A new UK guide designed to help retailers and processors cut down on packaging waste serves as an example for other EU companies.
The guide, published this week by the of Waste & Resources Action Programme (Wrap), focuses primarily on retailers, but manufacturers such as Unilever, Heinz and Northern Foods have also officially signed up to a committement to cut down on packaging waste going to landfill.
A number of signatories to the agreement have established reduction targets of up to 25 per cent.
Government's strategy has been to focus on retailers so they can push their suppliers to cut down on packaging waste, either by reducing the amount they use for their products, or by switching to more recyclable, reusable and biodegradable materials.
Wrap is selling the packaging waste reduction progamme by citing reduced material and distribution costs through lightweighting.
Increasing consumer concern about the origin and integrity of food is also driving changes in packaging. Labelling, tamper-evidence and traceability all have implications for packaging design.
"By making sure packaging conforms to the best possible practice, products can enjoy a positive image and competitive advantage," Wrap stated in the guide.
The programme is designed to help the UK and its manufacturers meet the country's committements to EU regulations. New annual targets set by UK regulations increase manufacturers' obligations to recover and recycle their packaging.
International and European pressure on the UK to decrease carbon emissions will lead to further legislation and regulation, Wrap noted in releasing the guide.
The Wrap guide brings together a number of initiatives and proven practical steps other manufacturers have taken in reducing the amount of materials used in packaging their products.
For example, a Wrap-funded project, managed by Faraday Packaging Partnership and known as Container Lite, brought manufacturers, brand owners, retailers, academics and industrial experts together to research, develop, trial and launch a series of lightweight glass containers.
Designs were put through extensive consumer trials - revealing valuable insights into the way consumers think about glass packaging, and make purchasing decisions.
"The project proved that an imaginative, well researched and customer-focused approach to lightweighting can protect, and even enhance, core brand values - making it a commercially viable option," Wrap concluded.
A survey found that many consumers struggled to detect a 5to 10 per cent difference in glass container weight, even when expecting a weight difference.
When tests were 'uncued', weight differences of up to 40 per cent for an empty container and 20 per cent for a full container went undetected among a sizeable number of participants, Wrap said.
Coors Brewers lightweighted its iconic brand, Grolsch. The company launched a lightweight version of its 300ml Grolsch bottle in consultation with glass manufacturers O-I and Rockware.
The chosen design retained the classic Grolsch bottle profile, but with a 13 per cent weight reduction, saving 4,500 tonnes of glass each year. The design proved so successful that Coors has further lightweighted their 300ml Grolsch and Coors Fine Light bottles, saving an additional 4,000 tonnes each year.
The Wrap studies also found that some food products can be more suitable for lightweighting than others.
As part of Container Lite, the Psychology of Design Group at the University of Leeds looked at the potential of lightweighting a range of Co-op own-brand food containers, by reducing the number of different containers used for similar products to bring efficiencies in manufacturing and filling processes.
For some products, such as pasta sauce and pickles, the original tall jars were regarded as more elegant and practical. They were also perceived to contain more product.
For other products, especially those that required a lever to access the contents, the shorter, squatter lighter jars came out on top, the guide stated.
So far packaging regulations in the UK have increased. Packaging waste recycling rates increased to about 50 per cent in 2004 from 27 per cent in 1997 due to packaging regulations, Wrap stated.
New annual targets for packaging regulations in the UK, announced in November 2005 and set until 2010, will see businesses having to recycle and recover ever increasing amounts of paper, glass, aluminium, steel, plastic and wood packaging waste.
The UK's environment department has confirmed that a number of changes will be made to the regulations, most notably to include a new obligation on franchisors, licensors and pub operating businesses.
The regulations allow accredited waste reprocessing companies to sell Packaging Waste Recovery Notes (PRNs) for every tonne of packaging waste they recycle.
Companies with £2m turnover or handling in excess of 50 tonnes of packaging a year meet their obligation, assessed under the scheme, by buying PRNs. The profits are reinvested in the recycling infrastructure.
In July 2005, thirteen top grocery retailers demonstrated their commitment to waste minimisation by signing up to an agreement, known as the Courtauld Commitment.
Since that time, a number of major manufacturers, including Unilever, Heinz and Northern Foods, have also ratified the agreement.
Consumers want to reduce the waste they generate and recycle more; consumers are recycling more things, more often. Domestic recycling rates have increased from 11% in 2003 to 27% in 2006. As a result consumers are becoming more aware of the packaging around the products they buy.
The Wrap guide is available at http://www.wrap.org.uk/retail .