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Page last updated at 09:01 GMT, Friday, 10 April 2009 10:01 UK

A simple case of over-egging

Easter eggs for sale

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

What's the most egregious offender in the matter of excess packaging? There are some who think it's the Easter egg, spewing waste plastic and foil into our landfill.

What is an Easter egg?

Is it a chocolate egg, perhaps accompanied by some mini chocolate bars or truffles?

Jo Swinson
It is going to taste the same whatever box it comes in
Jo Swinson MP

Or is it a combination of the items above with gaudily coloured, glossy card, a plastic box and shiny foil, all jumbled into one seductive whole.

That's the issue that the giants of the confectionery industry have been wrestling with for the last few years.

On the one hand there are voices from the environmental lobby that single out the Easter egg as quite the most outrageous piece of overpackaging in the realm of retail. On the other there are consumers whose eye needs to be drawn to products that make them feel like they want to give them as a gift.

Jo Swinson, Lib Dem MP for Dunbartonshire East, has been campaigning against excess packaging for several years.

"Easter eggs are obviously one of the worst examples of excessive packaging you can find. It is going to taste the same whatever box it comes in. It doesn't make any sense to pay for excess packaging."

Boxing cleverer

Last year she named and shamed various overpackaged eggs including one from Nestle. This year the confectionery giants have seen which way the wind is blowing.

Nestle has eliminated many of the plastic inserts - used to hold the egg in place and protect it - from its boxes and reduced the amount of cardboard used.

Cadbury's: Treasure eggs which have no box, other eggs' carton sizes cut by 25%
Nestle: Many plastic inserts removed, packaging reduced 30%
Mars: Carton weight reduced 42%, plastic insert weight reduced 35%
M&S: Packaging reduced 30%

Mars is using print ads to trumpet its reduced packaging, and Cadbury's is shrinking boxes, having also introduced its Treasure Eggs range that don't come in a box.

But Ms Swinson says the confectionery giants still have some way to go and that further reductions in box size are required.

Andy Dawe, from waste and recycling action group WRAP, says it is important to remember that there is a functional element to egg packaging.

If packaging prolongs the shelf life of an egg, then waste is avoided. If packaging stops eggs being damaged in transit, then again waste is avoided.

"But one of the biggest concerns for consumers is when they can't recycle the packaging that is presented to them."

Bulky boxes

What you can and can't recycle varies from borough to borough, but there will be many people unable to recycle plastic inserts and even the foil on the egg can probably only be recycled by about 50% of households.

Then there is the environmental cost of transporting bulky egg boxes containing, well, very little egg.

Easter egg packaging from the past

"You are paying to transport air," says Ms Swinson. "There is still a lot of empty space in them."

But it hasn't always been this way.

Robert Opie, curator of the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in London, and author of Sweet Memories has been in a position to chart the history of Easter egg packaging.

"In the 1920s smaller eggs might be wrapped in foil and then brought to the shop in a sturdy wooden box that would then act as a display, but there would be other larger, fancier eggs [in their own boxes]."

By the 1950s the use of light bulb style card boxes became widespread for eggs, Mr Opie says, before in the 1960s and 1970s eggs started on their journey to today's flamboyant boxes.

"Cartons became increasingly more complicated, more gifty, more wonderful, more voluminous."

But of course, Easter egg packaging cannot be stripped down totally. The logical conclusion from an environmental perspective would be an egg in a brown paper bag, or perhaps no egg at all.

"You have to bear in mind what you are giving somebody is not just a hollow egg, it is a gift," says Mr Opie. "The packaging is as much a part of the gift as the egg itself.

Eggs still come in wrapped in foil, polymer and cardboard

"Why not just give somebody a bar of chocolate of the same weight? We like the difference in texture. It has a different kind of crunch moment."

So assuming that Easter egg packaging is a compromise between attractive design and minimal environmental impact, how green can it be?

St Asaph-based product design consultancy Design Reality, which recently completely Easter egg packaging design work for Duc d'O, a Belgian chocolatier, tackled the idea on behalf of the BBC News Magazine. The concept for the "Eco Egg" - designed by Dyfan Evans and Sioned Owen - can be found at the bottom of this page.

