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UK British Law Spurs Scrutiny Of Excess Packaging


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
British law spurs scrutiny of excess packaging


The citizens of Lincolnshire, England, were so fed up with the layers of plastic and cardboard and Styrofoam that encased their store purchases this fall that they took a high-priced, highly wrapped piece of meat to court.

Specifically, the Lincolnshire County Council sued the Sainsbury's supermarket chain for “excessive packaging” of its ‘Taste the Difference Slow Matured Ultimate Beef Roasting Joint', which costs nearly $20, after receiving consumer complaints. No matter that the meat was a “luxury” item, the council said: The way it was packaged plastic-wrapped atop a PET tray under a clear plastic cover and then swathed in a fetching cardboard sleeve violated British law.

British regulations on excess packaging first took effect in 2003 in an effort to reduce waste, particularly items that cannot be recycled and go into a landfill. Those rules, strengthened two years ago in response to environmental concerns and an awareness that the nation's landfills were reaching their limits, now require that producers keep packaging to the minimum required for “products' safety, hygiene and consumer acceptance.” That set off a nationwide experiment in rethinking how familiar products are sold, from Easter eggs to tubes of tomato paste to plastic jugs of fabric softener.

“I think it's starting to affect purchasing decisions, but maybe not so much at this time of year,” said Andy Ware, head of the retail division at the Waste Resources Action Programme, or WRAP, a government-financed waste reduction project. “When people shop now, packaging is often the last thing on people's mind. But that changes when they have to extract the toy from the layers and layers of plastic.”

The British charity Waste Watch estimates that one billion Christmas cards and 32 square miles of wrapping paper will be thrown away in Britain. There are many reasons that food and consumer products come heavily wrapped, from marketing appeal, to the need to protect expensive items like new cell phones, to security issues. Computer memory sticks and DVDs, for example, are sold in outsize packages to prevent theft.

Even watchdogs admit that appearances can be important. “There's a lot of energy that goes into producing food, and if it's not packaged well enough to protect it or to appeal to customer, then it will spoil on the shelf,” said Liz Foster, the leader of a special team to scrutinise packaging. But the economic and environmental incentives for streamlining or eliminating some types of packaging have grown. Local governments pay hefty taxes for trash sent to landfills about $100 per tonne, up nearly 50 per cent in the last two years and European Union rules require countries to halve the amount of trash sent to landfills by 2013 from 1995 levels. Landfills are an environmental concern partly because rotting trash releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

In Britain, excess packaging rules are policed by the Trade Standards Agency, whose local officers investigate consumer complaints like the ones that got the beef in trouble, as well as issues like counterfeiting. But the government reports some successes. And a growing number of companies have signed on to a voluntary programme founded in 2005 called the Courtauld Commitment, under which they pledge to reduce packaging. Government officials say that more than 1.3 million tonnes of food and packaging waste and 3.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions from manufacturing, transporting and disposing of the materials were avoided as a result. — © New York Times News Service