/ Home & Energy, Shopping

Is excess packaging out of control?

Alice Judd in a box

Recently, I ordered two tubes of cat treats and two fairly modest cat toys. It arrived in a box I could sit in with enough plastic padding to make a polar bear weep. Has the world gone mad with excess packaging?

As comic as this picture may be, excess packaging is a major problem. It uses energy and natural resources to produce and once we’ve got it, it can be very hard to get rid of.

Sure, I can recycle my giant box (not that that’s much comfort to the trees it took to make it) but we could be stuck with that plastic padding for several hundred years.

I’m not alone in worrying about this. When we asked Which? members to send photos of things they thought were over-packaged we got images of everything from flowers to print cartridges.

We’ve embedded a gallery of the photos we’ve been sent so far and if you have any examples please send them to helpwanted@which.co.uk and put ‘excess packaging’ as the title. We’ll continue to publish the worst ones.

Who do you think is responsible for excess packaging? Shops or manufacturers? Do you think excessive packaging misleads us about the size of certain products?

Sheila Wilson says:
10 September 2010

Well, it is obvious why they sent the big box-it is for your cat to play in with the toys!
When my cat receives her jars of cat treats via the internet, she is always disappointed that the box is too small for her to sit and play in!
I agree though that all that plastic packaging is completely unacceptable.

Yes, a cat’s love for the box is best illustrated by Simon’s Cat –

Sophie Gilbert says:
10 September 2010

The photo is the best illustration of overpackaging I have ever seen. Well done! And like Musset said, “lorsque l’on vient d’en rire il faudrait en pleurer.” When you have just laughed about it, you should cry about it.

And do something. Whoever is responsible should be tackled about this misleading practice. My guess is that manufacturers are more responsible than anyone else.

I once received a RAM memory chip in a similar sized box from CPC Farnell at work (NHS)

Not only that – but NHS stores took all the packaging out to check it and then the anti-static envelope too.

I got a tiny static sensitive RAM stick rattling around in the box.
It actually worked too!

Totally agree with everything above. The only plus, for me, is that bubble wrap is expensive to buy and I’m quite pleased when someone sends me lots of it ready for Christmas and birthdays. Plastic chips also come in handy for the lucky dip stall but there are substitutes that are less wasteful.

Sheila Wilson says:
12 September 2010

I love the Simon’s Cat in ‘The Box’ cartoon! It is so lifelike and funny. I have saved it as a Youtube favourite and will definitely show it to my cat 🙂

Just been reading about how Sainsbury’s is facing court action due to over-packaging on a joint of beef. Not only is it vacuum-packed, it also has a plastic tray, lid and printed cardboard sleeve! Will be interesting to see the outcome as Sainsbury’s is insisting it has set an ‘industry-leading target’ to cut packaging by a third by 2015.
While it’s really important that retailers make a massive effort to reduce their packaging, I also think it’s up to us to avoid over-packaging wherever we can and reduce our own waste. I’m definitely not blameless – I often find myself throwing away way too many boxes and bottles at lunchtime and feeling really guilty as I add it to the many others in the office bin. I’m making the effort to try and bring my own lunch to work a few times a week. Not only does it reduce packaging, it also saves money and is healthier. It’s just about getting into the habit.

Another funny turn of events… Sainsbury’s today announced it plans to use bags instead of boxes for its cereal (coincidence?). Kellogs have fought back saying the bags need to be thicker and are harder to recycle (how many people recycle cereal bags?) and that more waste occurs due to damage to cereal in transit. It’s an interesting one – I can see arguments for both.

Read more here: http://www.brandrepublic.com/news/1029124/kellogg-odds-sainsburys-cereal-packaging/

I recycle *everything* that’s marked as recyclable—not hard.

Em says:
26 June 2021

It’s not clever either. Manufacturers like to mark things as recyclable, because it fools the consumer into thinking they have green credentials. That does not mean your local authority’s recycling facility can handle it, or that some of the composite products made of recyclable materials are cost-effective to separate.

