/ 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?.

It has always amazed me that moulded plastic trays are used for meat in supermarkets – I really think trays made of paper mashe (the material as used for eggs) could be made as hygienic and be far more recyclable.

I know at my butchers – meat is sold unpackaged and simply put into a bag. no individual wrapping at all.

But bones, pig trotters and ‘off cuts’ are presented in polystyrene trays covered with cling film – the reason for this is because they can easily be stacked five or six deep – individual wrapping would much more expensive and would have to be individually re-weighed. At the moment they are sold per tray/

Not supermarket overpackaging, but thought I’d share. Just opened my new smartphone. It came in an A3 Royal Mail plastic bag, then in a FedEx plastic bubble-wrap envelope, and then another FedEx plastic bubble-wrap envelope, and then wrapped in paper. And then finally the cardboard box the phone was in. Of course, it was an ebay seller and I’m glad it was well-protected. But still.

I really can’t understand why Marks & Spencer continue to use plastic wrapping on most of their food produce that has the label ‘not currently recyclable’. It should be easy to change this to a type of plastic that can be recycled – so why don’t they do it?

Without knowing what the products are it is difficult to know but what you will tend to find is that films that are a single type of material can be recycled.
The problem with those recyclable materials is they have no barrier properties which prevent the movement of oxygen or moisture (for example) from the enviroment into the product which will spoil it.

To get that sort of barrier you need to use either a coextrusion or laminated material which is effectively a number of materials combined and this tends not to be able to recycled but is what provides a shelf life to the products that you purchase.

TDS says:
22 April 2011

Have a look at the boxes of fruit and veg next time you are in a supermarket. You may notice, in some supermarkets at least, that they are all in identical cardboard boxes. The reason? The boxes from the producers are apparently discarded in favour of ‘standard’ boxes fitting the supermarket’s own corporate look when the produce reaches the packaging/distribution warehouse in the UK. Perfectly good boxes are discarded (re-cycled but needlessly so) and the produce placed into identically sized boxes (to fit the allotted space on the supermarket shelves) with a uniform appearance provided by the supermarket. At my local plant I am advised that a whole building is dedicated to dealing with this unnecessary process and the amount of waste is staggering. Do we really care whether we buy produce out of an original producer’s cardboard box or one designed by our supermarket of choice? I doubt anyone really notices. Yes, let’s encourage supermarkets to cut back on the visible packaging that we see on the shelves but let’s not forget the backroom waste problem too.

I find recycling Pringles containers challenging with the metal base, cardboard tube, plastic lid and foil type seal on the top.
The base, i’m sure could be made of card changing immediately so that the bulk of the container can be easily recycled, avoiding having to physically separate them.

Ellen says:
10 May 2011

Totally Agree!

I logged onto this page to complain about the same thing. My kids are always pestering me for Pringles, which I won’t buy because they come in a completely non recyclable container. I can’t get that metal disc off the bottom for love or money. Plenty of other foods come in cardboard cylinders with cardboard bottoms, like Hob Nobs. There is no reason why the bottom disc shouldn’t be cardboard. For such a big company, at this point, continuing to sell them in non recyclable containers is past irresponsible.

Andrew says:
26 April 2011

With 40 years experience of the packaging industry I have sympathy with the overpackaging view but do see things for the other side.

The consumer usually gets the packaging they demand. Nothing stale or broken. Long shelf life. The consumer doesn’t go shopping everyday as they did 50 years ago. We want exotic products from around the world 365 days of the year. All of these demands create technical demands on the the packaging and in some cases apparent overpackaging.

Some packs appear to be two thirds full. This is settlement as the product is packed at high speed, and this introduces air to the mix. Make the pack with no headroom and it will be cheaper packing and less of it but at a much higher price as the labour intensity of making that form of pack.

One single type of plastic is not viable as it would have to be the best performing material, a catch all material that would cost a lot and be the least recyclable of all specifications due to its construction.

If only it was as simplistic as “let’s have one material”. Paper bags at the Home and Colonial are days long gone!

Erik99 says:
27 April 2011

In fairness to the manufacturers, items like the printer cartridge and Dr Who screwdriver featured at the head of the article have a relatively high value-to-volume factor, and as such would be much more easily pocketable if supplied in minimum packaging. In these cases surely a certain amount of extra material to act as a deterrent to shoplifting is excusable, isn’t it?

Big Al says:
29 April 2011

As a packaging developer myself I sometimes pull my hair out at some of the packs I see on supermarket shelves. Today I purchased some Tesco Finest Italian Gianduiotti chocolates to share with colleagues on my birthday next week, imagine my surprise when I got them home and was putting them in my work bag to discover that there was only about 15 individually wrapped chocolates and that the bag could quite easily hold a lot more especially if the air inflating the bag was either removed or reduced.
From 29 years of experience in packaging I can tell you that whoever designed this pack knew very little about sizing packs for products. I suspect that the co-packer gave Tesco a bag size and said “fit your product in this standard bag”.
I would argue that this pack is either underfilled to meet a price point or grossly oversized a point I would argue with anyone from Tesco and win.

