Retail Consortium, called the LGA’s figures “spurious” because materials recycled are not standardized with different materials collected by each local authority.

Discussion questions: Are there downsides to the packaging reduction movement that have not been fully considered? Are there any practical solutions to this dilemma? What impediments currently stand in the way of a greater percentage of products being recycled in the U.S.?

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8 Comments on "How Much Packaging Do We Really Need?"


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Mark Lilien
Guest
14 years 6 months ago

The International Safe Transit Association (www.ista.org) is dedicated to packaging standards that minimize damage, packaging cost, waste, and maximize sustainability. Supply chain executives who are serious about these issues can learn a lot from, and contribute to, these efforts in a mutually supportive fashion.

Michael Richmond, Ph.D.
Guest
Michael Richmond, Ph.D.
14 years 6 months ago
As a Packaging Consultant, I could write a book on this one! About 50% of our business is directly related to Sustainability/Sustainable Packaging. I can tell you that things are very different in Europe than in the USA. Europe’s environmental programs are legislatively driven, while programs in the US have been primarily Wal-Mart driven–at least until recently. There is a lot of new energy throughout industry and across the value chain to really look at better and smarter Triple Bottom Line (TBL) approaches. After all, when you look at delivering people, planet and profit results–it just doesn’t get any better. In fact, the TBL approach is fast becoming the new business imperative. And, it provides better economics along with social and environmental positives. We all need to be looking at this as a best practice for the future. Now back to packaging. Yes, we need to protect and market products–and packaging is a key enabler to make this happen. We are seeing companies using TBL approaches take a new look at optimizing packaging solutions but… Read more »
David Biernbaum
Guest
14 years 6 months ago

Unfortunately, much of the ecology and recycling action, where consumer packaging is concerned, is more about “feel good” marketing than it is about real solutions.

Mel Kleiman
Guest
14 years 6 months ago

Being green is in and will be in for a long time. The consumer is waking up to the amount of stuff that goes into the garbage. They may not want to recycle if it is not easy but they will want others to do the work so they won’t have to. So if a manufacturer or retailer can show that they are environmentally friendly and at at the same time keep their packaging appealing, they are going to be the winners.

If the industry does not do it on its own, government is going to make sure that it happens.

James Tenser
Guest
14 years 6 months ago
One area of paradox regarding packaging reduction arises in connection with shelf management. Logistics concerns would dictate that products are shipped to stores in cases of 12, 24 or even 36 pieces where size and weight allows. Among other benefits, this practice helps control the total quantity of corrugated cardboard used. But roughly two-thirds of SKUs in a supermarket turn less than one unit per day. For these items, even a 12-pack case means two weeks of supply sits on the shelves or (worse) in back stock. This results in excess inventory, store-level handling, expiration, etc. Reducing case size on 20,000 slower moving items per store to 6 would bring significant cost reduction due to lower inventory carrying costs–but traded off against impact on logistics costs and corrugated use. The case-pack example shows how adjustment of one “lever” in the go-to-market system may have interaction effects upon others. Packaging reduction is plainly a good idea. Many products are overpackaged (I particularly dislike large plastic “clamshells”) for brand equity or product security reasons. Recycling these materials… Read more »
Terry Bedell
Guest
Terry Bedell
14 years 6 months ago
I agree with the comments from EUROPEN and INCPEN. I have been in packaging R&D for consumer packaged goods for over 40 years. An overwhelming percentage of grocery store products are using as little packaging as possible and packagers work constantly to reduce the amount of material needed to get the job done. The primary driver is cost and the need to remain competitive. In seeking the most efficient materials, recycling does sometimes take a lower priority–as it should. There is no better environmental packaging choice than using less stuff to begin with. This is especially true for flexible packaging. The result may mean less recycling of those materials (incineration with energy recovery can be a good option), but the minimalization of materials used has reduced energy usage, pollution in production and transport, water consumption, etc, far greater than recycling of heavier materials. I agree with Mike Richmond that Europe has demonstrated superior results in a number of ways compared with the US. However, we should not forget that there are important differences in population… Read more »
Richard J. George, Ph.D.
Guest
14 years 6 months ago

Historically, the issue of packaging in the US does not carry the same weight as has been the case in Europe. Remember, the green movement began and has developed quicker and sustained itself in Europe. However, US consumers are beginning to exercise more influence into the production and sale of food products. Issues like food safety, source traceablility, package labeling, organics, and obesity have raised awareness levels and have begun to be reflected in a more active consumer. If packaging issues become as important as the issues raised above, then the innovative CPG companies and food retailers would be well-served by being proactive on this topic.

Odonna Mathews
Guest
Odonna Mathews
14 years 6 months ago

Clearly there is useful packaging that serves a purpose. And there is wasteful packaging. As evidence, my home recycling of cardboard just seems to grow every year. Our local county issued huge recycling bins two years ago at accommodate and encourage recycling of paper and cardboard.

The Food Marketing Institute has recently established a Board level committee and numerous efforts and studies on sustainability and the role for retailers as well as suppliers. Check out their website at fmi.org for their recent research.

Consumers and businesses are beginning to realize that “less is more” and we all need to work together to make improvements. There is plenty of blame to go around.

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