As a minimum, the recycling facility is delayed by inappropriate materials you put in the recycling bin, but sometimes expensive and costly equipment is damaged. Since these facilities are often run at full capacity, this means more of your waste ends up in landfill.

Spent uranium rods are recyclable, but I wouldn’t put them in the bin.

It would be a great help if councils standardised on what materials can be put in recycling bins, which would help to avoid mistakes. After moving ten miles I had to learn which plastic items could be put in the blue bin, provided by a different council. I’m going to visit my family soon and must remember than glass bottles must not be put in the recycling bin but taken to a nearby bottle bank.

Black plastic trays can cause problems for sorting machinery. These are being phased out, albeit at a leisurely pace.

Em says:
26 June 2021

It would have helped a lot more if UK local authorities had not adopted the commingled recycling model – i.e. all the waste streams are mixed together in a single blue bin. This leads to higher separation costs and energy, lower value recyclate materials once recovered and more waste contamination – let alone greater confusion for the consumer.

Whilst it might not be practical for every household to separate all their rubbish, there are plenty of apartments in areas of high population density, where communal recycling bins would not need all the complexities of MRF equipment to sort it all out again.

If we had all agreed and understood up front that paper, glass and metal are the three main materials worth recovering and we should keep them separate, we could stop the pretence that it is OK to add random bits of plastic with different chemical and physical properties for packaging, because they are “recyclable” in some utopian fantasy of the marketing manager’s (and environmentalist’s) imagination.

I thought it was ridiculous to put all recyclable materials in a single bin to start with, for the reasons you have given, but having paid attention to what some people put in recycling bins I suspect that it might be the only practical approach.

Claims that plastics are 100% recyclable are very misleading because contamination and reduction in the chain length of constituent polymers can result in a considerable loss of quality.

I believe we need to specify (with options if practical) instructions concerning acceptable packaging materials for particular purposes.

Hannah — I have always put cereal inner bags in the recycling bin. I don’t think there’s a problem with that.

I don’t understand why it took so long to change away from black plastic food trays. Maybe the recycling industry didn’t make it known that they were a nuisance and could not be recognised by the optical scanning system used for sorting things into the various waste streams. I rarely see one now so assume the changeover has happened reasonably smoothly. I can’t see why lightweight pulp trays can’t substitute for plastic for many products; they can easily be moulded to specific forms in order to provide better protection for their contents.

It’s worth looking at your council’s website or checking with the council, John. Our council’s website does not specify but since I don’t buy cereal with a box and a plastic bag I have not investigated.

Em has made the point that it’s important to follow the guidance, which can differ between councils. I have been asked by our ‘blue bin men’ to stick to the published list and put the rest in the bin for non-recyclables.

Thanks, Wavechange. When I last looked on the council website there was no mention of cereal inner bags so I assumed that they would have said so if they were not suitable.

I had assumed the same but was politely reprimanded by the blue bin men, John. That was a few years but I learned that the item (e.g. bag or container) mattress and it’s not just the type of plastic.

Our Council website does not mention inner bags but says ‘if in doubt, leave it out’. Waitrose states that their muesli bags are not recyclable and the Tesco muesli bags now indicate that they can be recycled at large supermarkets with carrier bags.

After about 35 years of blundering along we need the government to require councils to standardise recycling facilities and their messages about what can be recycled. I believe that scientific advisors should work out the most satisfactory materials for packaging in consultation with manufacturers. Then the poor consumers might understand what to do with their waste.

I think you meant “refuse operatives”, wavechange. Which is what they can do if you put the wrong stuff in your bin – or refuse receptacle.

We need a nationwide network of common recycling plants, that are used by all councils, with facilities to sort and recycle what they are presented with. A common collection system is also needed. What we cannot expect is people to sort out their own rubbish in detail. We should expect them to separate plastic, metal and glass though. Otherwise there is really no hope for the human race.

I don’t see who other than the government can standardise facilities and collection, otherwise it would have happened by now.

I’ve referred to ‘blue bin men’ for as long as I have had a recycling bin, Malcolm. Not to their face, of course.

