Pack it in

The country's largest supermarket chains have come together, revealing a commitment to waste minimisation by agreeing to pioneer new ways of packaging their products. Tom Idle reports

The amount of rubbish that we, as consumers, send to landfill each year is phenomenal. And the figures are growing. Demographically, we have become a nation of lonely, one-person households. Gone are the days of time-consuming, family-orientated home cooking. Today, we are more than happy to make do with package-happy ready meals from the local supermarket. And then there’s our obsession with ‘best before’ dates, sparking a paranoia about food poisoning that predictably leads to unnecessary food waste.

So what can be done to turn the tide on our wasteful natures? Well, in the view of a new Government-led grouping, those that sell the goods should be required to take the initiative.

The Courtauld Commitment (so called because an agreement was reached at a retail meeting held at the Courtauld Gallery in London this summer) is encouraging the top 13 grocery retailers to come up with innovative ways of packaging their goods. The stores, including Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Tesco, have joined forces with the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), the Government-backed project aimed at promoting resource efficiency. The targets are quite simple: to design out packaging waste growth by 2008; to deliver absolute reductions in packaging waste by March 2010; and to identify ways to tackle the problem of food waste.

No time to waste

Waste minimisation has crept up the political agenda over recent years, largely due to the disappearance of viable landfill options. Environment Minister Elliot Morley has been very vocal on the subject, and by linking up with WRAP and the British Retail Consortium (the trade association for retailers) to encourage the country’s top retailers to move towards best practice in this area, the Government has come up with a useful target-based approach to solving a growing, and worrying, waste issue.

The Courtauld meeting, held at the end of July and co-ordinated by WRAP Chief Executive Jennie Price, focused on engaging support to find new packaging solutions so that less rubbish ends up in household bins. Ideas ranged from reducing layers of packaging to light-weighting some materials and initiating research into why consumers throw away an average of £400 worth of food every year.

Many commentators argue that Britain’s largest supermarket chains (many of which have enjoyed the fruits of globalisation over the last few decades) should already be engaging with the likes of WRAP to curb household waste; they have a social responsibility and shouldn’t be relying on government initiatives, much less cash handouts.

Price, however, observed that “reducing the amount of rubbish we throw away will make a big difference to the environment; it’s something consumers really care about and I’m pleased the major supermarkets are showing such strong leadership on this issue. It’s is a highly energetic, innovative sector and I am confident that, by working in partnership with them, WRAP will be able to deliver genuinely significant reductions in packaging and food waste.”

Morley agreed, claiming that recruiting the retailers for such a programme is the only way to improve waste figures. “Much of the waste we generate in the home starts out as food and packaging we buy in the supermarkets,” he said. “The industry, from retailers all the way up the supply chain, is in a prime position to influence consumer behaviour.

“They are already making significant environmental improvements which are good for business, and the Courtauld Commitment is a positive step down the road to tackling the waste problem.”

The Scottish Executive’s Environment Minister, Ross Finnie, offered similar praise. “Packaging waste makes up 25% of all domestic waste excluding garden waste,” he said. “I am pleased to see the retail sector taking the issue of waste seriously. The generation of unnecessary waste is not only bad for the environment; it also has an economic cost.”

The Scottish Executive has put up £764,000 through the Retail Innovation Fund to provide opportunities for companies north of the border to research and design new ways to minimise waste in packaging and product design.

However, packaging manufacturers have their own views on the Commitment. The Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN), while welcoming the commitment to minimising waste, argues that the remit to reduce used packaging is far too narrow. INCPEN Director Jane Bickerstaffe says that overall environmental improvement should be the goal, and optimising packaging will help achieve that. You can read her views below.

Meanwhile, LINPAC Plastics argues that packaging is not the enemy, rather that the inefficient use of packaging is contributing to the growing waste problem. The company believes that retailers can save over 5,000 tonnes of packaging weight by making their food packaging for meat and poultry lighter without compromising its quality.

Foam to roost

In the view of Head of Environmental Affairs David Eggleston, “Suppliers need to help retailers achieve the vital goal to make responsible use of our planet’s resources.

“For instance, in many instances a simple switch to PS foam trays can achieve dramatic savings in the weight of packaging used.”

The Courtauld Commitment has certainly had an impact on the industry, and the response has been more than welcome. As the British Retail Consortium’s Director General, Kevin Hawkins, remarked, “Retailers recognise their responsibilities when it comes to the environment, and they’ll do whatever they can to help and engage.”

Going forward together

Meanwhile, Tesco’s Government Affairs Director, David North, said: “We are investigating new technologies that provide an alternative to landfill and new ways to help our customers reduce their household waste. All of us, from manufacturers to consumers, need to work together if we are to reduce waste, promote re-use and encourage recycling.”

Each of the 13 retailers will now start developing their own programmes of work with WRAP – several, indeed, are already undertaking research or demonstration projects on packaging reduction, funded through an £8 million WRAP fund which is dedicated to stimulating innovation in the sector. Initial research on the issue of food waste has already started, and is being conducted by the food and grocery think-tank IGD. The research will conclude this autumn and result in recommendations as to the most promising opportunities for waste minimisation.

All those signed up to the Courtauld Commitment have agreed to meet with Elliot Morley this time next year to discuss how things are going.

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