Lords urge Government action on packaging

The UK is "backward" by comparison with leading EC countries in its approach to packaging and protecting the environment from packaging waste, according to a report by the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Communities.1 Although critical of key aspects of the proposed EC Directive on packaging waste, the Committee also urges the Government not to rely solely on voluntary initiatives by industry to deal with the problem. Economic instruments and pump-priming of a recovery and recycling infrastructure are needed to improve the UK's record.

The Committee's inquiry into the draft EC Directive ended in June (ENDS Reports 220, pp 25-26 , and 221, pp 31-32 ). Some of its recommendations on how the proposal should be changed have already been overtaken by events, and the report appears more likely to influence the Government's thinking on how to develop its packaging policy at home.

The report says there is a need for "quick action" to limit the potentially damaging effects of national recycling measures within the EC. And it warns that the draft Directive, far from reducing the likelihood of waste mountains of the kind created by Germany's controversial packaging law, may well exacerbate the problem by stimulating the recovery of packaging waste for which no markets presently exist in other Member States.

The Committee's main counter-proposal is that no mandatory recovery and recycling targets should be set by the Directive. Instead, Member States should develop their own targets for different packaging materials, perhaps stimulated by non-mandatory EC targets. Only after a period of "convergence" during which Member States built up their collection and processing systems should mandatory EC targets be contemplated.

The problem with this approach is that Member States have a history of disregarding EC measures which are not legally binding. Critics may also argue that variations in national targets would create continuing market disruptions and distortions. The Committee's approach appears to be politically unrealistic, and in any event Environment Ministers appear to have accepted the need for targets even if these are likely to be whittled down from the European Commission's ambitious proposals (see pp 36-37 ).

The Committee also recommends that one way of discouraging Member States from introducing packaging laws which then disrupt markets in other countries would be to apply more rigorously the "proximity principle" - a key feature of EC waste policy which is intended to encourage Member States to become self-sufficient in waste management capacity. A ban on trade in packaging waste for which the holder pays the recipient is advocated.

The report goes on to criticise the UK's past and current record in reducing excessive packaging and the burden it imposes on the environment. The draft Directive, it says, would do little to improve matters because it "pays little more than lip-service to the need for minimisation." The Lords suggest "a more direct attack on excessive packaging per item."

The most direct means of tackling this problem would be a packaging tax, the report says. If recycled materials were exempt from the tax demand for them would also increase.

An alternative to a tax would be a levy raised by industry. The revenues could be used to finance a waste collection and processing infrastructure, avoiding Treasury objections to the earmarking of tax revenues for specific purposes.

The Committee views other economic instruments less favourably. Household waste charges would encourage fly-tipping. And a landfill tax would probably have a major effect only on reduction of commercial packaging.

The report is also clear that "if this country is to catch up with the more advanced practices already proven elsewhere it will not be sufficient to rely on voluntary initiatives by consumers and industry" - suggesting that the Committee was not convinced that the Government's latest request to the packaging industry to develop a waste management plan (ENDS Report 224, pp 16-19 ) will do the trick. Economic instruments will be needed from the Government, it says, and pump-priming of new packaging waste management infrastructures should also not be ruled out.

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