Pack up your troubles

Penny Kemp
  • words Penny Kemp

An Early Day Motion in the House of Commons on excess packaging noted that manufacturers produce over 4.6 million tonnes of unecessary household waste every year costing the consumer over 17% of the household food budget.

Consumer pressure can really make a difference and you, the consumer have ensured that Government gets the message. Traditionally, Minister’s are slow to react, but when Ben Bradshaw told us to take direct action to force the pace of change on packaging, many took him at his word.

Supermarkets are now vying with each other to see who is the greenest and sturdy, re-usable bags are for sale at the checkout. We are slowly making progress.

This week British chocolate manufacturer Cadbury announced that it is eliminating some of its trademark purple packaging and launching Eco-Easter eggs. Gone will be the large cardboard boxes and in place will be foil wrapped eggs as part of Cadbury's Purple goes Green' environmental strategy. According to Recycling and Waste Management News, the switch will enable Cadbury to 'use 75% less plastic and 65% less cardboard than previously used in standard eggs.'

The famous tax on plastic shopping bags in the Republic of Ireland has cut their use by more than 90% and raised millions of euros in revenue. Around 10 billion plastic bags are given away at supermarket checkouts each year in Britain, each bag having a lifespan of up to 400 years and costing the stores an estimated £1bn. Most of them end up in a landfill site or strewn across the countryside causing a hazard to wildlife as well as being a blight on the landscape.

Environmental champion Rebecca Hoskins has persuaded traders in Modbury, to consign plastic bags to the bin. Rebecca, a wildlife photographer from the small town in Devon, set up the scheme after witnessing the devastation wrought on animals by discarded plastic.

On 1st May 2007, the 43 shopkeepers in the town agreed to wrap their wares in environmentally friendly bags. Corn starch paper is used to wrap meat and olives and other retailers offer cloth bags. We have our own paper carrier bag champion in Headcorn. Lady Mop, the clothes shop in the High Street has switched from plastic bags to elegant paper carrier bags.

In 2007, Green England started a petition for a 10p tax in the UK on plastic bags. They point to the example in Ireland and Bangladesh where plastic bags are banned. In less than two months, they gained over 10,000 signatures and you can add your name to the petition. See

However, we still have a long way to go. At present over a third of the rubbish we consign to the dustbin is packaging waste. We still find green beans on plastic trays, cucumbers in tight fitting plastic jackets, mushrooms in oversized plastic containers. Why are oranges in plastic netting? I went to a local supermarket today and found four apples in a plastic tray, a sweetener in a plastic container, re-wrapped in plastic and cardboard, pizza's wrapped in plastic mounted on Styrofoam and then placed in a cardboard box, four tins of tomatoes in a cardboard sleeve all totally unnecessary packaging.

Not only is this an environmental cost, it is an economic cost as well. We spend around £470 a year on packaging that we consign to the bin. The Local Government Association has said that Council taxpayers could face fines of up to £3 billion if we fail to cut the amount of waste thrown into landfill. Our own Kent County Councillor, Lord Bruce-Lockhart warned that at the present rate of dumping, landfill space would run out in under nine years. Consumers are paying three times over for excess packaging.

MP Jo Swinson who championed an Excess Packaging Bill that sadly ran out of time at the last parliamentary session said, “We pay the cost of the packaging at the checkout, we pay increased council taxes and landfill taxes, and we will all pay the environmental cost of more waste going to landfill for years to come."

What can we do as consumers? We can remember the three 'R's' –Reduce, Re-use and Recycle. We can reduce the amount of packaging we buy and we can take direct action and give packaging back at the checkout. We can re-use and refill containers. At Headcorn Farmers’ Market on the 2nd Saturday of the month, customers can refill their washing-up, laundry liquid, fabric softener and multi-surface cleaner bottles with environmentally friendly cleaners. We can lobby our Councillors and MPs about better recycling facilities. Consumer pressure is very powerful and if enough of us say no to excess packaging, manufacturers will listen. Every purchase we make has a direct or indirect effect on the environment. We can chose where and what to buy and equally importantly where and what not to buy. And in doing so, we help to change the world for the better.

Penny Kemp is a broadcaster and writer and runs The Headcorn Sustainability Group and is currently working on making Headcorn and the surrounding area a low carbon community.