Reduce product packaging

Most of the goods we buy need to be protected by packaging. But how much is too much?
 
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  • Updated:17 Oct 2007
 

01 .Introduction

Small ipod in lots of boxes and packaging

In brief

  • The majority of Australians don’t think enough is being done to get rid of unnecessary packaging.
  • Voluntary packaging guidelines aren’t always adhered to, and there’s even been a trend towards more resource-intensive and hard-to-recycle packaging in recent years.

From gourmet chocolates to beauty products, an increasing number of consumer goods are buried in layers of packaging these days.

Consumers have contacted CHOICE to ask why so many products are overpackaged, and many sent in examples.

One reader described the shock she felt when a new laser printer arrived at her office and the amount of cardboard and foam inserts stacked up to be twice her own height. “I was confronted by the tower of terror," she said. “The packaging in this instance could’ve housed a small family.”

Despite recognising that some goods need to be protected during transportation, consumers are distressed by the level of potential waste, which ultimately increases our footprint on the planet. In this report we take a look at the environmental impact of packaging, and what's being done to try and reduce it.

Please note: this information was current as of October 2007 but is still a useful guide today.


Supermarket strategies

To try to reduce waste — or at least to look as though they are — supermarket chains here and overseas have introduced strategies to help cut down on plastic bags.

For example, UK retail giant Tesco offers ‘green points‘, like frequent flyer points, to encourage shoppers to reuse plastic bags. In Ireland, there’s a 0.15 Euro tax on every plastic bag you take.

Changes in Australian supermarkets have been less progressive, but steps are being taken towards reducing packaging waste. Both Woolworths and Coles provide plastic bag recycling bins in stores and have introduced cloth bags as an alternative.

Woolworths also claims its staff won’t automatically offer plastic bags at checkout for purchases of three items or less.

Coles has started a trial of compostable packaging in a bid to remove hard-to-recycle plastic films and trays used for fruit and vegetables. Other green initiatives the company is trialling include reviewing own-brand products to identify opportunities to cut down on packaging, and using returnable plastic crates to transport fruit and vegetable produce.

Be a leader of the un-pack

If you’re tired of sitting back waiting for change, you can take some easy steps to cut back on packaging waste:

  • Use refillable containers when buying things like shampoo in markets or health stores.
  • Reuse plastic bags as bin liners.

Keep glass jars and bottles for storing sauces and jam, recycle them, or buy some glass paint and decorate them as gifts. 

Recycling tips

It’s also important to know what you can recycle. As a general rule, you can recycle paper and cardboard, steel cans, and glass that’s clear, green or amber in colour.

  • Give containers a quick rinse if they’ve got traces of food in them. Paper or card with food stains on it (such as pizza boxes) can’t usually be recycled.
  • For plastic packaging, look out for items that are marked ‘1’, ‘2’ or ‘3’, usually on the bottom. These can be recycled, while items marked with ‘4’ and ‘5’ may not be.
  • What can be collected varies between areas, so check with your local council to avoid any risk of contaminating the recycling system.
 
 

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02.What consumers want

 

The total amount of packaging vs product is often not immediately obvious at the point of sale. Beauty products, such as moisturisers, are often packed in boxes that are much larger than the net amount of your purchase. Besides feeling outraged at the resources that have gone to waste, many shoppers are also left feeling misled by the deceptive size of the package.L'oreal packaging and contents in cup

A number of CHOICE readers also pointed to the fact that they’ve unwittingly bought goods that had a large amount of packaging before they reached customers in the store. For example, items of clothing may arrive from distributors in individual plastic bags, which are removed before they’re placed on display.

Eleanor Corcoran from Sydney was surprised to find there was more plastic wrapping than she’d anticipated when the sales assistant brought a new singlet from the storeroom of a department store.

“I always consider the amount of packaging before purchasing an item,” she said in a letter to CHOICE. “I thought I was making a choice with minimal packing, only to accidentally discover that this was not the case. I now question how often this might be happening to me and other consumers.”

The concerns raised by our readers are mirrored by the attitudes of the broader community. A 2004 Newspoll survey conducted across the states showed that over 80% of respondents believe packaging waste is a problem.

Three out of four Australians think products have too much packaging, with the vast majority saying they’d like more to be done to combat packaging waste.

What we found

CHOICE asked readers to send in examples of overpackaging, and received 36 examples considered to be wasteful or excessive. Among the more frequently cited products were packaged foods (9),Medicine and its' packaging cosmetics (4) and pharmaceutical goods (16). Only two readers had written to the companies to express their concerns, with several others saying they’d like to complain but didn’t have enough time.

