A little less Easter Egg packaging, a little more chocolate please

Jo Swinson compares 2009's Easter eggs

Nestle’s Aero egg was the most improved in this year’s packaging study, but Terry’s used more packaging than last year!

Doing the weekly shop at this time of year has an additional challenge, I always find. Go into any supermarket and you’ll see Easter Egg boxes piled high, tempting children and adults alike. So far I’ve managed to resist the lure of the crème eggs laid out tantalisingly at the tills, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before I cave in.

However this year there’s a little bit less there than before. That’s not to say there’s fewer Easter Eggs (nor sadly are there fewer calories in them). If anything, research shows that chocolate consumption rises in a recession, as people seek comfort from the harsh economic conditions. But the packaging of the Easter Eggs is less excessive than in previous years. Many of the manufacturers are visibly boasting about this packaging reduction on their boxes, making a selling point of the green credentials of their Eggs.

I think this is a real step forward, not just for Easter Eggs, but for packaging in general. About three years ago I started to sense a real frustration with the excessive packaging that seems to accompany many everyday products. Doorstep recycling was really taking off, and people I spoke to were suddenly much more aware of how much waste couldn’t actually be recycled, and would just be sent to landfill.

People told me they were keen to reduce the amount of rubbish that went into their bin, but were annoyed after each supermarket shop when masses of plastic and card packaging went straight in the bin.

So I started researching the issue, and was shocked to discover just what packaging is costing us all. The average family spends £470 each year just on packaging. Then there’s the cost of disposing of it. As well as paying our local Councils to collect our rubbish, we’re now paying extra for whatever isn’t recycled. Every household is paying £30 a year in landfill taxes alone.

Finally there’s the environmental cost. Landfill sites hardly make for a beautiful environment – who wants to live next to one? As for climate change, landfill produces the greenhouse gas methane. The decomposing packaging waste alone produces 30,000 tonnes of this gas each year, which has the same effect on global warming as the annual emissions of 100,000 cars.

I came across silly examples of over-packaging such as shrink-wrapped coconuts and individually-packaged bananas. Over time the marketing people and packaging designers have increased the size of the packets and boxes of many products – without changing the volume of cereal, crisps or whatever product is inside. If a product can occupy a larger space on the retail shelf than a rival brand, it will stand out more to the consumer. Then the rival brand increases its packaging to compete. And so the packaging arms race has gone on.

Two years ago I tried to introduce a law in Parliament to make supermarkets take responsibility for excess packaging by providing in-store points where people could deposit any packaging they felt was excessive. It would also have improved the existing laws against excess packaging (yes, they do exist, but are really badly worded so in practice don’t help much). While my Bill didn’t have enough time for debate in the House of Commons, it did help to ensure the Government took this issue more seriously. I met with Joan Ruddock, the Minister responsible, to urge her to take on board some of my ideas, and she expressed support for the aim of reducing packaging. I also held meetings with retailers and manufacturers to challenge them on what they were doing to reduce excessive packaging. I’m pleased to say that over the last few years the industry has made some progress, at least by stopping the growth in packaging.

Easter Eggs have been one of the worst offenders; research shows that 59% of us think they are over-packaged. The trend has been for big colourful boxes, with a little cut-out window suggesting a big chocolate egg inside. However all too often you’re left feeling duped when you open the box to find masses of empty space and a tiny little egg resting on a rigid plastic mould. Since 2007 I’ve been doing annual research into Easter Eggs of ten popular brands, to find out who are the saints and sinners on the packaging front.

The first year the big confectionery producers – Cadbury’s, Nestle, Mars – didn’t fare too well with their standard big cardboard boxes, and Sainsbury’s came out top for wrapping their egg in cellophane with just a small plastic base to help it stand up. Brands such as Lindt and Terry’s have continually come out worst for having a large box-to-egg ratio and making no efforts to reduce packaging. Lindt’s egg takes up less than one-tenth of the space inside the box, which I think makes it a real rip-off.

Last year Cadbury’s launched their innovative eco-eggs (this year renamed Treasure Eggs), which are wrapped only in foil and have the extra goodies stored inside the eggs. This year they hope to double sales of these to 4.5 million, but it’s still only a fifth of the total eggs that Cadbury’s will sell.

After issuing my report last year I received a stroppy letter from Nestle, who were annoyed that I had criticised them for increasing the size of their box, and they asked to come and discuss the issue with me. It took a few months to set up but I kept their little Kit-Kat egg in its ridiculously large box in a corner of my office. When they came in for the meeting I put it on my desk and asked how on earth they could justify it. We had a heated discussion, and needless to say they didn’t manage to come up with any good reason for the over-packaged egg, but then they said they were actively researching how they could improve the packaging for the next year. I was fairly sceptical, but credit where credit’s due, they came back in December and showed me their new Easter Egg box. It was significantly smaller than the previous one, and they had removed all the plastic by placing the egg in a cardboard basket instead, which meant the packaging was fully recyclable.

Other manufacturers have also made improvements. Mars have reduced their box size, Thorntons’ new prism-shaped box uses less cardboard, and Green & Black’s now have no plastic tray. Most brands now include detailed information about how to recycle the packaging. Smaller boxes also mean more eggs can fit in a delivery lorry, which means fewer lorries on the road emitting CO2.

I hope that next year other egg-makers will follow the lead given by Nestle and Cadbury’s Treasure Eggs. Unrecyclable plastics can be designed out, and packaging can be significantly reduced. Sales figures from this year will influence the behaviour of companies looking ahead to next year’s Easter Eggs. The more minimally-packaged eggs succeed, the clearer the message will be.

Now, you may be wondering what happens to the Easter Eggs after they’ve been measured, weighed and reported on for my research. My first idea was to give them to the children at Great Ormond Street Hospital, but sadly as the eggs have been opened and handled for the research, they can’t accept them. Instead I moonlight as the Easter Bunny and share them out to the receptionists, cleaners and security guards in my Parliamentary office building.

When I walk past displays of Easter Eggs these days, I feel quite proud that my campaigning has helped to create a change. Of course the proof of the chocolate pudding is in the eating – ultimately manufacturers will only continue the trend towards less packaged Easter Eggs if people buy them. So when you’re wavering over your choices of chocolate egg this Easter, have a thought for how it’s packaged. There’s now plenty to choose from with minimal packaging, and I can assure you, they taste just as good!

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