/ Food & Drink, Shopping

Overpackaging – are shoppers or supermarkets to blame?

Model of a shopper packaged in cellophane

From underfilled vitamin tubs to a biscuit packet that weighs 10 times more than an identical product, we’ve found some crazy examples of overpackaging. But who’s responsible for cutting back?

When we asked Which? members if they wanted manufacturers and supermarkets to do more to reduce packaging, a resounding 94% agreed.

What’s more, 78% found the amount of packaging sold on products in supermarkets to be annoying.

Shoppers should snub overpackaging

It’s easy to be against excess packaging – it clutters up our recycling bins and makes our shopping heavier to carry home. But can we expect change from product makers if we don’t put our money where our mouths are?

When we asked people if they try to buy products that don’t have excess packaging, 54% said that they did, and 46% said they buy products with recyclable packaging.

Are you noticing the downward trend in the numbers? Well, they continue to slide… just 23% said they decided not to buy a product due to too much packaging.

But while consumers have to take part of the responsibility, this low figure must have something to do with the fact that there’s often no lower-packaging alternative.

We unwrap supermarket packaging

We decided to investigate the true extent of supermarket packaging and found that customers could be misled into thinking they’re getting more than they actually are.

We found the same biscuits in two different packs, one of which weighed 10 times more than the other, but contained fewer biscuits. Another biscuit tub was so over-engineered that our expert could stand on it without deforming it. We also discovered toy packaging that took up to six times more space than the toy itself!

Check out our new Flickr gallery for more examples of good and bad practice in action:



It’s not all bad news

Our research did find some improvements. Cadbury’s boxless Easter egg sales are up by 75% since 2008, for example. The best part is that the boxless eggs’ damage rates are the same as for its boxed eggs.

We’ve also had some success taking our findings to retailers. Asda and Morrisons both told us that they were already looking to reduce the packaging on items we raised with them. And Sainsbury’s admitted that its printer ink cartridges were overpackaged.

And it’s not that all packaging is bad. Wrapping cucumbers in plastic really isn’t as daft as it sounds, for example, because it protects the cucumber. Not only does this reduce the amount that gets thrown away, it also reduces the amount of methane (a significant greenhouse gas) generated.

What are your examples of good and bad packaging? Do you resist products that are overpackaged or is it too hard to find a decent alternative?


This all depends on use the package is being used for – I hate broken food items due insecure packaging. Most are slightly over -engineered and far too many are in plastic containers – whereas cardboard would be a more sustainable material.

My real pet hate are Wilkinson’s dog biscuit bones – because they are invariably broken inside the box as it is too thin – the dogs love the taste I hate the breaks.

James Harrison says:
20 April 2011

There should clearly be only Glass, card, paper and ONE type of plastic. All should be easily collectable by local authorities/private enterprise and thence easily either cleaned or re-shaped into something else. The myriad plastic containers which (by our council anyway) are not recycled and still go to landfill is ridiculus. I don’t mind the packaging as long as it does its’ job properly AND can be re-used.


Plastic recycling is such a mess. It depends totally on your council (see another Conversation here: https://conversation.which.co.uk/energy-home/what-plastics-does-your-council-recycle/) – but even when they do take a lot, I’m unsure what happens at the other end.

My council takes lots of plastic – I try to read the leaflets about what I can and can’t put in, but I’m sure I end up putting in things I shouldn’t. But what do they do with it? do they really have the ability to sort out everyone’s yoghurt pots and margarine tubs? I’m dubious that it all gets recycled at the other end.

I think one type of plastic is a bit idealistic though – clearly different types are better for different products. What would be better is a clearer labelling system. I’ve commented on this before, but in NZ they number all plastics really clearly, then the recycling bins tell you what numbers you can put it. What could be clearer than that?


Agreed with the above

What needs to be done is for all councils to provide bins to recycle it all. Where I live in St Albans, we have to take half of our recycling to “centres” because the local bins aren’t allowed to accept card!

Card? surely one of the easiest materials to recycle and they can’t recycle it?

In comparison in Rugby, there is 1 green bin for garden waste, a blue bin for ALL things recyclable and a black bin for everything else. This works fantastically well.

If the all councils pulled their finger out, it wouldn’t be such a faff. We pay for recycling, but some think that we still have to put ourselves out.


Have add my council has just added a recycle waste bin instead of plastic bags – Now we can recycle plastic bottles and cardboard

steve says:
21 April 2011

Oh dear, richard, does it really matter, in the grand scheme of things, if dog biscuits are broken? Probably the first thing the dog does is bite them in half anyway!
I remember going to our local village Co-op and buying a bag of broken biscuits ’cause they were cheaper and we didn’t have much money. They were decanted from a large tin into a brown paper bag; they still tasted the same, so whats the problem?



I am a customer – I paid for unbroken biscuits – I expect unbroken biscuits. If they were sold as broken biscuits I wouldn’t complain but they are not.

Not one packet of human biscuits in over 20 years with far flimsier wrapping has ever had a broken biscuit.

In addition The other similar boxes of other makes of dog biscuits on the same shelf do not contain broken biscuits because they have stronger boxes – I know I bought and examined others. Even dog biscuits in plastic bags are unbroken..

It is very irritating for two reasons – the broken biscuit saga has been going on for a number of years – but they are the ones my dogs prefer. The boxes are usually damaged (around 80% of boxes) I know I examine each and every box to find an uncrushed box. . The second is Pets at Home give a 20% discount on damaged boxes.

Finally my dogs like to start at one end and nibble to the other.of a whole biscuit.- the broken bits flake off – and the box also contains many broken flakes that I paid for and my dogs won’t eat.

Mike says:
21 April 2011

I am less annoyed with packaging that can be recycled eg cardboard, milk/soup cartons & plastic bottles. I am fed up with the bulky non recyclables particularly large rectangular plastic meat trays . A small selection of meat is available on the butcher counter in supermarkets and other large joints are shrink wrapped which must be preferable. Why can’t we at least get meat repackaged in the shop so we do not have to take the plastic trays home?.