Opinion: What to do about excess packaging

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The media and public clamour surrounding excess packaging is growing. The Women’s Institute and The Independent are both running national campaigns against packaging, while companies like Lush Cosmetics have begun to see the economic sense of letting consumers buy the products they want, without unnecessary cardboard or plastic accompaniment.

The Government has failed to take the lead on curbing excess packaging, paying lip-service to the issue without offering strong, effective policies. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (DEFRA) Waste Strategy, published in May this year, passed up a golden opportunity to get serious about packaging, merely offering a handful of proposals limited in scope and ambition.

On Wednesday, 19th September (at 9am, for the early birds among you!) I will propose a motion to conference entitled Taking Action to Tackle Excess Packaging (full text below). The measures covered in the motion will set the Liberal Democrats on the front foot in the packaging debate. It combines straightforward solutions with innovative policies to provide a clear, effective approach on preventing excess packaging and reducing packaging overall.

The motion takes steps to strengthen and support Trading Standards offices, with whom the role of policing excess packagers lies. The creation of a new national body, to tackle large-scale producers of excess packaging in conjunction with local Trading Standards offices, is proposed. Some cases of excess packaging may be beyond the scope of regional Trading Standards offices, and in these cases a broader, more strategic, view is appropriate.

DEFRA has sought to broker voluntary agreements on packaging reduction from supermarkets and food producers through the Courtauld Commitments. From the outset, however, these appear to have suffered from a lack of established protocols for reporting and measuring progress, prompting doubts about their effectiveness. The motion seeks to ensure that the pledges in Courtauld are given genuine priority by companies, by translating them into binding targets rather than mere aspirations.

The motion adopts a ‘right of return’ principle by calling for 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.

A Liberal Democrat report from 2004 estimated that UK supermarkets give out 17 billion plastic bags annually, and encouraging reuse of disposable plastic bags is another area addressed in the motion. Evidence from abroad on the success of plastic bag taxes is mixed, so the motion instead proposes a deposit scheme to tackle plastic bag use. Charging consumers at the point of sale would discourage unnecessary plastic bag use, while a deposit to be reclaimed would encourage the re-use of bags where they had been paid for.

I have no doubt that as always, conference will ensure thorough scrutiny and discussion of the proposals in the motion takes place. It is a debate that I certainly look forward to.

* Jo Swinson is MP for Dunbartonshire East and Liberal Democrat Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities.

This is the full text of the motion to be debated at the Liberal Democrat federal conference in Brighton on Wednesday, 19th September, at 9.00 am.

Taking Action to Tackle Excess Packaging

Conference notes that:
i) Total domestic waste produced in Britain has increased 21% since 1997, to over 26 million tonnes.
ii) Household recycling in the UK has increased from 6% to 23%, but this has only managed to keep pace with the total increase.
iii) A large proportion of this waste, around 5 million tonnes, is made up of packaging.
iv) Packaging accounts for around 17% of the average household food budget.
v) A Liberal Democrat survey of UK supermarkets found that more than 17 billion plastic bags are given away each year.
vi) The Government has failed to meet the targets for packaging reduction set by EU Directive 94/62/EC, adopted in the UK through the Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations 1997.
vii) DEFRA’s current policy of issuing Packaging Waste Recovery Notes (PRNs) to producers, to show compliance with recycling regulations, has failed to halt rising levels of packaging.
viii) The Government’s Waste Strategy for England, published in May 2007, falls short of presenting effective proposals to tackle excess packaging, particularly over enforcement of current Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations.

Conference notes with concern the need to reduce excess packaging, and welcomes the campaigns of the Women’s Institute and The Independent newspaper which have illustrated the broad public consensus that exists over the need to take action.

Conference recognises that:
a) Current Government policies fail to address with sufficient rigour the need to cut the amount of packaging used by both suppliers and sales outlets, including supermarkets.
b) The current Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations do not provide an effective basis for Trading Standards Offices to pursue legal proceedings in cases of excessive packaging.
c) The Courtauld Commitments to reduce excess packaging made by 92% of the UK grocery sector are ineffective, due to their voluntary nature and also because of the lack of a protocol for reporting progress on meeting the targets.
d) Actions taken to date by government and supermarkets have failed to achieve significant levels of reduction in disposable plastic bag use.

Conference therefore calls for:
1. New legislation requiring supermarkets over 250 m2 in size to provide waste points in store, allowing customers to remove and deposit unwanted packaging before leaving the store.
2. Enforcement of excess packaging regulations by Trading Standards Offices to be improved through amendments to strengthen the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations.
3. The creation of a new national body with powers of prosecution to tackle large-scale producers of excess packaging in conjunction with local Trading Standards Offices.
4. Government action to secure commitments from supermarkets to participate in a deposit scheme for plastic carrier bags, charging consumers for bags and refunding them when bags are returned.
5. Encouragement to community initiatives such as the voluntary moratorium on plastic bags by local retailers in the town of Modbury and other schemes to improve their local environment.
6. The introduction of binding packaging reduction targets to be met by producers and retailers, in place of the current voluntary Courtauld Commitments.
7. Effective fiscal incentives to reduce excessive packaging and disposable products, introduced as part of the Liberal Democrat Environmental Incentive Programme.

Applicability: Federal, except 4 (lines 38–40), which is England-only.

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3 Comments

  • Geoffrey Payne 10th Sep '07 - 1:40pm

    Excessive packaging is part of a bigger problem; excessive production of plastic.
    Plastic cannot be destoyed without produing notious fumes. Much of it is deposited in the sea, is broken up by waves and works it way into the eco-system, which comes back to us of course.
    In addition, as the world contemplates anxiously that we way have reached “peak oil”, it is surely crazy we use oil to produce this stuff? The long term trend for oil prices is inexorably upwards, and yet we waste so much of it!

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