Would that be blue-bin men or blue bin-men? Mine are green.

Em says:
27 June 2021

One suggestion I made to WSCC (which has never been adopted) is to stick a label on the top of the recycling bin to remind householders exactly what can and cannot be recycled. The sticker could be replaced from time-to-time with the latest position, rather than publishing “we now accept yogurt pots” on some obscure website that no one reads and some won’t have the technology to access.

Em says:
27 June 2021

The Ford (WSCC) MRF manager tells of one “green” but obstinate resident, who decided he knew better than the council guidelines and decided to recycle his metal garden shears with the household waste. The shears became trapped in the machinery and ripped an entire conveyor belt to shreads.

Presumably the conveyor belt went to landfill, along with the garden shears.

Em says:
27 June 2021

@Wavechange … the item (e.g. bag or container) mattress …

I’ve had trouble fitting my old mattress into the recycling bin. It behaves like a Jack-in-the-Box. The lid flies open and all the old cans and bottles are thrown out. 🙂

It was an ‘ought to correct error’ Em.

Maurice – I have a small green bin for non-recyclable waste but sadly no little green men to empty it.

Em, shear vandalism. Have you tried wrapping your mattress around the outside of the bin?

Em says:
28 June 2021

Maybe we should read Which?


Should we assume that the 17% of Which? members who are unaccounted for are responsible for the increase in fly-tipping?

We must be careful about reducing packaging. I am old enough to remember the wholesale removal of goods from store shelves because of tampering claims (e.g. cyanide in Mars bars, glass in baby food). Most of these were extortion attempts but some were protests against the company concerned. As a result tamper-proof packaging was introduced. With the number of people who now want to do serious harm to other nationalities extortion is not likely to be the main problem should we remove ‘excess’ packaging and make tampering possible again.

It may be over ten years since you posted, JRH, but you have made a good point. Furthermore, modern packaging can considerably prolong the life of meat and other foods, reducing waste. Packaging is certainly not a simple issue.

Franklin Roberts says:
5 October 2010

Oops! I just received the new addition of The Good Food Guide in a parcel that was almost twice the size of the Guide. You might want to have a look in your own back yard??

Sheila Lendrum says:
27 October 2010

Have you noticed the size of the plastic containers for food supplements such as vitamins, cod liver oil pills, etc etc ? They certainly are deceptive. Sometimes the contents only just fill the bottom of the container.

Is the problem with vitamin pills not the fact the container has to be a certain size to fit a label that must carry certain information in a particular size typeface so it can be read easily?

Hi Sheila – I wonder also about vitamin pills etc, given that most vitamin dosages are in millegrams and micrograms (I think), perhaps the pills themselves are bulked up to make them look better value/more healthy?

I’m not too sure though.

Sheila Lendrum says:
17 November 2010

You may be right about bulking up the pills. They have to be big enough to find in those vast containers!

It is standard practice for vitamins and other pills to contain fillers in addition to the active ingredient(s). It would not be practical to do anything else considering the tiny amounts involved.

Anyone eating a healthy diet does not need vitamin pills unless recommended by a doctor.

Larry Rees says:
14 November 2010

I have to take an iron supplements everyday. My wife gets them form either boots or tesco. We’ve just done a test as we are so appalled by the lack of contents in each. The Boots bottle holds 6 times the standard quantity in one pack and the Tesco bottle holds 4 times the standard quantity. I really think this is outrageous and they shouuld be stopped from this blatant wastefulness. I would also comment that neither company has a larger version so I go through 2 to 3 bottles a month!

I just received one – ONE – product from Benefit cosmetics (packed and sent by Amazon). The product is circular, about 2 inches diameter. The box is about 10 x 12 inches at least! I’m going to write to Benefit and see what they say. Ridiculous! A jiffy bag would suffice.

I agree the box sounds excessive, but how would you have reacted if your product had been damaged in transit in a Jiffy bag? They don’t really afford that much protection.

