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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/

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.

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.

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 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?