Sunday, 9 May 2010

Food for Thought

Last night while I was watching T.V. – or rather skipping up and down the channels trying to convince myself that at least something was worth watching (it wasn’t) – I came across a new advert for Kenco coffee.

‘We tried 100% less,’ the crooning voice of Joanna Lumley says, to the accompaniment of pictures of people walking around trying to carry coffee granules in their hands, their bags, their bras.

‘But in the end we settled for 97% less.’

97% less. That’s not bad, now, is it? And how have they done this? With the new ‘eco-refill’ of course. Yes, I now have the option of buying my coffee in a re-sealable plastic pouch instead of a glass jar. So this is a good thing, right? Of course it’s a good thing; thinking carefully about and reducing packaging is always a good thing.

But there’s a catch. There’s always a catch. The type of plastic this pouch is made from isn’t currently recyclable in the UK.

Defining waste reduction
Waste is measured in tonnage, so when it comes to rethinking packaging many companies focus purely on this aspect, the weight. And the problem with this is that plastic is almost always lighter than any other form of packaging material, which is one of the reasons why so much of our food is packaged in plastic today. But of course this fails to account for the fact that plastic is much, much harder to get rid of than most other forms of packaging. In which case, how helpful is this singular approach?

The Waste and Resources Action Programme, ‘WRAP’, launched phase 1 of the Courtauld Commitment in 2005, ‘looking at new solutions and technologies so that less food, products and packaging ends up as household waste’. They’ve made a lot of progress, which anyone can read about on their website in this series of case studies. Retailers are making boxes and bottles smaller, reducing the thickness of glass, film and aluminium, switching from bottles to bags and plastic trays to film. And reducing packaging in this way has other environmental benefits too: making the packaging uses less energy and fewer resources, plus less carbon emissions when delivering the finished products to the stores.

But then there’s the plastic issue. Does swapping from a glass bottle that can be recycled anywhere in the country, to a plastic bottle that can’t be recycled reduce waste? Working on the basis that everyone does recycle everything they can - ok, I know I’m dreaming here and it’s not the case, but it should be the end plan, shouldn’t it? Well, working on the basis that maybe, one day, this will be the case – the glass bottle won’t be waste because it’ll be recycled, but the plastic jar or pouch will be, because it’s much harder to recycle.

Thumbs up
I give my thumbs up to Quality Street. First, they reduced the size of their tins enough to save 237 tonnes of steel a year. And then they made the individual sweet wrapper compostable. Genius! And it's good for me because now I can go out and buy some Quality Street. Yummy!

Thumbs up too to Jacob’s cheese biscuits. They’ve switched from a non-recyclable plastic tub to a 100% recyclable cardboard box for their big selection pack, replaced the inner tray with one that is recyclable, and introduced non polycoated cardboard for other products in the range.

Celebrations, though, I’m not so sure about. They’ve switched from a tin to a plastic tub for their chocolates. Ok, they’ve rather cleverly made the tub dishwasher, microwave, and freezer proof, but still at the end of its life it’ll wind up in the landfill rather than going to a scrap metal agent. And, while they’ve reduced their transport packaging by 87% by replacing corrugated card with shrink wrap, the shrink wrap can’t be reused or recycled after use.

The counter argument

Kenco supports its eco-refill pouch by reminding it’s users that the lid on the old glass jars couldn’t be widely recycled either - the new packaging weighs less than the former lid did, so the eco-refill does mean less waste going to landfill. Secondly, they remind us that 40% of glass doesn’t get recycled anyway. And third, Kenco has partnered with a company that can recycle the pouches – send them three or more empty pouches and they’ll make a stunning, Kenco incorporated notebook, pencil case or umbrella for you.

So they have thought it all through quite carefully. But I wonder what the other options are? Creating a lightweight lid for the jar that can be recycled? Reducing the thickness of the jar to reduce its weight, like the Co-operative have with their own-brand ales and spirits? I wonder how many people are going to save up their refill pouches and post them off? How many are going to want a Kenco-branded umbrella or two?

Food for thought
Maybe I’m a cynic. Ok, I am a cynic. But I will re-iterate my earlier statement: reducing packaging is a good thing, and should always be a good thing. But maybe there are good ways and not-so-good ways to go about it. Balance is a word that comes to mind - but is it right to settle for the lesser evil? Why not go for perfect first time out? Maybe when it comes to packaging there is no such thing as perfect.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Isabel! I always think of you, every time I look at a piece of plastic. What a legacy! Great post by the way - I saw that Kenco ad. It's so brilliant to have you doing the homework! I am so buying Quality Street and not Celebrations! Thanks for all your hard work. I am sure this will go somewhere.

    I can't remember if I managed to reply to your sweet card, but if not - sorry - I've been chucked out of the learning space and don't have email access any more. You have my lessangermoresmile address, don't you? One of these days perhaps we'll see each other again! Take care. Kelly x