The medication Somac and its new packaging were of particular concern — a quarter of the examples we received were of this stomach relief medication, distributed by Nycomed Australia. Originally, the product was sold in a slim box containing two blister packs of 15 tablets. But the new-look Somac contains six separate mini ‘envelopes’ of five tablets inside each 18 x 17 x 5 cm pack (see image).

When contacted by CHOICE and told that readers were concerned about overpackaging, a Nycomed spokesperson argued that the current incarnation of Somac is a “product improvement” based on “extensive consultative market research with doctors and patients, internationally and at a local level”.

Nycomed says the new format is more convenient for patients, and disagrees that the packaging is excessive — the materials used, it points out, are recyclable. But one of our concerned readers commented if they wanted to recycle the packaging, they’d have to strip the metal from the card, an operation that would require a knife or pair of scissors. Multiply that by six and it’s something of an undertaking.

03.How much is recycled?

 

Australia consumes over 3.4 million tonnes of packaging every year, but only 56 percent of the material used is recycled. Consumer with tower of packing

According to the Packaging Council of Australia, paper and cardboard have the largest share of the packaging materials market (36%). Plastics come in a close second (30%), while metal (20%) and glass (10%) form the rest of the market.

Consumer packaging currently represents a significant proportion of household waste. A breakdown of the 2005 Clean Up Australia report shows over one third of the litter collected was pieces of packaging.

But if all the stray paper and plastic covers contribute to more waste for our environment, why use them? The fact is, a modest amount of packaging is often necessary to protect products from damage and preserve the quality of perishable goods as they travel along the supply chain.

“In many instances, underpackaging can cause more waste than overpackaging,” says the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC). It argues that the amount of waste arising from goods being spoiled due to inadequate packaging would also put additional pressure on natural resources.

Image: Courtesy of Romney Bishop

Industry guidelines

There is a voluntary guideline for the industry: the Environmental Code of Practice for Packaging (ECoPP). According to the ECoPP, manufacturers need to balance the conflicting needs of increasing the shelf-life of the products, with minimising the negative environmental impact.

Good packaging should contain material that can be recycled, along with a clear indication for consumers on how best to dispose of the product itself after use.

The ECoPP also requires the packaging supply chain to consider factors such as the:

  • amount of packaging used
  • potential for packaging reuse/recycling
  • amount of recycled content
  • likelihood of packaging becoming litter
  • quality of consumer information on the packaging.

Sadly, not all companies stick to these voluntary principles of sustainability. Environment Victoria, a non-government, not-for-profit environment organisation, discovered there’s been a trend towards more resource-intensive and hard-to-recycle packaging in recent years.

It found that heavy but recyclable packaging, such as glass jars and tin cans, are often being replaced by low-weight but non-recyclable materials.

Rising consumption levels and a greater demand for convenience also mean single-serve, material-intensive products are increasingly common.

A gap in knowledge

While consumers are trying to do the right thing by using ‘green bags’ and actively recycling, many tell CHOICE they feel let down by the lack of adequate disposal instructions on product packages.

Under the Trade Practices Act and Environmental Labelling Standard (ISO 14021), companies are forbidden from making misleading or deceptive use of environmental claims and symbols. Despite this, consumers are still confronted with confusing disposal messages on products at times.

To raise awareness of poor packaging practices, Environment Victoria hosts the DUMP award each year. Judged by a panel of academic experts and members of local governments and the community, it encourages consumers to vote online for examples of irresponsible packaging. For more information on how to nominate a product for the DUMP award, visit www.envict.org.au.

Regulations and standards

There are legislations relating to packaging waste in Australia. However, the industry is largely governed by a set of voluntary standards which are outlined in the National Packaging Covenant (NPC). As of June 2006, there are 416 signatories to the NPC. These include government bodies and brand owners as well as industry associations .

Brand owners who choose not to sign up to the NPC are subject to regulation by the framework known as the National Environmental Protection Measure (NEPM). This ’regulatory safety net‘ is designed to deal with ’free riders‘ or non-compliant NPC members.

Despite the existence of these measures, critics suggest a stricter system is needed to hold companies accountable for environmentally unsustainable practices. Since its inception in 1999, the NEPM hasn’t been used in a single case of enforcement against offenders.

Environmental lobby groups like the Boomerang Alliance are frustrated with the loopholes in the system. “We need a regulatory system that can be flexible for the industry but will also hold offenders responsible for unacceptable practices,” the Alliance’s national campaigns manager Dave West said.

“At the moment, from a producer’s perspective, there’s no direct link between irresponsible packaging and the cost it imposes on rate payers.”

This contrasts with the European model, which has take-back policies and requires the packaging industry to absorb the cost of recycling.