Supermarkets scolded for excessive packaging

Excessive packaging is rampant in high street stores and the consumer is paying up to twice the price for goods as a result, according to a survey by Friends of the Earth (FoE).1 The packaging industry has condemned the report as inaccurate and misleading.

FoE's report is intended to highlight the continuing increase in packaging of household products. The group says that packaging consumption in this sector has grown by 7% since 1987 and is expected to rise by a further 9% by 1999.

The report is also part of the FoE's campaign for the reinstatement of a ceiling on per capita packaging consumption which featured in early drafts of the EC Directive on packaging waste but was deleted from the formal proposal tabled by the European Commission last autumn (ENDS Report 217, pp 40-41 ).

This spring, FoE researchers visited shops in Belfast, Bridgend, Bristol, London and York and compared the price of "over-packaged" products with the same products sold loose or in less packaging in the same store. They found that price differentials were typically between 1-10%, but with a large proportion between 10-30%.

At the extreme, apples were sold by Marks and Spencers in a plastic tray and overwrap at a price 93% above that for the same applies sold in a plastic bag. Marks and Spencers and Woolworths are singled out for criticism by FoE for giving their customers no option but to buy heavily packaged goods.

Other retailers also failed to offer customers the opportunity to make a direct comparison of the price of excessively packaged and loose goods. For example, apples in a plastic tray with plastic overwrap were priced per four apples in a Tesco store while the loose apples were priced per pound. Again, Marks and Spencers was one of the worst culprits.

Blister packs, multi-packs and other secondary packaging, as well as one-trip containers, should be avoided and reusable containers encouraged, the FoE report argues. A far greater range of products should also be sold loose.

Marks and Spencers and Sainsbury's have also been criticised recently by the packaging industry's new Packaging Standards Council for using excessive packaging for potatoes and pitta bread, respectively. Sainsbury has since removed the plastic tray packaging for the pitta bread, saving 100 tonnes of plastic each year.

The Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN) has condemned FoE's report as "inaccurate and misleading", and says it "demonstrates a clear lack of understanding of the functions of packaging." It contests the group's figure that £10 of every £75 of goods purchased pays for packaging. INCPEN says the figure is nearer £10 in £100. In addition, the high prices of pre-packed foods are due partly to the costs of selecting, weighing and in some cases washing or preparing the produce, INCPEN claims.

Individual retailers have come up with different responses to the report. Marks and Spencers says that FoE's figures will "not bear up to close scrutiny," but was unable to provide any of its own. Sainsbury, on the other hand, agrees with the group's figures, but argues that packaged goods are on its shelves because customers want to buy them.

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