It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank my hon. Friend David Mackintosh for securing this important and timely debate. I am chairman of the all-party group for the packaging manufacturing industry. I spent 25 years in the industry supplying packaging items, mostly to the food service industry. I agree with some of the points made by my hon. Friend, but I regret to say that a great deal of what is contained in the e-petition is not practical.
On a day when the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is in the main Chamber launching the Government’s industrial strategy policy, it is important to remember the importance and magnitude of the packaging industry in the UK. It employs 85,000 people, makes up 3% of all manufacturing that takes place in the UK and achieves sales of £11 billion. It is a highly innovative industry that responds to consumer preferences, and it takes its responsibilities very seriously.
I will mention various bodies and publications, but I want to draw attention to the Industry Council for research on Packaging and the Environment—INCPEN—a research organisation that brings together food manufacturers and packaging companies to ensure that policy on packaging makes a positive contribution to sustainability. Its members include food manufacturers such as Britvic soft drinks and Diageo; food retailers such as Sainsbury’s and Tesco; and packaging manufacturers such as LINPAC and DS Smith. I recommend to all of those who are interested the INCPEN publication that explains why products are packaged in the way that they are.
I referred to the packaging industry’s innovation, which leads to a discussion about why we need packaging. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South drew attention to some of the reasons, but it is important to state at the outset that the demand for packaging arises purely from the demand for the products contained within. Nobody goes to a retailer looking to buy boxes, cartons and cans. What is in the containers is important and generates demand—the packaging is simply a delivery mechanism for food and the other goods.
Packaging has to do a lot of tough tasks. First, it has to protect the contents from hazards, particularly in respect of food items. We have gone from the era when much food was served in open packs and the traditional grocer cut slices of ham and put them in a paper bag, which could then be taken home and exposed to the atmosphere. Most of the food that we buy these days is sold in sealed packs, which protects the food from whatever hazards may be in the environment. Even if the food falls out of the carrier bag on to the floor, the food is protected from the hazard of contamination.
Importantly, packaging should provide easy access to the product. We have all seen examples of poor packaging that makes it difficult to access the product, but we have gone to an era of peel-back labels so that people can get hold of the products. We also ask our packaging to tell us all about what we are buying. There is a mass of information on the packaging that arises because our food is packaged in the way that it is. When people bought slices of ham in an old-fashioned retailer, they did not know the nature of the product unless they asked the retailer, whereas in the supermarket we can easily and readily see exactly what we are buying. Finally, packaging needs to make the product that we intend to buy attractive at the point of sale so that the consumer will be interested in buying it.
Within that, we ask packaging to minimise the amount of food waste. We have very low levels of food waste as a consequence of the very effective packaging our food is sold in. About 3% of our food is wasted. Some may say that that is 3% too much. Not only might that food otherwise have gone to those in need but, more importantly, the disposal of food waste presents real problems for the environment—if it goes into landfill, it unavoidably generates methane gas. Therefore, it is worth pointing out just how effective a tiny amount of packaging can be in preventing food waste. We waste some 3% of our food, but in economies such as Russia or India, levels of food waste are as high as 40%. Only 1.5 grams of plastic—a tiny amount—wrapped around a cucumber will keep that cucumber fresh for 14 days by preventing moisture loss. The item of packaging therefore performs an incredible task, preventing the need for the cucumber to be disposed of in landfill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South gave the example of Easter eggs as a product that might sometimes be thought of as over-packaged. That arises, however, because of how we want to give one another chocolate over the Easter period. If we wanted simply to give one another so many grams of chocolate, we could buy a slab of chocolate and hand it over. We do not do that. We choose to buy an Easter egg. That is where consumer choice comes in.
We are asking a huge amount of such packaging. The thin chocolate egg is itself very fragile, so in addition to making the product attractive, the packaging has to prevent the Easter egg from being broken.