Excess packaging

Is all that empty space in our food packaging really necessary?
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  • Updated:1 Jul 2010


Weight watchers

Have you ever torn open a packet of chips in eager anticipation, only to discover the bag is half-empty? Ever opened a box of snack bars to find they’re much smaller than you expected? Or discovered that expensive jar of moisturiser is only half the size of the box it comes in? You’re not alone. Any trip to a supermarket, pharmacy or department store finds plenty of products packaged with lots of empty space. CHOICE asks manufacturers to explain why.


Regulating product packaging

In Australia, food packaging is administered under state and territory trade weights and measurements acts. While the federal Trade Practices Act and the various states’ fair trading acts include provisions against false and misleading conduct, excessive packaging in itself is not considered misleading.
Misleading packaging is difficult to prove, as products are sold by weight or volume, which is usually stated on the packaging. If it says “350g” or “4 bars” on the packet, that’s what must be inside, and that is what is regularly checked by fair trading agency officers to ensure consumers are getting what they pay for. Whether there’s room for a fifth bar, or another 50g of product, isn’t specifically addressed in the relevant regulations.

Snack pack issues

Snack foods of a fragile nature, such as chips or crackers, are generally loosely packaged and padded by air to protect them from being crushed and ending up as slackfill crumbs. A reasonable amount of empty space, or “air cushioning”, is permitted by law – 25% for cereals, for example, and 40% for delicate snack foods.
According to Ian Greenshields from Goodman Fielder, manufacturer of the Veri Deli brand, a bag of Rosemary & Sea Salt Cracker Snacks (pictured right) “has 22% free air space, which is well within the allowable limit”. Yet when you open the bag – and after the contents have settled – the air space looks decidedly bigger.
Even the time when potatoes are harvested can have some bearing on the air content in packaging, as is the case with Kettle Chilli Slow Cooked Chips. “They vary in density throughout the growing season, which means at certain months of the year the chips take up more space in the pack for the same weight than at other times,” says Matt Jenkins from Snack Brands Australia, manufacturer of Kettle Chips. “Our packaging has to accommodate this variation in size and density.”


“We always aim to ensure the product volume is at least 70%, typical of industry targets,” says Bryce Howard, spokesperson for Tasti Products (which manufactures WeightWatchers Macadamia & Cranberry Cereal Nut Bars under licence). But without their plastic wrappers, and neatly packed next to each other, these bars (pictured above) leave a lot of empty space in the cardboard box in which they come.
Howard told CHOICE the company uses the same size boxes for different products to make the production process more efficient, allow for machine tolerances (because the ingredients vary in size and density by season and source location) and accommodate the machines’ extreme high operation speeds.

Which bag of sugar is bigger?

 sugarThese two packets each contain 1kg of raw sugar, but one uses more packaging than the other and takes up markedly more shelf space − and is, therefore, more likely to attract your attention in the supermarket than the smaller packet. One theory is that it’s designed to make you think you’re getting more than from the competitor’s brand.
The manufacturer of the larger bag offers other reasons for its choice of packaging. Sugar Australia, which makes CSR products, says while the bags used for its white and raw sugar are of similar size, the packaging material and design are different for each. The white sugar bags are made of paper and the head space is folded and glued down, whereas the bag for raw sugar is plastic and not folded over. The company says this is because raw sugar is hygroscopic, meaning it takes up and retains moisture readily, so plastic bags provide better protection.

Half and half

vitamins-180The manufacturer of Cenovis Ginkgo Biloba 2000 tablets (pictured right) argues that all the information that needs to be included on the label won’t fit onto a smaller bottle in the correct font and style. But what about the other Cenovis tablets that are sold in smaller bottles? “It needs to be looked at on a case-by-case basis,” says spokesperson Will Collie. “It depends on the specific information that is available and needs to be disclosed.”  

Lifting their game

Some manufacturers have shown initiative and reduced or are reducing their products’ packaging. The 250g Orgran Gluten Free Buckwheat Pasta Spirals we bought only filled about half the packet, supposedly because of the packaging machine’s capabilities. But the company is currently investigating whether further cuts to pack sizes can be made. “We’re making the investment into a more environmentally friendly manufacturing process, with a view to further reduce the packaging,” says spokesperson Matthew Alessi. 

What you can do

• Check the weight of the package or the number of items it contains. A larger package doesn’t always mean more contents.
• Compare prices for a comparable unit by volume or weight. Unit pricing allows you to compare prices easily between grocery products packaged in different sizes. It’s now mandatory for larger store-based, online and grocery retailers.
• Don’t buy a product if you believe it’s deceptively packaged. Let the company know why you’re rejecting it and, if you’re concerned you’ve been misled, report the matter to the ACCC or your state or territory’s Office of Fair Trading.
• Recycle all packaging that can be recycled in your area. Check with your local council or at www.recyclingnearyou.com.au.




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