/ Home & Energy, Shopping, Sustainability

24 boxes for 24 items… over-packaging has gone over-the-top


What would you expect to be delivered in 24 separate boxes? A new kitchen? What about a new dinner set? Ex Which? Convo editor Hannah Jolliffe returns as our guest to debate over-packaging.

Believe it or not, Tesco recently packaged an order for a 24-piece dinner set into 24 separate boxes. And as if that isn’t ridiculous enough, each individual box was then packed inside a bigger box.

Joanne Murphy was the ‘lucky’ Tesco customer, who told The Telegraph:

‘After everything was unwrapped we couldn’t even see the floor. Then when we actually opened them there was masses of paper. I know they need to be protected to avoid breaking, but the ironic thing is that despite all the packaging, they still managed to break five items.’

Needless to say, Tesco has responded to say that the delivery was a one-off mistake. Maybe so, but we’ve seen enough examples of excess packaging in recent years to know that this isn’t an isolated incident.

Excess packaging is an ongoing problem

OK, it’s unusual for so many boxes to arrive, but smaller orders are routinely packaged in boxes that are way too big and then require masses of plastic and paper to pad them out to prevent breakages. Putting the issue of shameful waste aside for a moment, surely it’s safer to pack items more tightly in a box to prevent them from jigging around in transit?

We highlighted the problem of excess packaging back in 2010 (when I used to work at Which?). With lots of input from our readers we put together a gallery of photos of over-packaged goods. The results were comical – they ranged from a tiny battery in a box big enough for a printer, to an unbreakable eyeliner and concealer surrounded in enough bubble wrap to protect the entire contents of my mug cupboard.

That was five years ago and I know for a fact this problem isn’t going away. Just last week I got very excited when a huge box arrived wrapped with Carluccio’s tape. What could it possibly be – an early Christmas present? Sadly, no. It was a free gift I was entitled to from a magazine subscription – a bottle of balsamic vinegar! My children spent the next 30 minutes popping the six sheets of totally unnecessary bubble wrap it came in.

Seriously bad for the planet

It’s easy to see the funny side of these examples, but the environmental implications make this a serious issue, too. UK figures are hard to find, but according to the Environmental Protection Agency (PDF), containers and packaging accounted for 30% – or 75.2m tons – of total solid waste generated in the US in 2012. And Stanford University says we discard our own weight in packaging every 30-40 days, on average.

Some are taking strides to change the tide – from biodegradable packaging to reducing unnecessary items such as printed manuals. There are many great examples of other companies addressing everyday packaging problems, too.

But as Black Friday arrives tomorrow and Christmas follows not too far behind, this should be an issue that’s at the forefront of our minds. How can our goods be packaged more responsibly and what schemes can be put in place to better reuse and recycle the bits that get chucked out?

This is a guest post by Hannah Jolliffe, freelance editor and ex-editor of Which? Conversation. All opinions are Hannah’s own, not necessarily those of Which?


I presume the reason for all the boxes is that the manufacturer supplies the items individually as well as in sets. Until there is legislation to control use of packaging, I don’t expect we will see much change.

A couple of years ago I ordered a fairly small item costing around £50. It was already well protected in a strong blister pack, yet the supplier had put it in an enormous box of crumpled paper. Thankfully not everything is packed in this way or we would need more delivery vans on our roads.

Hi Hannah – It’s good to see you back after a long absence.

Nice of you to pay us a visit, Hannah. As you will see, some of us are still here . . . still mardling on on the same old topics.

While the example you described was excessive, inadequate packaging is my bugbear. We ordered some china from House of Fraser and although it was wrapped in tissue and bubblewrap, the outer carton was so flimsy and poorly taped up that it had split its sides [not laughing] and half the contents were broken. Boots also used such flimsy cardboard boxes that they broke and items were often missing so we stopped buying from them. At least Amazon get the packaging right every time – nothing has ever been damaged or lost in an Amazon delivery irrespective of the carrier used.

The question of the small item in a big box has to do with the logistics industry. In the rough and tumble of the transfer of goods from warehouse to distribution hub to trucks to another hub and then into vans, little packages could easily disappear or get trapped between bigger consignments and go to the wrong place. Preventing pilferage is the other issue: it’s harder to conceal a big box.

Hardly any packaging materials go to waste in our house. All boxes are kept and reused for a multitude of purposes and it’s always handy to have some bubble-wrap or crumpled paper to protect things sent or taken to friends or relatives. The only stuff I can’t be bothered with are those cavity-filling foam pellets and pre-formed polystyrene casings to protect electrical goods [but they are increasingly giving way to soft-pressed pulp moulds that can at least be recycled].

