The 1994 EU packaging Directive requires companies to ensure that their packaging meets certain "essential requirements", covering material minimisation, recyclability and limits on heavy metal content.
In the UK, these were belatedly transposed by the 1998 essential requirements regulations. Packaging is presumed to comply with the regulations if it meets standards in line with norms drawn up by European standards body CEN. Most of these standards are being revised after the European Commission criticised them as ineffectual.
The standards require a firm to work through a series of checklists to ensure that all relevant factors have been taken into account in a pack's design. Companies do not have to produce evidence of compliance, and those which have not conducted conformity assessments for all their packaging have not failed to comply with the regulations. But, if asked, they need to provide documentary evidence that a pack met the requirements within 14 days.
The regulations are enforced by trading standards authorities, who have the power to serve notices prohibiting the supply of packaging considered to be in breach of the regulations.
Trading standards bodies complain that the standards are too vague to assess the minimisation and recyclability requirements, and that they lack the resources to police the regulations.
The DTI has recently reiterated its request that they apply a "light touch" to enforcement. Since 1999, when enforcement began, there have been just two prosecutions.
An ENDS survey of packaging consultants in 2000 found that few firms were bothering to check the design of their packaging against the requirements (ENDS Report 306, pp 24-25 ). It also found that most firms were completely in the dark about the regulations.
The standards approach is popular with the packaging industry. When the regulations were introduced, the industry warned that failure to use the standards would result in "green advocates of command and control legislation" pressing for the essential requirements to be addressed another way.
Negotiations to revise the packaging Directive were completed in December. As part of the deal, the Commission has been asked to draw up new proposals to strengthen and complement the enforcement of the essential requirements - but no deadline was set. The UK, like some other Member States, is keen to avoid any new "burdens" on the packaging chain.
Against this background, sceptics will not be surprised that the report by consultants Perchards for the DTI is broadly favourable about the existing regime.
The report acknowledges that material minimisation, or "lightweighting", was widely practised - driven by the need to reduce costs - before the essential requirements regulations were introduced. But the regulations provide environmental managers with "a concrete obligation which can be and is used to improve their negotiating position with their colleagues in sales or marketing."
Eighteen of the 22 companies surveyed for the study said that "application of the procedures had resulted in changes to their packaging." But the report acknowledges that "it can never be certain whether decisions have been made as a direct result of implementation of the essential requirements or whether the same decisions would have been made anyway."
It is open to question how representative the survey sample is. Most of the 22 companies are high street retailers or multinational manufacturers, and many are acknowledged leaders in environmental compliance, such as Unilever, Sainsbury's, Boots and B&Q.
"It would be interesting to see a report on smaller companies," remarked David Hedger, chairman of the environmental group of LACORS, the Local Authority Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services.
The report puts a positive gloss on the survey results, but close examination reveals that three-quarters of those surveyed do not apply the procedures to all their transport packaging, and two-thirds do not apply them to all sales packaging.
Although the regulations "are largely self-policing", says the report, compliance permeates through the supply chain as large companies put pressure on their suppliers. The only supply chains unaffected are those without a large company involved, but these represent only a small proportion of the total market.
Trading standards authorities "may be" understaffed but there is a "reasonably high level" of awareness of the regulations, according to Perchards. Enforcement activity has slackened because "many trading standards officers now have a rather better understanding of packaging design issues and have generally been satisfied with companies' response to the regulations."
Opinions vary as to the level of awareness and compliance in the marketplace. "I'm sure awareness has grown," said packaging consultant Barry Overton, who agreed with the report's key findings.
Jane Bickerstaffe of the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment said that some companies have told her that "there were some packs which didn't make it onto the shelves because of the regulations."
However, Brian Lodge of packaging designer Futurebrand, which works with many major food manufacturers, said he has never been involved in checking that a design complies with the regulations. "Apart from finding alternatives to PVC, we've never designed anything driven by compliance."
Given the nature of the regulations and the myriad issues which trading standards officers have to tackle, it is questionable whether anyone knows how many firms are aware of the regulations and how many packs are subject to conformity assessment.
The regulations are not included in the list of issues on which trading standards authorities must report to the DTI each year.
There is also no national monitoring strategy. Each local authority is free to choose its own trading standards priorities. The nearest thing to an overarching body to devise a strategy, LACORS' environmental group, has failed to meet in recent years due to lack of resources.