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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 12 June 2007

[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]

Packaging Manufacturing Industry

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Huw Irranca-Davies.]

9.30 am

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): It is a pleasure to introduce this debate. First, I declare an interest as chairman of the all-party packaging manufacturing industry group, and express my thanks to the industry for some of the information that it has provided for this debate, not least the document, “Packaging’s place in society”. I have a number of copies, and if any hon. Member would like one, I would be only too happy to provide it, hopefully before the end of the debate.

I and several of my colleagues applied for this debate because of the bad press that packaging has received during the past year or so. In November 2006, The Guardian had an article on excess packaging, and in January this year, The Independent ran a series of front-page articles for a week condemning the mountain of waste, and also referred to excess packaging. As recently as yesterday, The Guardian ran an article headed “What a load of rubbish”. I want to bring some balance into the debate and to counter the allegation of excess packaging.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is gracious, as always, to give way so early in his speech. I congratulate him on securing this important debate. The subject concerns all our constituents, and we receive many letters about it.

Does the hon. Gentleman marvel that the newspapers that criticise others for packaging inundate us day after day, particularly at weekends, with masses of bulk material, most of which we do not need and do not want, and they often package it themselves in inappropriate polythene wrappers?

Mr. Illsley: I was going to make that point a little later. I agree that it seems a little hypocritical when newspapers, especially at weekends, are packaged in polythene bags. That hypocrisy is one reason for this debate, because I want to introduce some balance into our view of packaging, to examine what is excessive packaging, and to see how it can be reduced.

For some people, packaging is excessive and unnecessary—that is often said of food packaging—and I shall give some examples later; but for other people, who want to shop conveniently at supermarkets and who want produce that will remain fresh for longer, packaging is essential. The question is where the balance lies between excessive and essential packaging.

There is too much ignorance about packaging. The hon. Gentleman said that a newspaper criticised the packaging industry, retailers and supermarkets for a week when it was using polythene bag packaging for its
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own product. The purpose of this debate is to reduce that ignorance, and I hope that it will be one of several as the Government develop their waste strategy, as we talk about more and more recycling, and as we tackle climate change.

The packaging industry responds to consumer demand and customers’ requirements. It is not in companies’ interests to produce excessive packaging. There is no benefit for manufacturers of glass, tin, paper, board and so on in wasting energy and resources on excessive and unwanted packaging. They provide the materials for retailers to package their products, and they respond to retailers’ orders.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that although it might not be in the interests of packaging manufacturers to produce excess packaging, it is sometimes in the interest of company marketing departments to have excessive packaging so that products take up more shelf space and are more likely to catch a consumer’s eye? That is what we must tackle, perhaps via standards throughout the industry so that no one brand is at a disadvantage. We must reduce the overall amount of packaging.

Mr. Illsley: Exactly—no one would disagree with that. Examples of such packaging include giftware. The example that is quoted ad nauseam is Easter eggs, where the intention is to attract young children’s attention. Manufacturers want to attract people’s attention to their products to sell them, and advertising plays a role. The packaging on some products—for example, cosmetics—is worth more than what is in the bottle. I could quote several examples from the drinks industry in which the cost of making the bottle is around 30p, which is expensive, and the bottle is worth more than what is inside it; but if a drink is trendy, people want to drink it. We must address that problem and work towards minimising it.

The hon. Lady hit on an important point: branding. There has been an increase in branded products that can be sold only with further advertising and packaging to differentiate brands. It is difficult to address that. Do we tell consumers that when they go into a supermarket, instead of having 15 toothpastes to choose from, they will have only one? It is not clear whether consumers would accept that.

I shall give a few facts about the packaging manufacturing industry. It has sales of more than £10 billion and 85,000 employees. The primary role of packaging is to contain, protect and preserve products.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He mentioned 85,000 employees in the industry. Can he tell the House how that figure has changed in recent years?

Mr. Illsley: I would struggle to give precise figures, but the number has fallen over the years. Even my constituency has lost some 600 jobs in the glass industry in the past 12 months as packaging has been reduced, with lighter products. The industry is not expanding; it is contracting.

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The amount of food in the UK supply chain that is lost between it growing in a field and appearing in a supermarket is less than 3 per cent., mainly because it is packaged and looked after from when it is grown or created to when it is sold. A problem in India is that 40 per cent. of the food produced there is lost as it goes from the fields of the agricultural sector to shops and markets. If India could solve that problem, some of its problems with food and poverty could be alleviated.

Just 3 per cent. of landfill is packaging waste, whereas 18 per cent. is household waste. The environmental impact of avoidable food waste in household waste is at least eight times greater than the impact of total packaging waste going to landfill. In other words, the food that we throw away and waste has a greater impact on landfill and our waste strategy than the packaging that it was in. The energy content of one day’s packaging throughout the country is equivalent to 1 mile driven in everyone’s car. Those are the comparisons. The industry has tried, and has largely succeeded, in minimising packaging waste’s impact on society.

