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Government refuses to act on excessive supermarkets packaging -a 10.7 million tonne mystery 13.07.09

Hilary Benn continued the Government’s refusal to take meaningful steps to force supermarkets to reveal publicly whether their packaging policies and the real packaging figures add up. Despite calls from the Local Government Association to help their 350 member reduce the 1.8 billion estimated costs between 2008-201 dealing with the 10.7 million tonnes of waste packaging, the Government stuck to their ’voluntary’ not compulsory approach to business. The same policy approach that has worked oh so well in the finance sector.

Every year, stores such as Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s log with the government’s waste reduction body, Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), how much packaging they generate. But, despite requests by the Local Government Association for this information to be made public, neither WRAP nor most of the supermarkets would reveal how much they produce. The honorable exceptions were Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and Morrisons who responded directly to requests for the information from the Local Government Association.

For the Local Government Association, who’s members bear the brunt of dealing with the packaging,through recycling and landfill, this lack of transparency means that they are unclear whether the oft advertised claims of the various supermarkets to be ’environmentally friendly’ and to be reducing packaging actually has any relationship to reality or not.

The Association called on Hilary Benn the Environment Secretary to make WRAP publish quarterly figures online to show how each supermarket is preforming in reality against their claimed performance.

Cllr Margaret Eaton, Chair of the Local Government Association wrote to Hilary Benn on the 11th July saying:

“In February when we published our latest snapshot survey of supermarket packaging, the stores complained that the survey was selective and misleading.  Yet when given the chance to provide the fuller picture most refused.  The public needs to see hard evidence to back up supermarkets’ claims that they are taking the problem of packaging seriously, that their claims to be cutting packaging are real and that targets are effective.

I therefore suggest you require WRAP to publish data about the packaging each supermarket produces on a quarterly basis on its website. This would make it easy for consumers to compare supermarkets, and see clearly which perform the best and worst on packaging.

All retailers need to be contributing equally to targets for reducing packaging. The publication of this data would help establish whether this is the case. Until it is clear that each supermarket is playing its part, how can we assess whether the targets are tough enough?

The process for agreeing the next round of targets is now in progress and this is an opportunity that must not be lost.  We must set ambitious targets covering packaging reduction, how recyclable packaging is and how much packaging is made from recycled content.  We all need to ensure we are sending less rubbish to landfill and that supermarkets play their part in this. Making stores pay for more of the packaging they produce would mean councils could invest in new and better recycling services.

Whilst tougher targets on packaging recovery would help the problem, it is no substitute for waste prevention.  When packaging is sent to landfill it is not only damaging for the environment but also expensive for local taxpayers.  Consumers should not have to pay higher prices at the tills because supermarkets’ are reluctant to curb excessive packaging.  If voluntary agreements are not transparent and accountable, then regrettably, we believe that regulation may have to follow.”

In response Hilary Benn reiterated his defense of the voluntary approach, writing, “As you say, some retailers have already made that information available and we would certainly strongly encourage others to follow suit so that consumers can assess for themselves the progress being made.”

In June the Government published its “Making the Most of Packaging – A Strategy for a low carbon economy”. This outline approach, which has many good and sustainable objectives in reducing the waste, both packaging and food, as well as improving the recycling process for a range of waste such as glass, plastics and aluminum.

This latest Strategy continues along the approach set out back in March 2005 in the Courtauld Commitment, whereby the major producers and retailers of packaging waste set themselves modest voluntary targets for zero waste growth in 2008, with reductions by 2010. The target of reducing food waste gives an indication of the toughness the industry has shown in setting its targets, the aim is to reduce the amount of food waste by 155,000 by 2010. Given that the UK throws away 6.7 million tonnes of food a year this 2.3% target over 2 years is hardly stretching.

Benn’s reply to Eaton continues, “The objectives of the Strategy – limiting packaging to what is needed to protect the product and recycling more of what gets used – were chosen with the consumer in mind. To turn them into reality, local authorities should work with the businesses which use packaging to identify the obstacles to further progress and come up with shared solutions. This process had been started under the aegis of the Packaging Recycling Action Group. It needs to be continued to meet the objectives we all share.”

The question does need to be asked exactly how say, Thirsk Council can negotiate with the local Tesco’s who policy is set nationally, on waste reduction? Yes Thirsk Council can say work with local small and medium enterprises on strategies to reduce waste, increase recycling and maintain profitability but the big supermarkets regularly steamroll councils planning committees, yet here is the Secretary of the Environment suggesting that the local council environment committees somehow can succeed where the planning committees failed.

Laissez-faire self regulation which dominates this government’s approach to business, and to be fair the Conservative opposition, has repeatedly been shown to produce limited targets, for example the fact the car industry missed even its own very modest emissions targets. It appears that self -regulation equates to no regulations, but lots of vague green sounding advertising and weighty corporate social responsibility reports full of images of smiling children.

The Government has set itself some very ambitious climate and environment targets, and doesn’t seem able to produce a report that doesn’t have the words ’low carbon economy’ in the title somewhere. However rather than face the tricky task of actual implementing policy and introducing binding regulations it has chosen to outsource the solutions to the very companies and sectors that have produced the problem in the first place.

The difference between a visionary and a dreamer is a timetable. Hilary Benn can ’encourage’ all he want, but unless he sets out a clear timetable and names and shames those that prefer their environmental policy to stretch no further than their 30 second TV commercials or double page spreads then that is all his policies are – a dream.

Peter Shield

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Related links

“Making the Most of Packaging – A Strategy for a low carbon economy”
Courtauld Commitment

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