O Come, All Ye Wasteful- preventing excess packaging at Christmas

Written by: Matt Clay | Published:
Royal Mail estimates in December 2016 it handled 138 million parcels, a rise of eight million on the previous year

More than any other time of the year, Christmas is when excess packaging gets noticed – and the problem seems to be getting worse. So what can industry and consumers do about it?

Before the festive season officially began (although Christmas songs had no doubt already sneaked onto the radio), major online retailer Amazon came under fire for committing a cardinal packaging sin.

A customer ordered a wall calendar, only to receive an additional 45 feet of brown paper packaging. Pictures spread like wildfire over the internet of the customer dragging the enormous paper trail from the box.

The retail juggernaut has previously claimed it is reducing the amount of packaging used, and a spokesperson responded: “We continue to pursue multi-year waste reduction initiatives – e-commerce-ready packaging and Amazon Frustration-Free Packaging – to promote easy-to-open, 100 per cent recyclable packaging, and to ship products in their own packages without additional shipping boxes.”

Such initiatives, Amazon claimed, eliminated roughly 33,000 tonnes of excess packaging in 2015.

While this was one order among millions from Amazon which gathered a lot of media attention, it brought the issue of excess packaging – particularly around the Christmas period – into the public eye.

The Christmas period has grown into a time of socially acceptable overindulgence: from the mountains of mince pies and bottles of Port consumed to the stockings full of presents bought and given. The average British family spends between £800 and £1,000 during this time alone.

Food waste to one side, it is the wrapping paper and Christmas cards that really stack up towards the end of December. Estimates from the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), together with Recycle Now, show that an additional 300,000 tonnes of card packaging is generated over the festive holidays. To put that into perspective, when laid out this would cover the return trip between London and Lapland just over 100 times.

With UK recycling infrastructure and capacity having been built up over the years, the collection of Christmas cards is now straightforward. The same goes for wrapping paper, if it’s of the paper variety.

Shiny metallic and glitter varieties, however, cannot be recycled. To avoid confusion, local authorities are encouraged to communicate the ‘scrunch test’ to residents – if you can scrunch the paper in your hand and it stays in a ball, it can be put into the recycling bin.

If recycling is offered for the majority of the Christmas bulk, why does excess packaging appear to get a bashing around this time of the year? The answer, perhaps, lies in the time it adds between people, mainly children, unwrapping their presents and then being able to play with them. Any parent who has spent 20 minutes undoing the plastic ties around an action figure’s or Barbie’s accessories will tell you that.

A wider environmental problem?

The British Toy & Hobby Association (BTHA) has worked with WRAP to investigate packaging use and address options for toy and seasonal packaging. The study found that toy packaging actually represents just 0.7% of all the packaging that consumers have to dispose of annually. The BTHA further estimates that almost 90% of toy packaging is suitable for kerbside recycling.

But what about plastic ties? Often small yet large in the amount of frustration caused, are they necessary?

Speaking to RWW magazine, Natasha Crookes, director of public affairs and communications at the BTHA, says: “Some of the changes that have taken place in recent years are a move away from polystyrene packaging mouldings to paper pulp or cardboard, a move to use more recycled content where possible in packaging, and companies assessing right-sizing of retail packaging wherever possible, often in line with retailer discussions and expectations.

“There is a move by companies to swap wire ties for paper ties wherever possible; ties are used to keep fragile parts of the toy from getting damaged in transit so are sometimes needed for toy safety and quality reasons, but companies are trying to alter packaging to compensate or swap to paper-tie versions.”

In the UK, the toy industry is made up of an estimated 400 manufacturers, importers and distributors, 80% of which are small and medium sized companies. Such diversity, Crookes says, is “fantastic for generating innovation and choice within the toy sector, but it is more difficult to find a one-size-fits-all solution to packaging”.

She adds that the “accumulative effect” perhaps also adds to packaging’s bad reputation over Christmas: apart from birthdays or special occasions, rarely do so many empty boxes and packets get piled together.

“Toy packaging comes under the spotlight at Christmas as it is when more toys are opened than at any other time of the year and there is an accumulative effect when packaging is seen together,” Crookes says.

“Children want to get into the boxes quickly to start playing and parents can feel frustrated if they cannot get straight at products. It’s exciting to watch children unwrapping their stocking or their presents under the tree, and it can be tempting to throw all the packaging together in a way you might not if there was one toy, which makes it harder to sort and therefore recycle.”

Paul Vanston, chief executive of INCPEN, admits the UK has come a long way when it comes to Christmas packaging. “We commend residents and councils up and down the country for recycling as much as they can, as this is a hugely different picture from only a generation ago when so much went straight to landfill.”

Time to grow up

Others believe there is much more to be done on toy packaging. Dr Adam Read, external affairs director at SUEZ Recycling & Recovery UK, says excessive wrapping paper is unnecessary.

“On the whole, children’s toys are overly packaged and use too much rigid plastic for display purposes,” he tells RWW. “We must work with the toy manufacturers and designers to develop products that are easier to disassemble and segregate the card from the paper, etc, that minimise the rigid plastics with no recycling outlet and limit the plastic ties or replace them with something paper-based.”

For wrapping, Read believes it’s a chance to get creative. “Every gift, present, bottle of wine or cuddly toy gets an additional wrapping, and for what? So it can be ripped off in no time at all. I understand the tradition of children opening up their presents to great surprise (or not, depending on the shape of the object – remember that new football?), and I am no Grinch, but adults, teenagers, etc – come on.

"Do we really need so much additional and unnecessary packaging, which serves no purpose other than to conceal the gift? It’s not for protection or to extend the life of the item. Why not use the bag it was bought in, or use an old newspaper.”

The external affairs director adds that one year he used the offprints from an academic article he wrote to wrap up all his gifts. “It was re-using something I had no need for, and meant it got recycled!” he adds.

If more people are being convinced to use paper wrapping and recycle used packaging, it raises the question of whether local authority collections are geared up for the additional tonnages of material produced. With budgets being squeezed tightly, it’s becoming increasingly challenging for councils to promote key messages over Christmas, such as those around material quality, contamination and extra recycling services.

As a result, companies such as SUEZ have generated “social media packs” for their local authority customers. These include multiple Christmas-themed images, together with ready-made tweets that can be fired out at will, as well as the #recycle4christmas hashtag, intended to boost engagement.

Local authorities have learned how much additional waste there is, when it arises, its composition and its timing, adds Read.

“The availability of collections is not a universal problem, but it might be in some areas with no bank holiday collections or where there are three-weekly services and the holiday period mucks up the rota. Even then an extra shift or two that is well planned can catch up quickly – but you need to let the public know about any planned changes early by using bin stickers, leaflets, and social media so you don’t get confusion, contamination and irritation at the kerbside.”

Royal Mail estimates in December 2016 it handled 138 million parcels – a rise of eight million on the previous year – thanks in part to the continued rise of online shopping, which offers consumers good deals coupled with convenience and speed.

The disposal of the resulting boxes and packaging – in some instances 45 feet of additional brown paper – often comes as an afterthought, once the goods have been enjoyed or passed on.

As well as efforts from manufacturers, obligated under packaging regulations and local authorities to provide adequate collections, an onus still falls on consumers. Even when it comes to their choice of wrapping paper: recycled paper uses up to 50% fewer chemicals than virgin paper during production so it is a much more environmentally friendly option.

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