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Public Enemy No 1?

Chances are that if you were to tip the contents of your kitchen bin over the floor, you’d be horrified by the amount of packaging within. And, if it’s not a can or glass it can be otherwise difficult to recycle.

We are being urged to consider packaging as the big bad wolf to the recycling industry. However, Jane Bickerstaffe, director of the Industry Council for Packaging & the Environment (INCPEN) is keen that society look at the issues afresh — although she admits that can be hard, given the drumming packaging receives from all sides. And if people aren’t hostile to packaging, that’s usually because they don’t really consider the issue.

“According to our research, public opinion on packaging is pretty neutral,” she says. “People talk about bottles and cans, but when it comes to packaging, the response seems to be ‘what?’”

Familiarity, it seems, is the issue. Bickerstaffe points out that packaging is so central to our lives that we overlook the benefits it can bring. “We take the benefits of packaging for granted,” she says. “It means, for example, that we can have peas out of season. It means things don’t get broken. When people are buying Sunday papers, they’ll always pass the torn paper and go for a wrapped one beneath. We want our goods to be in good condition when we buy them.”

Concern about packaging is not a new issue, although only in recent years has it seemed to have pricked the public consciousness. INCPEN was founded in 1974, as Bickerstaffe says, “long before people had heard about the environment”.

In the 1960s, a yoghurt pot weighed 12g; now it weighs just 4g. In Wales, packaging makes up 17% of total waste collected, while in affluent Surrey the figure is 24%. Bickerstaffe points out that there is now much more newsprint and junk mail which people throw out — she quotes the fact that newspapers are now three times the weight they were 10 years ago.

It is, of course, cost that is at the heart of the issue. Bickerstaffe says: “If, for example, you want to get your widgets to market, then without packaging they’d be cheaper. It’s the same with tin cans. If you make them thinner, you’ll be able to get more out of a sheet of tin.”

While you can tick the ‘no thanks’ box when it comes to junk mail, Bickerstaffe says you can reduce the amount of packaging which ends up in your bin: “Try to buy things loose — you’ll pay more for tomatoes in packaging as there’s the labelling and the wrapping, and so the environmental cost is built in.”


She points out that Marks & Spencer used to sell all its fruit and vegetables packaged, but then began to also offer loosely sold products. “The fruit was ripe and ready, but then items like plums get squashed and runner beans get left over late in the evening.” The waste from M&S’s packaged fruit and vegetables, Bickerstaffe adds, was negligible by contrast. She also quotes a survey by the Prudential Building Society, entitled The Soggy Lettuce Report, which revealed just how much money was wasted on food that was thrown away because it went off — and it’s a considerable amount.

Bickerstaffe says there is a wider issue that needs to be addressed by govern

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