The mechanical handling of goods by the carriers does lead to a huge amount of tumbling and compression so (a) the outer carton needs to be strong enough to take the pressure, and (b) the product needs to be separated from the sidewalls of the box by loose material but also held firmly in place in the middle of the packaging – quite difficult to achieve in practice.

[I had to interrupt this comment to take in a book from Amazon; perfectly packaged as usual. It was brought to me by the Royal Mail who had deployed two men in a small van to ensure its safe handling.]

Foam pellets are very useful for stuffing bean bags or sagging pouffes.

Glad your book arrived safely.

Thanks Alfa, I hadn’t thought of that. There actually is a bean bag in the house – more of a has-been bag in truth – so the next time we get a box full of pellets we can top it up.

Slightly off topic but Ocado excelled themselves today. One 5p bag for a tub of ice-cream, another for four spuds and another for a box of chocolates. Bottles are sent in handy cardboard carriers so there’s no need to then put them in bags, but they do. I got 10 bags for 27 items, when three would have been plenty.

I’ve no problem with paying for carrier bags but there are limits.

At least they will pay you 5p a bag if you return them for recycling.

Ocado go from one extreme to the other. Sometimes there is one item in a bag, other times they are full up with easily squashed items at the bottom that you then have to get a refund for. It is no fun when the broken item is liquid !!!!

Nice to hear from you, Hannah.

Over packaging is one problem, and not being able to recycle it is another. Like John Ward I reuse as much packaging as I can, but there are limits to how much I can store. Here in Edinburgh there is no facility that I know of to recycle bubble wrap or any other type of plastic packaging, eg punnets, except plastic bottles.

What about polystyrene? The recycling bins don’t take that either. And I have never been able to reuse it as what I have come across so far has always been shaped specifically for the items that came in it. Cutting it to shape is rather hopeless as we all know, thanks to tiny bits and static electricity.

A bit off topic but related, so I hope it’s OK.

Polystyrene? Must depend where you live. Our local tip makes you separate it out and at work we have a separate skip for polystyrene emptied by the council.

A few uses I have found for polystyrene… Standing plantpots on outside, breaking up for sagging beanbags, standing tools on in the shed to stop them going rusty on the concrete base.

As it is made up of small balls squashed together, you would think it could easily be dismantled and reformed to create new packaging. Maybe this happens already as some councils collect it.

PS: Shouldn’t manufacturers be made responsible for recycling or disposing of any packaging material they sell? It seems they are in Germany. It could help somewhat.

Hi Sophie, that’s an interesting suggestion. Like Wavechange said, there’s already a requirement for retailers to assist with the disposal of waste electronics (European WEEE Directive). I’d love to see a facility to return packaging to the retailer to recycle – surely that would be in their favour too as they’d be able to cut back on costs by reusing all this bubble wrap and polystyrene.

Lauren, our local authority, like many, gives us containers to separate most packaging for collection and recycling – cardboard, plastics for example. If there is too much then we take them to our recycling centre. I have not tried taking them back to the retailer but I imagine most would be prepared to accept them, just as they do appropriate WEEE. However, what would that cost in fuel alone?

You think recycling packaging is a problem for domestic packs? When in industry we supplied many items that needed protection in transit, .in relatively expensive triwall cardboard boxes and fittings – several ££s each. Often supplied in moderate or medium batches on a delivery – up to 100. We would have loved to have had the boxes returned for reuse, and even offered to pay for them. One problem was collecting them together from the different areas they had been used, the other was the transport costs involved. But on the face of it a great waste – the recycling money for the cardboard was far less than its value as a made-up carton.

Retailers were given the responsibility of taking back electrical appliances but that seems to have been forgotten about. Occasionally there is some notice that arrangements have been made with council recycling sites to handle these goods.

I suspect that over-packaging is now used as an excuse for carriers not being careful with parcels. There are plenty of accounts of the way they are thrown around.

There are legal obligations placed on retailers to assist in the disposal of waste electrical and electronic equipment. They must either have an in-store take back scheme; when a new version of electrical equipment is sold they must accept the old one for disposal. Alternatively the can pay into a collective scheme where a central site – like a local authority waste centre – accepts the goods that you take there. Details at gov.uk/electricalwaste-producer-supplier-responsibilities/take-back-waste-in-store.

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duncan, my comment meant to say that the retailers can pay to join a collective scheme that takes in their WEEE for them. You and I don’t pay. As you rightly point out the collection of waste from your home can be done by councils if you pay them to cover the transport cost.

If you unpack a television bought from Amazon you are stuck with the packaging. If you buy it from a John Lewis store they will deliver it on a day of your choice, unpack it and put it where you want it, and take away all the waste.

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Flyfish1994-sedge says:
27 January 2020

How can I go online to shame companies that uses excessive and ridiculous packaging?