The packaging industry has traditionally had its green credentials overlooked by most consumers. This may be because food packaging, almost impossible to avoid in today’s supermarkets, is a particularly visible waste stream in the home, leading to the perception that packaging waste plays a disproportionately large role in the production of waste in the UK. Packaging producers have long argued that their products play a vital role at the top of the waste hierarchy, being key tools in waste prevention, and environmentally much less damaging than they items they cover. So, what is the reality when it comes to packaging – environmental friend, or foe?
New research from the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) suggests that the real problem with packaging might be us, the consumers. In conjunction with a number of industry partners, WRAP’s report entitled Consumer Attitudes to Food Waste and Food Packaging offers some fascinating insights into where the real environmental benefit of packaging is being lost, due to ingrained behaviours and assumptions. For example, the report shows that only 13% of consumers believe that packaging has a role to play in protecting food in the home, after purchase. This is linked to the fact that only 22% of us examine packaging for storage instructions, meaning huge amounts of food is not being stored in the best possible way to keep it fresh for as long as possible. All of this adds up to about £270 worth of wasted food per UK household per year.
In the current economic climate, even small domestic savings can make a huge difference for consumers, so I hope WRAP’s research goes some way to helping households cut down on costly food waste.
Part of the key when thinking about packaging and packaging waste is looking at the whole product life-cycle, which in turn could help us use packaging to its maximum environmental benefit. Clearly, WRAP’s research shows that not enough of us are aware of the role packaging plays beyond the supermarket, after purchase, but how often do we consider the importance of packaging in ensuring we have access to food in the first place?
Lightweight materials such as plastic and carton mean that huge volumes of food can be safely transported around the country, and indeed the world, in order to satisfy the UK’s appetite for fresh and varied produce. Increased use of such materials is important, especially in a world where up to 50% of food produced is wasted, often as part of supply chain transportation in poorer countries. That materials such as these can be easily moulded and weigh relatively little also help to reduce the carbon footprint of transporting food, another important consideration.
Supermarkets, perhaps the key drivers of any change to packaging trends, seem increasingly to be thinking about how to optimise the environmental performance of packaging, with recycled content and recyclability on the increase. Innovations such as the ‘milk bag’ and packet refills helping to cut the materials in packaging down to an absolute minimum. It’s encouraging to see that, even though packaging already plays a part in protecting the environment, businesses are keen to keep pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved in this regard. This, I’m sure, is being driven by consumers’ concerns about the packaging waste stream, as well as the economic and environmental impetus to use fewer materials wherever possible.
In that sense, although consumers may have over-estimated how damaging the packaging they throw away is to the environment, it’s great to see that these concerns are being addressed through both research and product innovation.
Dan Rogerson MP, co-chair Associate Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group