In the June edition of which there is a letter (page 81) by Alice Lawhead regarding M&S and some boxes she collected from the back of store for her sons move. Her comment was that the strength of boxes was out of proportion to the contents. I think this comment typifies the lack of understanding by the consumer of why that box appears to be so strong. The boxes contained meringues and tea cakes, both of which would be easily damaged in transit. Those boxes would have not been transported individually but palletised, so the box at the bottom of the pallet may easily have had over 100Kgs on top of it and had to endure the stresses of being transported by truck. The manufacturer will have had to use a certain specification of board grade to allow the products to survive without any damage, as that would not be tolerated by the consumer or M&S.

I have worked in packaging development for over 20 years mainly in the food industry. The whole over packaging debate over food seriously annoys me as a lot of day to day items are effectively packaged, and I think that the packaging industry trade bodies are doing a seriously bad job at representing the way some packaging is how it is and the benefits it actually brings to the consumer and the effect it has on reducing food waste.

tricia m says:
24 November 2011

some of the overpackaging is related to “offers”, such as cardboard sleeve for three tins of sweetcorn or a plastic cover for four cans of baked beans. If the consumer rejects the overpackaging, then they pay more for the product. Whilst it may be sensible to have containment packages for 12 packs of beer for transportation, up to four cans of something can easily be packed with the normal shopping and the supermarket could give the discount for bulk buy at the till. In fact, they could have a sliding scale of discounts to suit purchasers of different quantities.

What really gets to me is the large number of M&S products that are packed in bags or boxes with the label ‘Not currently recyclable’. Why on earth don’t they choose wrappings (plastics or otherwise) that are recyclable! Our kerbside collection takes paper, cardboard, clean plastics such as yogurt cartons, milk & juice bottles, etc. It’s really annoying to have to send perfectly good wrappings to landfill. Why do M&S insist in using expanded polystyrene and other non-recyclable for their ‘perfectly ripe’ pears, for instance? You don’t appear to be able to buy these items loose, so I’m happy to take them packed in 4s as they are, at least, edible!

Erik99 says:
25 November 2011

Not strictly about supermarket packaging, but packaging of products sold in supermarkets. There is an increasing trend for instant coffee to be sold in refill packs, one of which claims it only uses 3% of the plastic that would be used even in the lid of a regular jar. So there is economy for the manufacturers not only in paying for less packaging, but also the saving on transport costs for plastic bags of coffee that weigh only a quarter of the equivalent jars. This is all very good, of course, BUT why don’t these economies get passed on passed on to the consumer? The refill packs are invariably dearer per 100g than the jars, which suggests quite strongly that manufacturers are relying on consumers to be “eco-friendly”, and then making them pay over the odds for their principles – and that’s pretty cynical in my book.

Andrew Rogers says:
25 November 2011

Refill versus Jar and lid. Less materials by weight but what about the energy required to make the pack and then you find that the refill pack is not recyclable unlike the jar and lid.

Erik99 says:
25 November 2011

What about the energy required to make the jar and lid (and the cardboard liner in the lid, and the paper label) and subsequently to recycle them? And what about the energy required to transport all those containers, three times the weight of the coffee inside them? Plus, even if people bother to recycle the jar, my council won’t accept plastic lids, only plastic bottles – so that far more plastic goes to landfill than if it was a plastic bag. And why, I repeat, do the manufacturers charge more for a product that must cost far less to transport, and almost certainly less to make? Because people see the tag “eco-friendly” and believe it!

All the refill coffee packs I have seen say they are recyclable so we put them in the recycling bin. We also put all other types of plastic in the recycling bin disregarding the council’s ridiculous instructions. I am sure somebody somewhere can do something with lids and bottle tops, even if only to shred or fragmentise them and reuse the waste material as packaging or filler.

In theory all plastics are recylable, but with these type of pouches they are complex laminates of different materials that need to be seperated to be recycled as individual materials, unless they are going to be made into fence posts!
It can be more energy intensive to seperate these materials.

With regards to putting plastics in your council does not recycle you could well be doing more harm to the recycling streams than good as you are introducing foreign materials to the stream.

John Ward –
Who are the “WE” in the ” We also put all other types of plastic in the recycling bin disregarding the council’s ridiculous instructions.” The instructions are there to be followed not disregarded. The costs of sorting them out at the other end are taken out of council tax – so disregarding instructions costs your neighbours money – not very neighbourly in any way. Why don’t you volunteer to “something with lids and bottle tops” – like taking them off bottles yourself??,

Andrew says:
25 November 2011

I am in agreement and in favour of more recycling, composting and light weighting packaging, using fewer natural non-replaceable resources. We must not get fogged by the PR and forget the facts that is all. Look deeper. The price – marketing yes but again is the pack and manufacturing and packing process cheaper – it may be more eco friendly but that does not make it cheaper.

Why are 500g of Battered or Breaded Fish steaks Boxes so big they could easily put in 750g or reduce the box size it wastes Freezer space in shop and home Freezers it would make sense to put in
750g in current 500g boxes and sell 500g in smaller boxes simples!.