Overpackaging complaints dominate watchdog's workload

Overpackaging dominates the second report of the Packaging Standards Council (PSC) despite its claim that complaints about the "environmental" effects of packaging are relatively few.1 Excessive anti-pilfering and "trial" packaging are vindicated by the PSC and, more controversially, so is excessive packaging of luxury products.

The PSC was set up in June 1992, following a Government request in 1990, to handle the growing number of complaints about excessive and unsafe packaging (ENDS Report 209, p 13 ). It was criticised at the time for having no powers. Indeed, it can only give guidance based on a code of practice which should be ready by the end of the year.

In October, the PSC published its second half-yearly report and statistics on its first year of operation. Unfortunately, no overall figure is given for the total number of complaints received by the PSC - only a breakdown of the type of complaints and the packaging sectors to which they refer. The number of complaints received between June 1992 and June 1993 is suspected to be around 30.

Over 60% of the complaints were about overpackaging, 10% about openability, 7% about safety/security and 7% about labels/readability. There were two specific complaints about the "environmental" effects of packaging - on the use of blister packs for pharmaceutical products and expanded polystyrene chips for protective packaging.

These figures induced the PSC to make the odd statement in a press release that the number of complaints about the environmental effects of packaging is "relatively small and far outweighed by more traditional concerns such as over-packaging."

The report first reviews the follow-up actions taken by manufacturers after complaints dealt with in the last report. For example, Cussons has replaced an outer cardboard wrapping with a plastic film around a soap bar multi-pack following "numerous" complaints. And Sainsbury's has removed a plastic tray from its packaging of pitta breads.

One practice which has lately attracted complaints is the use of a third plastic wrapping layer around smaller multi-packs for chocolate biscuits. This market is fiercely competitive, and a recent trend has been for manufacturers to sell biscuits in larger and larger multi-packs, while offering discounts to purchasers. However, most manufacturing lines cannot pack more than seven individually wrapped chocolate bars into a multi-pack. The solution has been for packers to wrap two smaller multi-packs into one using a third wrapping layer.

The PSC refuses to name the companies against which complaints were submitted about this practice because it is common throughout the industry. But it has concluded that the internal collation wrapping does constitute overpackaging. In the industry's defence, it says that changes in marketing demands will require the use of existing plant, which may not be optimum.

The PSC therefore appears to endorse overpackaged products providing the excess is used just for a trial period. It says it will then "urge" the producers to invest in new plant. But there appears to be a danger that a trial period may stretch for some considerable time. Triple-wrapped chocolate biscuits have already been on the shelves for 12 months or so, and the PSC says it will not be checking progress on plant investment until next summer.

Meanwhile, a complaint on overpackaging against Lever Brothers' Dove cleansing bar and the false impression this gives about the size of the product has been rejected. The PSC says that the wide discrepancy between the volume of the product and that of the packaging is "unfortunate", but "taking into account the fact that this is a luxury product and consumers may choose cheaper products if they wish" this does not, in its view, constitute overpackaging.

Exactly why the PSC regards overpackaging of luxury goods as justifiable is not spelled out in the report. The PSC may also need to consider whether excessive packaging may itself make a product a "luxury" item.

On anti-pilfering packaging, complaints were received about "hang tabs" used with Kodak and Sainsbury's own label photographic film. These are large to make concealment difficult.

The PSC concluded that it cannot condone the unnecessary use of resources but has "some sympathy with the supplier and retailer in this case." It therefore appears to support the use of large hang tabs provided they are part of a pilfering management plan.

A more straightforward response was given to a complaint about overpackaging of Marks and Spencers' polo-neck shirts. These are wrapped around a board and polyethylene foam card with a cardboard band around it carrying details of the product. The PSC agreed with the retailer that the foam is essential to protect the fabric from "bruising", and that using both card and foam was reasonable.

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