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Local government body slams supermarket “overpackaging”

The UK’s Local Government Association, (LGA) which promotes the interests of just under 500 English and Welsh local authorities, says supermarkets must “take urgent action to reduce excessive packaging” or Britain will fail to meet its recycling targets.

The call came as the LGA published the findings of a survey by British Market Research Bureau Social Research, which the association commissioned to buy 29 common food items to analyse the packaging used on each by eight different retailers and whether or not the various packs were recyclable. The analysis showed local retailers and market traders “produced less packaging and that more of it could be recycled” – with the large supermarkets “lagging behind”.

The items, “representing a regular household shopping basket”, were bought from Asda, Lidl, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, and from “a local high street and large market”. Analysis involved recording the total weight of the product and the total weight of the packaging, with the components parts of the packaging weighed separately to measure the proportion of packaging that was recyclable or “rubbish”. An estimate of the volume of the food in relation to the packaging was also provided, “to consider cases of excessive packaging”. The LGA says the exercise will be repeated every six months to two years.

Found to have the heaviest packaging was Lidl, while the Marks & Spencer basket “had the lowest level of packaging that could be recycled” (at 60%). The LGA says Asda was the “best performing supermarket”, with packaging weighing 714g (compared with Lidl’s 799.5g) – 70% of which was recyclable. Unsurprisingly, the market was deemed “the best overall”, with 79% of the packaging used being recyclable.

The LGA acknowledges that recycling rates in Britain are increasing “as more people do their bit to protect the environment and Councils “extend and improve their recycling services”. However it says these efforts to meet EU targets will not succeed unless supermarkets “do more to reduce excessive packaging”.

Councillor Paul Bettison, chairman of the LGA’s Environment Board, says: “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. Many supermarkets are acting to cut back on excessive packaging but this research proves there is an urgent need to do more.”

Bettison says evidence from other countries shows that when local authorities work with supermarkets to educate consumers there is a significant increase in the sale of products with less packaging, adding: “It is important shoppers are actively encouraged to consider the environmental impact of their purchases.”

Despite the LGA’s insistence that many household goods, and particularly foodstuffs, are “overpackaged”, UK research and lobbying organisation Incpen (the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment) says European Commission data shows the UK actually “uses less packaging per person than most EU countries”.

Commission figures for 2004 show UK packaging consumption per capita was 171kg that year, compared with 188kg for Germany, 198kg for the Netherlands and 200kg for France. The amount of packaging used in the UK has also, Incpen says, increased by less than 4% since 1999, with the rise occurring “more than accounted for by factors outside the industry’s control”. These factors include an increase in population and a demographics shift to more people living alone. In the same period Incpen emphasises that UK GDP has risen by 17% and household expenditure by 20%. It also stresses that, without efficient packaging, the “shocking waste levels” seen in the UK (over 6m tonnes of food reportedly goes to waste from households each year) would be “much higher, with landfills a great deal fuller”.

Incpen says the LGA research finding that just 5% of the weight of a typical shopping basket is packaging “shows that packaging saves far more waste than it generates”.

Director Jane Bickerstaffe adds: “Used household packaging occupies less than 3% of landfill space and companies are working to reduce it further.”

Bickerstaffe acknowledges there are examples of overpackaging, and suggests a “proven way to get rid of them” would be to establish a multi-stakeholder group to act as a forum for consumer complaints and provide companies with technical advice.

One of the supermarkets to respond publicly to the LGA’s criticisms was Marks & Spencer, whose head of Corporate Social Responsibility Mike Barry said: “We’ve set ourselves clear and demanding targets under our ‘Plan A’ to reduce our packaging and only use materials that can be easily be recycled or composted. While we’ve made good progress over the past 12 months, we know there’s still much more yet to do in both areas. Almost 70% of our packaging is recyclable across the majority of local authority facilities, while a further 20% could also be recycled if there was a more consistent approach to recycling across the UK. We’re working with local authorities to help address this.”

Richard Swannell of WRAP Retail adds: “The LGA’s latest report raises some important issues, and highlights the scale of the optimisation challenge. The good news is that the whole of the supply chain is rising to this challenge. There are some good examples of packaging optimisation on-shelf, and barely a week goes by without a pack being changed; just this week WRAP has announced that work with Mars and Ardagh Glass is removing 6% of the glass from every jar of Uncle Ben’s sauce. This change alone will save 450 tonnes of glass.

“All the major grocery retailers, and many brand owners and manufacturers, have signed up to the Courtauld Commitment, and many have made their own pledges too. It is clear that optimising packaging without increasing product damage, while being seen to address the challenge, is going to be a prevalent issue over the next couple of years – and the pace of change is going to be important.”