A major reason for the development of packaging during the past few years is the change in our lifestyles. It is obvious that we shop differently from how we shopped in the 1950s and 1960s. We have more shops and more choice, and we want convenience shopping, and so on. There has been growth in supermarkets, which exist because people want convenience shopping. If we did not have convenience shopping, we would not have supermarkets and everyone would go to the corner shop daily, as we did in the 1950s, to buy fresh produce and cook it that day, and return to the shop the following day. We have more disposable income, we demand more convenience and we have more leisure time in which we can pursue leisure activities rather than do the shopping.

In the very late ’50s—if I can use that example without giving my age away—we did not have cars to make trips to supermarkets in order to fill them up with a bulk-buying shop to bring back home. We did not have telephones to ring up our orders to Pizza Hut to bring the pizza round on a Saturday night while watching the TV. We did not have central heating or as many TVs. We did not have washing machines, funnily enough, and if we consider the history of the way in which detergent has developed over the past 40 years and the amount that is now used in washing compared with 40 years ago, we see a dramatic difference—something like a 40 per cent. drop. We did not have fridges to such an extent, so we could not preserve food in a fridge, and we did not have freezers, so we could not freeze food. We could not buy frozen food; it was a thing of the future. We did not have computers or the internet, so we could not do our shopping online for Tesco to deliver it the following day.

Those are some of the things that we did not have, but which we now have, and they have led to our different lifestyles. The other big wonder that we did not have until fairly recently is the microwave oven. We wait for the two-minute ping and our meals are cooked and ready. If other hon. Members’ kids are anything like mine, they will know that they do not have to wait
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for the shout of, “Dinner’s ready!” My children just listen for the ping and that is it; it is the only way they know how to cook.

Other aspects of our lives have changed. In the old days, there were mainly two-parent households, divorce was rare, there were fewer working mothers, the pace of life was slower and people ate meals together around a table at a particular meal time. These days, however, we are all in front of the TV, eating at different times of day, and the household probably has one or two meals a week when its members are all together. All our habits have changed.

What about shopping habits? In the ’50s, shopping was a daily exercise, we had corner shops—there were no supermarkets—and articles were sold loose in brown paper bags. We also had home deliveries. Milk deliveries first thing in the morning are becoming a thing of the past; we buy at the supermarket two-litre containers that will last us several days. The range of food was limited in the ’50s, and we had far less choice in the food that we bought and ate. It is obvious that our lifestyles have changed dramatically.

There are other reasons for the way in which packaging operates these days. My first example is labelling. Sometimes, products that otherwise would not need to be packaged are required to carry nutritional information or warnings—the fact that a certain food might be dangerous if not cooked in a certain way. How do we put that information on a product if there is no label, box or packaging? Sometimes, a label is required simply to impart information to a customer.

Another reason is hygiene. We all demand hygienic food, we all want our food properly packaged, and we all want to ensure that by the time it arrives in our homes, it is not contaminated with something rather nasty. The worst source of food poisoning that the world knows is, I believe, E. coli 152—

Mr. Brown: E. coli 0157.

Mr. Illsley: My hon. Friend corrects me. The worst place in the world for E. coli 0157 is Scotland, which is surprising. Why should an area such as Scotland be the worst place in the world for E. coli 0157? We cannot be too careful about such matters, and packaging is required to maintain our levels of hygiene.

Another reason is preservation. Again, we come back to convenience: we want food to last longer. A few weeks ago in Parliament, there was a speech by a gentleman from Marks and Spencer, who brought a very good visual aid with him: two turnips, both bought on the same day in supermarkets. One had a coating of polythene cling film to protect it, the other did not. They were bought at the same time, and by the time he got them to Parliament, the first, uncovered turnip was going soft and pulpy, while the other had remained fresh and firm. It goes to show that within a few days, food can go off or deteriorate, and that something like a piece of cling film can preserve food dramatically.

A further reason to have packaging is security. Sometimes we need our food and products to be secure, so that we can prevent people from tampering with them, trying to poison us or committing crimes related
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to products, particularly food products. There have been cases over the years of companies being blackmailed with the threat to inject liquids and stuff into our food products. Another reason for packaging products is freshness, which we take for granted. Again, the example of the turnips is relevant.

