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Packaging (Reduction)

Volume 465: debated on Tuesday 23 October 2007

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a national body to promote and enforce packaging reduction; to make provision for the disposal of packaging by certain retailers; to establish binding targets for the reduction of packaging; and for connected purposes.

Packaging is part of our everyday lives. It protects the products we buy, provides information to the consumer and acts as a marketing tool to boost sales. Much packaging is essential: we would have a problem getting a pint of milk or baked beans home without it. Much of it, however, is not. Even in our environmentally conscious times, packaging has recently been growing, not falling. We now send 5 million tonnes of packaging to landfill every year. We need to take a serious look at the packaging that fills our supermarket shelves, and ask how much of it is necessary, and how much is wasteful, needless and excessive.

Both economically and environmentally, packaging comes at a price. Families spend about £470 a year on packaging. We see unnecessary packaging every time we visit the supermarket, in the form of shrink-wrapped cucumbers or individually packaged bananas. Often, consumers do not have the option to buy a product without the excessive packaging. Today, the Local Government Association announced that council tax payers face fines of up to £3 billion if we fail to cut the amount of waste thrown into landfill. Consumers are paying three times over for excess packaging. We pay the cost of the packaging at the checkout, we pay increased council taxes and landfill taxes, and we will all pay the environmental cost of more waste going to landfill for years to come.

The Government have taken some, albeit limited, steps to tackle excess packaging. EU regulations on producer responsibilities and the essential requirements of packaging have been adopted into UK law. WRAP—the Waste and Resources Action Programme—has taken positive steps on research into minimising packaging. However, the waste strategy for England, published in May, was a missed opportunity. It includes a handful of measures on packaging, such as higher recycling targets, but no real ideas on how to get to the heart of the problem; it contains new targets but no fresh thinking. We should go much further.

Supermarkets have taken some steps to cut back on packaging and reduce waste. Sainsbury’s came top in a survey that I carried out this year of Easter egg packaging, for reducing to a minimum the often gross amount of packaging that usually accompanies Easter eggs. Waitrose has taken steps to pilot plastic-bag-free stores, requiring customers to bring their own reusable shopping bags.

Across Government and industry, the movement to curb excessive and wasteful packaging has shown signs of life, but is in serious need of a growth spurt. My Bill sets out steps to be taken in five areas to cut excessive packaging and reduce waste: reform of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ Courtauld commitments; augmenting the power of trading standards officers; creating a new national body on packaging; placing responsibilities on supermarkets to tackle the problem; and encouraging the reuse of plastic bags.

The Courtauld commitments are voluntary agreements brokered by DEFRA to reduce packaging levels. Ninety per cent. of the UK grocery sector signed up to them, and agreed to stop the growth in packaging waste by 2008 and achieve an absolute reduction in packaging waste by 2010. That sounds promising, but if we look below the surface, problems start to appear.

In answer to parliamentary questions, I have been told both that each Courtauld signatory “declares” its total packaging use each year, and that information on the annual total packaging use of each signatory is “not routinely collected”. Which is it? How are we benchmarking progress towards the targets? Another parliamentary answer tells me that a draft protocol is being consulted on with a view to it being agreed and implemented “in this reporting year”. If packaging growth is to be stopped as soon as next year, however, surely the means of reporting progress should be well established by now. How will future success be measured if there is not already a clear benchmark?

The Bill proposes that the Courtauld voluntary measures be translated into binding targets. Similar steps have been taken in other EU member states. The Courtauld targets are sensible, but we must reinforce the system so that they are given genuine priority, rather than lip service, by companies.

We already have legislation against excessive packaging. The problem is that it is not working. In theory, trading standards officers can combat excess packaging using the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2003, which stipulate that

“packaging volume and weight be…the minimum adequate amount to maintain the necessary level of safety, hygiene and acceptance for the packed product and for the consumer.”

Since the introduction of those, and their predecessor regulations nine years ago, there have been just four prosecutions for excess packaging. I have surveyed trading standards services around the country, and they are clearly finding it difficult to build a case for enforcement using the regulations. Wiltshire county council says that

“there are numerous problems with enforcement”.

West Berkshire council says that

“these regulations are difficult to enforce given the definition of what is excessive.”

