Supermarket packaging is unsightly, unhealthy and unfriendly to the environment, but is it the lesser of two evils?
Whilst shopping in a well- known supermarket chain the other day it struck me how much packaging they use to wrap fresh items like fruit and vegetables. Bananas poked uneasily from deep, green plastic cartons, aching to spring out and stretch back into shape. I almost had to will my arm to reach out and put them in the basket.
I freely admit I am a convenience shopper. It is something I am trying my very best to cut down on. But after a hard day in the office it's just too tempting to nip to the Co-op round the corner and pick up a pre-packed tub of broccoli or a vacuum- packed mackerel fillet, rather than drive two miles to the town centre to the fishmonger or greengrocer.
I console myself with an interesting statistic. Of the total energy used in the food chain, 50% is used in food production, 10% on transport to the shops and retailing, 10% to make the packaging, and the remaining 30% is used by shoppers to drive to the shops to get the food. By this rationale, am I actually cutting down on energy consumption by buying conveniently packaged food instead of driving much farther to avoid it?
One of course has then to weigh up the principles by ploughing more money into convenience stores and supermarkets we are depriving independent suppliers of business. It seems we cannot win, unless we are lucky enough to live next to a reputable independent supplier.
My point is this. Supermarkets are here to stay whether we like it or not. They are simply too convenient for the majority of the population not to use them. And packaging in the supply chain is a necessary evil in the global market.
Consider the fact that eliminating packaging from fresh fruit and vegetables can actually lead to increased product waste. A study that compared apples sold loose with those in shrink wrapped trays of four showed that there was 27% more waste from orchard to home from the ones that were sold loose.
And tests run by Cucumber Growers' Association show that unwrapped cucumbers are unsaleable after three days, but by wrapping them in just 1.5 grams of plastic wrapping they can be kept fresh for 14 days. Effectively, if you're only buying cucumbers, going packaged means you save yourself around four trips to your greengrocer. Taking this into account, it's a wonder how I can look mine in the eye on the rare occasions I venture to see him.
Another consolation, although it doesn't seem so when you are in the supermarket surrounded by row after row of packaging, the industry has been focussing on reducing material use for years. For example, one litre plastic detergent bottles are 58% lighter than now than they were 40 years ago, 400 gram metal food cans are 39% lighter and a 330ml steel drinks can has been reduced by 63% since 1950.
Foodservice is leading the way and making an example. Therefore suppliers are keen to show the progress they are making in this area too. Ken Mulholland, packaging services manager for catering supplier, Brakes, set up The Packaging Forum, an "internal, cross-functional task force," to minimize the environmental impact of the company's packaging 18 months ago. "Small changes make big differences," says Ken, who has overseen the launch of 'the topless box,' which has reduced Brakes' cardboard output by up to 20%, by simply reducing the size of the top flaps of their cardboard boxes.
An important part of packaging's role is to make sure that the energy invested in producing goods and transporting them from farm or factory through the supply chain to the shops and your homes is not wasted. If products are damaged or spoiled as a result of inadequate packaging, all the energy and materials invested in those products are lost.
There are of course those who will say that there is absolutely no excuse for convenience shopping in the city or in the country when there are perfectly good independent suppliers everywhere.
The simple fact is that not everyone can afford to grow their own or buy organic toothpaste in the age of globalisation. Buying packaged food doesn't have to make you feel guilty. Almost 60% of used packaging was recycled in 2006, up from 27% in 1998. Whilst this is encouraging, it can still be better. So shouldn't we instead be rethinking our individual approach to recycling the packaging we do use?