We need to transport liquids, which need to have packaging and containers, so we need to design packaging to accommodate liquid products. Sometimes it is difficult to transport a product without having a package for it. A classic example of excess packaging is the toothpaste tube. Why does it come in a cardboard box? Because it is easier to stack and transport around the country. However, we can design newer, pump-action toothpaste tubes. Society moves on.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): The hon. Gentleman mentions cardboard boxes. Perhaps I could mention Rigid Containers, a firm in Desborough in my constituency, which is 100 years old this year. It is a leading maker of boxes made of corrugated cardboard, which is one of the greenest materials around. Typically, a corrugated cardboard box comprises 76 per cent. to 100 per cent. recycled cardboard, and something like 84 per cent. of all corrugated boxes in this country are recycled. Packaging can be a green item—a subject that is often overlooked.

Mr. Illsley: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is absolutely right. I shall refer to another example of a recyclable material when I conclude my remarks, as I shall in a couple of minutes because I want to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to speak. Many packaging materials are green, and there are misconceptions among the public about what can and cannot be recycled. We must tackle those misconceptions.

Packaging is sometimes necessary for compliance with certain rules and regulations about the transport of certain goods. Another reason why packing may be necessary is cross-contamination. If one had an allergy to a certain food, one would not want that food, unprotected, on the same counter or shelf as another food that one might want to purchase; one would want the food to which one is allergic to be protected and packaged.

Some products are excessively packaged. I have quoted the example of Easter eggs, and another classic example often cited is cling film wrapped around a coconut. However, it is used to stop fibres dropping off the coconut into other foods, getting into baby food, choking babies and so on. That is why we wrap up a coconut. There will always be a reason why products are packaged, but I admit that we can reduce packaging in some areas.

I shall turn to recycling. Last Wednesday was the 30th anniversary of the bottle bank. The first was situated in Barnsley, and later the same day, another was situated in Oxford. I pay tribute to my friends Stanley Race and Ron England, who were the two guys behind the initiative from Europe to increase recycling. Despite the presence of bottle banks, we still have contaminated glass collected for recycling. The problem with many recyclable materials is that the targets placed on local authorities relate simply to weight. They are simply required to collect a certain
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material by weight. It does not matter in what condition it arrives at the recycling facility. Provided the local authority meets its target for weight, its responsibility ends, but sadly, some materials are so contaminated and cross-contaminated, they simply cannot be used.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned paper and board. I shall use the example of glass, which is 100 per cent. recyclable. Glass can be melted time after time, and it constitutes back to the same product, yet if we mix clear or amber glass with green glass, we get green glass. In order to produce clear or amber glass, the reusable glass must be separated into its constituent colours. It cannot simply be mixed because once mixed, it turns into green glass. Given that in this country we import most of our wine, we are not short of green glass. The other thing that contaminates bottles going into bottle banks is the metal tops, which melt in the furnace and destroy the bottom, causing all manner of problems.

We need some joined-up thinking to ensure that local authorities have meaningful targets that allow them to collect and separate products for recycling, so that by the time they get to the recycler, he can reuse and recycle them. If we do not do that, people will complain bitterly—we have seen this in the Daily Mail—about having to have fortnightly bin collections, because they are required to separate for recycling. They are going through the exercise, albeit complainingly, yet when that stuff is collected it is unusable because it has been badly contaminated. We need to address that within the waste strategy and within our recycling targets.

Mr. Russell Brown: I firmly believe that if we as a nation are given the appropriate receptacles for recycling, we will recycle much more. Although I understand that there has been great concern about fortnightly collections of household waste, such a system has existed in Northern Ireland for many years without any real problem. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that it is the change to how we conduct our daily household business that makes it difficult for people to adjust.

Mr. Illsley: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a substantial point.

I am coming to end of my remarks, so to sum up I shall talk about what the packaging industry has done. It has developed new products and tried to limit the amount of packaging that we use. It has reduced food waste within the supply chain to 3 per cent., introduced lightweight packaging and decoupled growth in gross domestic product from the increase in packaging used. The industry has also given consumers product protection.

I will not bore hon. Members by reading out everything in the list of packaging types that I have—mainly because there are one or two things in it that I do not even understand—but it includes ovenable packaging, modified atmosphere packaging, frozen food packaging, microwaveable packaging, chilled food packaging, multiple packaging, shelf-ready packaging and something called aseptic packaging, although I am not entirely sure what that is. To answer the question
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asked earlier by my hon. Friend in 1990 there were 120,000 employees in the industry, whereas today there are 85,000.

In conclusion, the packaging manufacturing industry, as a service industry to supply chains, will respond to customers’ requirements. It will produce the packaging that they request with the maximum efficiency of resource, which it has done for decades. By protecting and preserving products and minimising waste, packaging continues to make a massive net contribution to resource efficiency and the minimisation of collateral environmental damage. The overall environmental impact of packaging is minuscule by comparison with the impacts of car use, home heating and even avoidable food waste. The industry would like proportionate attention to be paid to those much larger consumer-driven issues, instead of misdirected and sometimes ill-informed attacks on itself and its products through the constant reference to excess packaging.

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