Which? unwraps packaging in supermarketsSupermarket investigation finds room for improvement

19 April 2011

A food package.

Which? recently took to the supermarket aisles with a trading standards officer (TSO) to find good and bad examples of packaging.

We found plenty of examples packaging TSO Gary Singh thought potentially excessive. When we put them to packaging expert Mark Shayler, there were at least 50 examples of packaging he thought could be improved on.

This was from just one day's shopping in four branches of Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury's and Tesco.

Packaging investigated

  • A printer cartridge Sainsbury's admits is overpackaged. It told us it is looking again at the packaging of all the 44 printer cartridges it sells, and aims to cut its packaging by a third between 2009 and 2015.
  • A Tesco Finest cookies tub which could withstand our packaging expert's full weight without it deforming – but did not in his view have an airtight seal, meaning it wasn't suitable for reuse. Tesco told us it is collaborating with suppliers on more than 5,000 packaging reduction initiatives and has saved over 100,000 tonnes of own-label packaging.
  • A vitamin pill tub that Asda agrees is under-filled. Asda says it will increase the fill on 22 of these products from April 2011.
  • Biscuit packaging Morrisons accepts is a problem. The store is considering alternatives, and has met its own targets for packaging reduction.

Send us your examples of excess packaging by email to helpwanted@which.co.uk – we'll put the best in our excess packaging gallery, part of our free excess packaging guide. Plus, browse our picture gallery below to see some of the examples our experts came across:

Packaging - the good news

We also found some areas where packaging has been reduced, such as Easter eggs. Cadbury has been selling boxless eggs since 2008 and has seen its sales rise by 75% to 3.5million since then. Cadbury told us that the damage rates for its boxless eggs was the same as for its boxed eggs.

Jo Swinson MP has conducted research into big-brand Easter eggs since 2007 and found that the average packaging weight of the eggs concerned has fallen from 84g to 48g in 2011.

A mixed picture

Sometimes we found good and bad practice with the same product, from the same maker. 

Flahavan's porridge oats, for example, come in a 'Quick Oats' tub weighing four times as much as Flahavan's traditional porridge pack and contains 500g of oats, versus the traditional pack's 1.5kg. It therefore costs 32p per 100g versus the traditional pack's 10.5p – meaning you're getting less for more. 

Flahavan's told us that the Quick Oats were 'much more fragile', thinner flakes and so needed the sturdier packaging, which it says addresses the issue that many people 'felt somewhat intimidated at making traditional porridge'.

Packaging, waste and recycling 

Our expert thought a third of the plastic packaging we bought on our supermarket visits was unidentifiable by type, making it very hard to recycle. Our essential recycling guide will help you recycle as much as you can. 

Some packaging is absolutely necessary and cuts another kind of waste – food waste. That in turn halts production of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Every year in the UK we throw away more food (8.3 million tonnes) than packaging (4.9 million tonnes), according to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP).

There can be gaps between 'on the shelf' perception of excess packaging and the supply chain reasons for it. Our expert gave bags of crisps as an example - the aluminium laminate stops their fat from going rancid and the air around them protects them from damage.

Our research

When we asked 1,520 Which? members online about packaging nearly all thought manufacturers (94%) and supermarkets (93%) should do more to cut the amount of packaging in supermarkets. But only 54% of members always tried to buy products without excess packaging and just 23% said they had decided not to buy a product due to excess packaging.

Can we expect change if we don’t put our money where our mouths are? Join the debate on excess packaging on Which? Conversation.

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