New consumer forum for packaging on the cards

A new forum to respond to consumers' concerns about packaging may be recommended by the Government's Advisory Committee on Packaging and could receive funding from the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), which is anxious to promote waste minimisation in the retail sector.

Concern about excess packaging is a long-standing public issue. In the early 1990s, public complaints about excessive or unsafe packaging were handled by the Packaging Standards Council, an advisory body set up by industry, but this was disband in 1996 because of insufficient funding.

In 1998, the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN) issued a code of practice to stave off legislation in the wake of an investigation of excessive and misleading packaging by the Department of Trade and Industry. INCPEN suggested at that time that the Packaging Standards Council be re-established (ENDS Report 284, p 18 ).

INCPEN is now floating the idea again. But this time the main driver is WRAP's waste minimisation programme, which includes a project to work with the "top five" supermarkets to cut the growth of household waste. WRAP says that 35-40% of all household waste which ends up in landfill begins life as a purchase from one of the five.

INCPEN says that the packaging industry has responded to these concerns by supporting recycling and designing packaging to make the best use of materials and energy. But it admits that "there is still room for improvement".

"Additional impetus", it says, could be provided by re-establishing the standards council to act as a "consumer watchdog". The council could publish adjudications on public complaints and advise companies on how to improve packaging, as well as promoting the code of practice. It would also help raise consumer awareness of environmental issues in relation to packaging and provide a channel for industry to explain why and how it uses packaging.

The idea of some kind of forum to bring consumers, retailers and the packaging industry together has some support from the Government's Advisory Committee on Packaging. Its task force on packaging minimisation will shortly recommend "the formulation of a body similar to the Packaging Standards Council that was," said ACP chairman John Turner. His Committee has already asked WRAP to consider funding for the body.

WRAP is considering the idea as part of its "challenge" to the supermarkets to help reduce household waste, and may see public opinion as a potentially useful lever in getting them to address the issue. However, the organisation first plans to conduct market research into future supermarket purchasing behaviour.

Such a forum, says WRAP, would have to be independent of industry, cost-effective and have more of an awareness-raising role rather than publishing adjudications.

The idea is also supported by trading standards bodies as a way of helping them enforce the "essential requirements" for packaging. Laid down in regulations in 1998, these cover material minimisation as well as recyclability and limits on heavy metal content.

Trading standards officers can serve notices prohibiting the supply of packaging considered to be in breach of the regulations - but in practice the accompanying European standards are too vague to assess the minimisation requirements and there have been only two prosecutions in five years (ENDS Report 347, p 31 ).

INCPEN suggested that the forum could "act as a sounding board" for trading standards officers with respect to the regulations.

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