By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine
For shoppers, a product's appeal is often as much about its packaging as what's inside. As France considers a ban on eco-unfriendly packs, British consumers can expect to see some marked changes on their supermarket shelves.
The newly opened Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in London is a walk-through testament to the hoarding instinct of one man.
As Britain's foremost collector in the field, Robert Opie has amassed a vast stash of bottles, tins, jars, flagons, boxes, cartons, packets and tubs - each, he believes, a piece of art.
The museum houses 10,000 exhibits, which run from the early 19th Century to the present day, neatly displayed in glass cabinets.
In a week when the Turner Prize winner is announced, marking the annual clash of opinion between the art elite and the befuddled masses, Mr Opie's passion suggests that if it is art you're after, take a wander round your local supermarket.
"Why should people see them as works of art - until you put them in a museum behind glass," he says, acknowledging the problem with packaging is that it's so pervasive it's become unremarkable.
"If I was to tell you who made it, how they made it, how long it took them, the innovations there that you can't see. It's like opening someone's eyes up to anything. As you look at it you see something that just wasn't there beforehand."
Robert Opie's new museum celebrates the golden days
But just as Mr Opie's museum is getting off the ground, the very industry it is celebrates is fast becoming a pariah among environmentalists.
Packaging plays hell with the environment, they say. And while recycling helps to ease the burden, still a quarter of all rubbish put out by households is retail packaging.
Last month the French parliament began moves to ban all non-biodegradable packaging from 2010.
The plan has sent a shockwave through the British industry, parts of which claim they are already over-regulated. Laws already require producers to minimise packaging but Brussels wants to stiffen regulations further against what has become a booming industry.
Fearing the effects of more legislation, some of the biggest retailers, such as Asda, Sainsbury's, Tesco and Morrisons, have put commercial rivalries aside to strike a Kyoto-style voluntary commitment to cut packaging waste.
Widgets and valves
Under the so-called Courtauld Commitment, agreed over the summer, the supermarkets plan to stop packaging growth by 2008 and start reductions by 2010. The government has chipped in £8m to stimulate innovation in the sector.
The rise in packaging is a metaphor for the growing demands of modern consumer culture.
Not only are we buying more but more people are living alone, we eat more pre-prepared meals, we wolf down "on-the-go" foods with growing enthusiasm and we're always worried about food safety. Each habit reinforces the need for more packaging.
Sometimes, the packaging is a key part of a product's appeal. Think of the "widget" that helps canned beer pour like draught and coffee packs with aroma release valves - so you can smell the brew before you buy it.
Environment minister Elliot Morley says he gets more letters about excessive packaging than any other subject. But Fiona Murray, editor of Packaging News, thinks we secretly like it.
"The consumer is contradictory. We say we don't want all this packaging but at the same time we expect it and we're happier about buying things that are sealed up."
Producers are trying to find a middle way - supplying all the packaging we've come to expect, while cutting the impact of materials on the environment.
"Lightweighting" is the current industry buzzword - reducing the weight of packaging, while still providing the same protection.
What next in packaging? Siebert Head is planning a self-chilling bottle
Glass bottles are lighter then they once were, as are tins.
"I've just been writing a story about a new cap for a bleach bottle that's 60% lighter. Shoppers, though, probably wouldn't notice it."
Many of these new "solutions" will be appearing on the supermarket shelves early next year, says Wrap - Waste Resources Action Programme - the government agency in charge of cutting packaging.
Some industry insiders, however, are sceptical.
"Reducing weight doesn't necessarily reduce environmental impact," says Jane Bickerstaffe, of Incpen - the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment. "It could even have unintended side effects."
The weight of cardboard boxes, she says, could easily be cut by shifting from recycled cardboard to virgin fibre, "which is stronger, so boxes can be made lighter and thinner".
And despite pressure from on-high, plenty of manufacturers show little regard for the environmental argument, says Satkar Gidda, of the branding and packaging firm Siebert Head.
By and large, "design companies are not briefed to include environmental issues when creating pack designs" he says.
"Unless manufacturers are pressurised or incentivised to be more considerate with packaging and the environment, then nothing will change. Why should it, especially as it may cost manufacturers more. Theirs is a short-term view based on profitability."
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
About time too, I'm horrified by all the items that are un-necessarily packaged. I go into Waitrose every other morning for bananas, and they look at me with horror when I ask them not to put them in a bag. This throwaway society we live in has to be halted,
Neil Tracey, Bath
I'm no tree hugger, but it disgusts me the amount of materials over-packing wastes and how much of it is just simply thrown in the bin. Just looking around any supermarket one can see the ridiculous amount of paper and plastic we waste, I'm glad to see that these Supermarket chains are finally doing something about it.