South Ayrshire county council says

“there is little real impact that the regulations are having on reducing the problem.”

It is far too easy for businesses to show that they are complying with the regulations. Product presentation and brand image are taken strongly into account. If producers can find any evidence that sales have dropped as a result of a packaging size reduction, they can use packaging that is larger than necessary. A packaging arms race has begun, with ever bigger branded boxes jostling for space on supermarket shelves, and the consumer is left to pick up the tab for both the packaging and its disposal.

Even if the regulations were well worded it would make no difference, because trading standards departments are told not to bother. Last year the Rogers review described the policing of excess packaging as a “non-priority”, and no mention was made of packaging in the 2005-06 statement of central Government priorities for the trading standards service. The current regulations need technical amendments to prioritise the reduction of excess packaging over the needs of marketing departments, and Government need to stop ignoring the issue and provide some leadership.

My Bill calls for the establishment of a national body on packaging to support trading standards departments. It would work with them to tackle large-scale producers of excess packaging, and would offer a more co-ordinated and systematic approach to the problem. Such a national body could also place more emphasis on proactive packaging enforcement than trading standards departments, which tend to act only on specific complaints from the public.

If supermarkets and other retailers are to drive change and reduce packaging, the ball must be in their court. They must be given an incentive. Consumers should be empowered to take action and return unwanted packaging to the point of sale. The Bill requires large retailers to provide an in-store deposit point for the disposal of excess packaging before the customer leaves the store. Broadly speaking, packaging that can be removed by the customer before he or she leaves the shop is excessive, whereas packaging that must stay on the product if it is to arrive at the customer’s home in adequate condition is necessary. Making retailers take back the excess packaging that they force on consumers will send the message, loud and clear, that if they do not want to deal with it, they should not put it on the shelf in the first place.

Disposable plastic bags are a highly visible symbol of wasteful practice on the part of supermarkets. An estimated 17 billion plastic bags are given away annually by United Kingdom supermarkets—enough plastic to cover an area the size of London, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and west Yorkshire combined. Some countries have attempted to tackle excessive use of disposable plastic bags by introducing bag taxes, but evidence of their effectiveness or otherwise is mixed. Supporters of the idea point to the example of Ireland, where a 15-cent bag tax resulted in a 90 per cent. reduction in plastic bag use, but critics argue that the alternatives to plastic bags are heavier, and that the additional carbon emissions from transporting them offset any gains.

A better alternative to a plastic bag tax would be requiring supermarkets to participate in a deposit scheme for carrier bags. It would take the form of a levy—say 10p—paid on a bag at the point of sale, which would be redeemed when the bag was returned to the store. The charge would encourage customers to use bags sparingly, and in practice customers bringing the bags back would reuse them until the end of their useful life, when they would redeem the deposit or receive another bag. Attaching a redeemable deposit value to the bags would also create an incentive to reduce plastic bag litter.

We face many huge environmental challenges, and packaging is just one small but important part of a much bigger environmental picture. Outside the Chamber, I have found huge support for my campaign to cut excess packaging. The Independent and groups such as the Women’s Institute are running similar campaigns. The reaction both of my constituents and of people who have contacted me from around the country has been overwhelmingly positive In circumstances such as these, when a clear case for action is backed up by strong public support, the onus is on Parliament to act. Both the environmental and the economic costs make this an issue that must be tackled urgently.

The Government have recently come under fire for stealing policies from other parties. Lest my Bill does not receive sufficient parliamentary time during the current Session to progress to Third Reading, I invite the Minister to feel free to adopt the good ideas in it—and I promise that, rather than criticising, I shall be delighted.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Jo Swinson, Chris Huhne, Susan Kramer, Andrew Stunell, Norman Baker, John Barrett, Jenny Willott, Peter Bottomley, Bob Spink, Derek Wyatt, Mark Lazarowicz and Mrs. Sharon Hodgson.

Packaging (reduction)

Jo Swinson accordingly presented a Bill to establish a national body to promote and enforce packaging reduction; to make provision for the disposal of packaging by certain retailers; to establish binding targets for the reduction of packaging; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Thursday 25 October, and to be printed [Bill 165].