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Independent Green Voice

PACKAGING POLICY: Towards Zero-Waste

Alistair McConnachie writes: Packaging of products has increased in volume by 12% between 1999 and 2005 and now makes up a third of household waste according to the campaign launched this month by The Independent (22-1-07).

With regard to food packaging, we suggest the volume has increased primarily for 2 reasons:
1- The increased centralisation of the food supply requires food to be packaged in order to travel further. Centralisation also means that there are less small shops which are more likely to source their products locally and daily, which wouldn't require significant packaging.
2- Financial and domestic changes have led to the rise of ready-made processed products, which are, by necessity, heavily packaged.

Dealing with packaging has to be seen in this joined-up way.

You can't promote centralisation of the food supply and expect the packaging problem to decrease significantly.

We acknowledge that there is a certain demand and a role for packaged food. For example, where long distances are required to transport products, then there might be an increase in food damage, leading to wastage, if packaging were to be reduced. This is particularly so with fruit products which need to be protected to a certain extent.

Furthermore, there are many people who don't want to purchase fruit or veg which has been "handled" by other people!

Packaging is also a way for supermarkets to minimise their waste disposal costs. For example, today, supermarkets are packaging foods "shelf-ready". This means the product can be put straight from the container onto the shelf. In this sense, the supermarkets are passing the cost of their waste-disposal bills onto the consumer.

Packaging is also a marketing tool. It is a primary method of product differentiation, which can be used to imply "quality".

However, our concern here is with over-packaging.

Where packaging is necessary, it should be the absolute minimum required to ensure the products physical integrity and cleanliness.

The zero-waste principle states -- and don't get too hung up on the "zero" bit -- that we should aim to reduce, reuse, repair, recycle, or redesign to fit the cycle.

So, the first thing we can do is…

  • Reduce the Amount of Packaging we Consume in the first place. Don't purchase unnecessarily packaged goods, where possible. Ultimately, these changes will be consumer-led. They will happen because supermarkets realise that they will become more competitive by becoming more eco-friendly.

  • Refuse and Reuse Plastic Bags. One of the easiest and most effective things one can do is simply to refuse, and reuse, plastic bags. If you are going out for a newspaper, a loaf of bread and a carton of milk, then take a plastic bag in your back-pocket instead of accepting one from the newsagent. 17.5 billion plastic bags are handed out by supermarkets a year, enough to cover Surrey and Sussex, according to Defra (The Times, 8-9-06, p.10).

  • Don't buy Bottled Water. If you need to carry a bottle of water about with you, then continually reuse one bottle, filled from the tap!

  • Return Packaging. Environment Minister, Ben Bradshaw, has advised people to remove unnecessary packaging at the checkout! However, few would want, or have the nerve, to create such a scene! Perhaps more realistically, the used-packaging could be returned with a weekly supermarket visit and deposited in the supermarket bins instead! Or even better, the provision of such recycling bins should be mandatory -- see policy proposal below.

  • Initiate Legal Action. Consumers can take action under Statutory Instrument 2003 No. 1941, Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2003 by contacting their local trading standards officer. For example, Schedule 1, Sec. 1 states: Packaging shall be so manufactured that the packaging volume and weight 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;
    There may also be grounds for action under the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 if the packaging misrepresents the product.

  • Support Independent Food Shops and Farmers' Markets!

  • Develop UK Capacity to Process its Recyclable Materials. Presently, UK plastics are largely recycled in China as plastic bags or non-food wrapping, or destroyed. The container ships bringing us consumer goods from China would return empty without this waste. As Christopher Booker has written: For example, we can tell the EU that our recycling of plastic has increased from 125,000 tons to 488,000 tons -- but this is because 305,000 tons of plastic waste, or 63% of the total, is now shipped outside the EU. We have increased our recycling of paper from 1.9 million tons a year to 2.9 million -- but the amount of paper we recycle in the UK has dropped by 350,000 tons a year, because our exports have risen from nothing to 50%. (The Sunday Telegraph, 5-11-06)
    Thus, if we measure our "recycling" ability by the extent to which we can increase our shipments of paper and plastic to China, then we are setting ourselves up for a waste-overload disaster, when China decides it doesn't need anymore! We must develop the capacity to recycle it in the UK. That requires we…

  • Develop the Market for Recycled Products. We need incentives for businesses and individuals to use recycled products. Tax incentives may help here.

  • Encourage the Development of Recyclable, or Bio-degradable, Compostable Packaging. Presently, for example, food safety laws require some packaging to be laminated to act as an oxygen barrier -- on cheeses for example. That sort of packaging is not yet recyclable. In that regard we need to…

  • Pioneer Packaging based on Natural Products such as starch from corn, potatoes, beetroot or sugar cane, which is bio-degradable and compostable.

  • Statutory Requirement for Supermarkets to ensure Provision for Recycling, especially Recycle Bins in their car parks, which can be used to deposit packaging from their products - specifically paper, plastics including plastic bags, polystyrene, cans and glass. People can use these bins before leaving, or when returning. This will act as an incentive for supermarkets to reduce their levels of packaging. This could not be voluntary, but would have to be mandatory. Otherwise, some supermarkets would find their bins overflowing with the remains of packaging from other local supermarkets which had not made such provision for their customers! In Germany, it has been common practice since 1993 for supermarkets to supply bins -- at the checkout -- to collect unwanted packaging. Why not here?

  • Tax Non-recyclables. As part of the effort to redesign those products which do not fit into the reuse, repair, recycle circle, we should tax non-recyclables where a recyclable alternative exists. For example, in Sweden, non-recyclable batteries have been taxed since 1991 to encourage a switch to alternatives. This has resulted in a 74% reduction in the amount sold. In the UK, we recycle only 2% of batteries. (The Independent, 24-1-07)

  • Tax Plastic Carrier Bags, as in the Republic of Ireland. There, a charge of 0.15 euros (10p) was introduced 5 years ago and the number of plastic bags used has fallen by 1 billion a year!

  • Each Council to Employ a Composting Officer to provide Support and Information on Home Composting. Much "green waste" could be used on a garden.

  • Develop Food Chains to Prevent Food Wastage either for human, or animal consumption, where appropriate. The charity Fareshare is leading the way in this regard.

  • Compulsory School Cookery, and Nutrition Lessons to help break the addiction to ready-made, processed, heavily-packaged meals.

…all within the joined-up Context of Promoting Food Sovereignty, Localisation, Urban Farming, Solidarity with Farmers Internationally, and the De-centralisation of the Food Supply! on 0800 585 794 is a government-funded service dedicated to helping SMEs waste less.
The Composting Association:

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