Asda packaging scheme criticised at waste inquiry

Consumer products giant Unilever voiced concerns about the efficacy of efforts by Wal-Mart/ASDA to cut packaging waste at a parliamentary inquiry in March.

An initiative by Asda’s parent company Wal-Mart to cut packaging waste has been accused of having the potential to achieve the opposite.

Appearing before the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into waste reduction in March, Stephen Carter, director of packaging sustainability at Unilever, expressed concerns about Wal-Mart’s much heralded ‘packaging scorecard’.

The scorecard was introduced last year in an attempt to cut packaging waste from Wal-Mart’s suppliers. Among other things it requires information on the grams-of-packaging-per-millilitre content of products (ENDS Report 387, p 28 ). Asda intends to introduce it to its suppliers next year.

"One of our concerns with using a grams-of-packaging-per-ml of content measure is that it encourages large packs because they are much more efficient on... [this] basis," Mr Carter said. This could have the potential effect of increasing packaging waste, but it could also cause other problems, he added. If companies start making larger packs for food to achieve higher scores with Wal-Mart, they are likely to create more food waste - especially because there are a growing number of single-occupant households that do not need to buy large volumes of food.

A final problem with the measure is it gives no credit for "concentration of formula". This is especially a problem for products like liquid detergents and shampoo. He recommended use of an alternative measure like "grams of packaging per consumer usage", as that would encourage companies to improve the concentration of their products.

The rest of the evidence heard by the committee in March was of a more general nature. However, it also focused on the issue of how to cut packaging waste from retailers. This was partly due to current debate in the media, centred around cutting plastic bag use from supermarkets (see p 8 ).

Several witnesses - including representatives of the Sustainable Development Commission and the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN) - told the committee that packaging is often not the main environmental problem caused by products. There is a need for more discussion about the whole life-cycle impacts of products.

For example, Sue Dibb of the SDC’s consumption team said that food waste from households was a much more serious issue than food packaging, leading to 15 million tonnes of CO2 emissions a year from landfills.

One of the committee’s sessions focused on the role of policy in cutting waste. Green Alliance associate Julie Hill said landfill tax is not high enough to cause a change in waste management practices, even with the government having increased it from £3 to £8 a year (ENDS Report 387, pp 4-5 ). According to Ms Hill, the real price of disposing of waste in landfills has dropped in many parts of the UK since the rise in tax.

She also questioned why funding was cut in February to BREW, the Environment Department’s Business Resource Efficiency and Waste programme (see p 4 ). BREW is supposed to save businesses money by improving the way they manage waste, she said. The savings it achieved are meant to offset the rise in landfill tax. Because of this, its budget should be increasing with landfill tax.

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