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Tackling Excess Packaging - Motion on packaging, to be proposed by Jo Swinson MP, at 9am on Wednesday 19 September

September 3, 2007 9:46 AM

Increasingly, packaging is falling under the spotlight of media and public attention with the debate is growing over how the excessive use of packaging can be curbed, along with what role should Government, industry and individuals play in its reduction.

One huge factor driving the debate is its ubiquity: as consumers, we come across excess packaging as an everyday occurrence. A simple trip to the supermarket results in the accumulation of vast amounts of card, foil and plastic, much of which is disposed of as soon as we get home.

The Government's Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP) says that families now spend £470 on packaging each year, one-sixth of their food budget. Some consumers have even taken matters into their own hands by removing packaging and leaving it at the

checkout, having last year received the backing of then-Environment Minister Ben Bradshaw to do so. Disposable plastic bags are often the focus of consumer ire, not least because their throwaway nature and prevalence amongst street litter make them a highly visible target for the green agenda. A Liberal Democrat report from 2004 estimated that over 17 billion plastic bags are distributed annually by supermarkets in the UK. Far from setting the agenda on packaging, the Government has largely struggled to keep up with the debate. EU targets for packaging reduction, adopted in the UK through the Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations, have been missed. Trading Standards offices have urged reform of the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations, which govern acceptable levels of packaging, because of the difficulty they have in policing excess packagers using these vague, malleable regulations. Several major supermarkets and an increasing number of food producers have signed up to the Courtauld Commitments, a voluntary agreement brokered by DEFRA to reduce packaging levels. However, there are doubts over how much can be achieved through voluntary measures alone, and from the outset, Courtauld appears to be suffering from a lack of established protocols for reporting and measuring progress. In May this year, the Government published its Waste Strategy for England. The measures included setting optimal packaging standards for different classes of product, a proposal for higher EU recycling targets, and a pledge to reduce the environmental impact of carrier bags by 25% over 18 months. While these are appropriate steps to take, they do not go far enough. They neither tackle the problems in the regulations nor acknowledge the limitations of the voluntary Courtauld Commitments, or offer fresh thinking about how to curb excess packaging.

The motion that will be put before the LibDem conference includes measures to strengthen existing packaging regulations by correcting current technical problems and closing loopholes. It also proposes the creation of a new national body to tackle large-scale producers of excess packaging to assist and work in conjunction with local Trading Standards offices lacking the means to take on larger offenders. The Courtauld Commitments pay lip-service to packaging reduction but are yet to prove their worth with real results. The motion seeks to ensure that the pledges in Courtauld are given genuine priority by companies, by translating them into binding targets. The motion offers creative thinking to tackle excess packaging, cut disposable plastic bag use and empower consumers. Taking into account the decidedly mixed evidence on the success of plastic bag taxes piloted abroad, it proposes a deposit scheme to tackle plastic bag use. Charging consumers at the point of sale would discourage plastic bag use, while a deposit to be reclaimed would encourage the reuse of bags where they had been paid for. Building on 'right of return' principle in Andrew Stunell's Retail Packaging Recycling Bill, the motion calls on waste points to be provided in supermarkets to allow customers to remove and deposit unwanted packaging for recycling before leaving the store.

By empowering consumers with the means to leave packaging in-store, supermarkets would be forced into thinking twice before stocking their shelves with excessively packaged products. The fringe meeting should provide a lively debate. Speakers will be present from The Independent and Marks & Spencer, along with Chris Huhne MP and your author. To add some fun to the proceedings, prizes will be awarded on the night for the worst examples of excess packaging submitted in advance: please contact the event organiser, Nick Hutton, on (020) 7219 8088 or huttonn@parliament.uk if you have an example.

When Parliament resumes in October, there will be further opportunities to press the Government on packaging. Jo Swinson's Early Day Motion on Excessive Packaging, which has already gained the signatures of 174 MPs, should continue to gain support. She also has an opportunity to raise the issue with a 10 Minute Rule Bill, to be read on 23 October. So, just as the media and the public increasingly talk packaging, Westminster will also continue to have its attention turned to the issue .

Tackling Excess Packaging

This autumn's Federal Conference will debate a motion on packaging, to be proposed by Jo Swinson MP, at 9am on Wednesday 19 September, following a fringe meeting the previous evening on the subject. Here Jane Brophy, who will sum up the debate, outlines the background. 'We come across excess packaging as an everyday occurrence'