"There are several factors that should be considered when designing such a product," Mr Evans says. "These include consumer expectations and needs, durability and strength in order to avoid damage to the fragile egg, its practicality in terms of palletisation and shelf stacking, an attractive graphical appearance and structural design, and an increasing desire of the consumer to purchase a product that is either ecologically sourced, or able to be recycled."

Design Reality's hypothetical Eco Egg would attempt to minimise the amount of material wasted.

"This involved creating a simple-sided pyramid that would fold up around the egg, with built in tabs to secure the egg inside," says Mr Evans. "The pyramid would be tied together at the top with a ribbon, thereby negating the requirement for gluing or tabs that would complicate the assembly process. The design would not require an inner plastic shell either.

"This design would inherently present a novel element to its 'unwrapping', intended to delight and surprise the consumer.

"Its four-sided pyramidal shape would also tessellate, fitting together into a pallet or shelf either by slotting together 'side by side', or using a simple punched cardboard sheet that would separate the different layers of pyramids on the shelf."

Hence, fewer lorry journeys and less fuel used.

Eco Egg by Design Reality
Four-sided pyramidal shape tessellates to allow easy stacking to minimise transport costs
Tabs cut out of the card to hold egg
No plastic insert needed
Shredded paper and card inside the box to protect the egg
Use biodegradable film wrap for egg
Water-based inks
No glue - pyramid sides held together by ribbon
Egg box still meets basic manufacturers' criteria of being visually dominating on shelf and minimising breakage

A selection of your comments appears below.

I wish the Easter eggs were available in both their current format, but also in absolute minimalist packaging. They should be priced accordingly; the minimalist one would probably be £0.40p less. It's the one I would buy, thinking what fun I could have with the £0.40p that I'd saved, and the planet, that I'd helped to save.
Steve Swift, Alton, Hampshire

This is wonderful. This is the kind of thing that that ought to be funded by environmental groups and ADVERTISED to consumers. Give us something environmentally friendly and we will buy it!
Barb, Canada

You should come to Japan, they take packaging to a whole new level. For example, a packet of biscuits would contain another packet which will contain biscuits, each individually wrapped. Mad mad mad!
Natalie, Hiroshima, Japan

The pyramidal shape would be fine. Biodegradable foil is neither recyclable nor home compostable. It is therefore landfill bound and not acceptable for Zero Waste. Tinfoil can be collected in a ball or other shape and AluPro could arrange collection for areas where no recycling is available, if it was economically worthwhile. Plastic avoidance is essential for a sustainable Easter Egg.
John Costigane, Johnstone, Renfrewshire

My husband bought me an Easter egg this year when he was in London at the end of February. It has been packed only in cardboard (no plastic inserts) and the pack is a pyramid shape. Try Green and Blacks easter eggs.
Denise Gilby, Mexico

Splendid, I am allied to the treasure eggs from Cadbury, they look lovely and they are from Cadbury who are in the process of moving their range over to fair trade. I cant wait to eat the eggs, just as soon as I remember where in the garden I've hidden them.
Jacob Corn, Cambridge

I like the idea of giving an Easter egg with all its glory, but I am also concerned about the amount of packaging it takes especially the plastic. I don't believe that in this age, manufacturers can't come up with a solution for packaging the eggs in cardboard alone. We all look to the past to bring back the good memories of a time gone by, so why can't the manufactures use this and produce a more eco friendly egg- they charge enough for them!
Fiona McGuigan, United Kingdom

That eco pyramid egg looks ok but there will still be wasted outer box waste in transporting it so will not really cut down on transport costs per egg.
Steve Farndale, Peterborough, Cambs

Why don't the chocolateers introduce the Chocolate 'Easter Cube'. They could ride on the glory of an environmentally friendly Easter feast. The advertising could perhaps run..."the chickens would if they could". I'm sure that somewhere geneticists are working on a 'cubular egg' (for packaging purposes, perhaps a very soft shell that once put into rectangular packaging would morph into a cube). Or perhaps we do away with the Easter Egg totally. There would be a minor outcry. People would buy something else, or perhaps use hard boiled eggs, or not be too bothered about the whole scenario. After all 'conkers' has all but been made a health hazard.
Ian Wickison, Peterborough

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