Can someone from Morrisons supermarket explain why they vacupak swedes? Surely the skin is good enough.
Lynne Wood, Barnard Castle, Co. Durham, UK
The article mentions how we demand fresh food (and why shouldn't we?) so packaging has to maintain that freshness. This can only be done with what we see as excess packaging. Take Mr Kipling cakes for example. They're now packed in individual wraps, inside a tray, inside a box. Excess! we cry! But if it wasn't for that packing, the cakes would go stale before we finished all 6 of them, and they would end up in the bin. Food that goes in the bin and therefore wastes all the energy and materials that went into it's production is a far greater drain on resources and the environment than the packaging that follows it into the bin.
Dan Thurgood, Liverpool United Kingdom
As a singleton, I am very aware of my own personal wastage- there's no-one else to blame- and try to be a bit environmentally friendly, although I do give in to buying packaged lunch foods every day. However in the last year, I've been delighted to note the move towards cardboard-packaged sandwiches, which cleverly make the sandwiches appear more 'hand made' and also more environmental. This sort of approach could be extended.
Alicia Matterson, Birmingham
As a packaging engineer of many years the problem with the industry is the marketing people. For years they have tried to outdo each other with more complicated pack designs using ever more flamboyant materials. They have shown complete disregard for the environment even when told to consider all the regulations they ask for engineers and technologists to find ways around the regulations. What is wrong with the old Henry Ford adage "you can have any colour so long as it is black" "you can have any package so long as is recyclable/re-useable or biodegradable".
Alan, Oaksey, UK
I deliberately buy tasteless salad tomatoes because all the 'nice' ones have over the top packaging - why can't they be sold loose?!!
About time!! I am sick of disposing of plastics that cannot be recycled. I currently recycle about 75% of my waste - the rest is unrecycable packaging. What about those tetra packs? They cannot be recycled due to the combination of cardboard and plastics/metals? What is the point of using packaging to last 2 or so years, but takes hundreds to break down, making a problem for our children and their children?
Time to wake up I think.
Stuart Holmes, Newcastle Upon Tyne
I defy anyone who loves well-designed packaging these days not to buy Waitrose Soft Smyrna Figs and Soft d'Agen Prunes amongst, goodness knows, how many other own-brand products. We rarely shop there, but when we do it feels like a design shrine to me.
Ian Montgomery, Honiton, Devon
I had to retrieve something from the bottom of my wastebin yesterday, and realised that 80% of the content was packaging. Some items have triple packaging, eg cake slices: outer box, inner cellophane wrapping and compartmented tray. Surely if the box is sealed properly the tray alone would be enough? I am certain that while the manufacturers will say they are upholding the highest hygiene standards these could be achieved by using less.
Lyn Hewitt-Jones, Bournemouth
About time! I congratulate the French on their (as ususal) forward thinking. This time of year is the worst, with an explosion of ridiculously over packaged items on our supermarket shelves - most of which is of non-recyclable types of plastic. We should follow suit asap.
Keith, Sheffield, UK
A certain brand of chocolate biscuits has two layers of plastic round the biscuits. When I complained, apparently this has to be so to enable the biscuits to be packaged correctly on the conveyor belt.
".... Think of the "widget" that helps canned bear pour like draught ...." Perhaps we should involve the RSPCA in this debate?
Sue Manston, Reading, UK
Why are DVD boxes bigger than those for CDs? The contents are the same size. Simple - you need that size for the artwork to show as it's copied from the video days.
Bob Connell, Barry, Wales
At last someone is looking critically at packaging! I might have guessed that it would be the canny French. I have always thought it crazy that there is such a huge emphasis on recycling when it is the last and least of the three R's ( Reduce, Re-use and Recycle).
Martin, Bracknell, UK
The 2 biggest culprits are the 2 thing's that Bristol's recycling collection vans won't take! Plastic bottles and cardboard! we'd recycle loads more packaging if this was changed.
I hate excessive packaging, particularly on so-called 'fresh foods'. If I have a choice I will always choose to buy loose, unwrapped products and have found that by shopping in traditional markets instead of supermarkets I save money, time and unnecessary packaging. Furthermore, the service tends to be friendlier and the food often tastes fresher.
The brown paper bags that my 'market vegetables' come in shield them from light and also allow them to breathe. I compost or recycle them after use. Even when necessity forces me to shop in a supermarket I prefer to pick my own (loose) products.
Lorna Eastwood, Bradford, UK
About time too! I am fed up to the back teeth by little bits of card and vacuum moulded plastic just for a couple of nuts or bolts, plastic milk bottles, but the stupid thing is that recycling milk bottles is said to be uneconomic and they cant get rid of all the coloured glass from wine bottles, surely all this needs to be seriously looked at.
Tony, Welling Kent
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