Gretal says:
1 June 2011

I have recently purchased a 50ml pot of Nivea Visage Q10plus Anti-Wrinkle Day Cream. The actual pot is 4.5 cm tall, but the carton it is packed in is 9cm tall and contains a sort of pop-up retainer which is integral to the box. Heaven only know how much this clever little box takes to manufacture – why oh why not just put the pot in a carton the right size?

Aldi’s Mini Chinois brioches are excessively packed.

Each brioche is individually wrapped. Then all of them are in a plastic tray, surrounded by an external airtight plastic bag.

It would be enough just to have the external packaging; other Aldi bakery products are singly-packed and their quality remains unaffected.

What do you suggest can be done about this?

For goods delivered in the post or by courier, the extra packing is to protect the items. Have you ever seen how some couriers handle packages, throwing them about carelessly? I have.

Yes, many online sellers take no account of this at all, using a simple plastic bag on a hardback book, for instance. On the other hand, packaging that is strong or resilient enough in the right places can be quite compact if used sensibly.

It is also more conducive to having a second life. I am disappointed to have to discard the boxes currently used by Amazon for their deliveries; after they have been through the despatch and delivery process they have almost come apart with only the sealing tape left in place. They are not even any use for storage purposes and have no strength for stacking.

Cardboard boxes used to be very handy for storage and could be rue recycled easily when they got tatty or were no long needed. Now that many boxes are designed to be easy to open they cannot easily be reused and now we just buy plastic storage boxes. 🙁

John Lewis boxes are also a problem. They are very sturdy but have a tear-open strip down the middle of the top. They also have a complicated interior arrangement of cardboard flaps that are kept in place with industrial strength adhesive and effectively prevent re-use of the box for storage or for sending a parcel. I don’t know why they can’t just seal a conventional type of box with tape; three quick cuts with a craft knife is then all that is required to open it.

I actually bought a number of new cardboard boxes from a box manufacturer to provide economical storage. They are in a modular range of sizes so are a good solution. Plastic tubs never seem to be the right size or they taper so things don’t fit inside them properly.

I do not know if I am going a bit ‘off piste’ with this topic, but here goes. Blister packs! Particularly those used for DIY stuff. It seems to me that you really need to use extreme force with something like a Samurai Sword to access the contents. I wonder how many people find themselves in A&E after unsuccessfully attempting to open and destroying the contents in the process. My next gripe is the packaging for B & Q interior door handles. At first, the pack seems quite simple. At first that is, and the further you get into it the more challenging it becomes. The handles are actually riveted to the heavy duty cardboard inside the box which have to be released individually with the precision and dexterity of a Da Vincy Robot. I reckon it takes 4 times as long to get the handles out the box than fit the handles!

I don’t know if you are still doing anything on excess packaging… but I recently bought a pack of Marks & Spencer hankies (cute white blue and pink) and was astonished at the packaging.

Cardboard on the outside, cellophane, thick paper inside every tightly rolled hankie and a little bit of sticky tape to keep each hankie rolled.

Almost half the total weight and bulk was packaging

Cara says:
24 October 2012

I belong to a group in North London called Muswell Hill Sustainability Group. Over the last 3 months we’ve been running a petition against excess packaging. We have over 700 signatures and we were surprised by the strength of feeling amongst local shoppers. Definitely people think this is still an issue despite some improvements by supermarkets

I see that the Muswell Hill Sustainability Group is still active, years later. There is an interesting video showing which teabags contain plastic. Other manufacturers take a more responsible approach and avoid plastic, and of course loose tea is still available.

I agree that there are what appears what is some overpackaging and see items i think are overpackaged (latest is Mr Kiplings individual cakes. Is there any need really?), but the packaging industry has done a very poor job in promoting itself, it has never come forward to defend the claims about overpackaging.

The general consumer does not have a clue the benefits that packaging brings, and just rattle on about the fact there is too much, and have no idea that packaging might have to be bigger becuase the contents might vary in size or settle in transit. When you complain about the plastic tray you meat comes in with a plastic film over the top, do you realise that the packaging extends the shelf life considerably?