Packaging industry's latest environmental initiatives

Packaging producers and users have launched two initiatives in an attempt to allay concern over the perceived environmental drawbacks of packaging. The Packaging Council has been set up to handle complaints on excessive and unsafe packaging, while the British Retail Consortium (BRC) has issued a guidance note to help retailers and their suppliers formulate environmental policies for packaging. The Government, which has been threatening to impose environmental rules for packaging if the industry fails to produce convincing proposals of its own, has still to say whether these and other plans match up to its expectations.

The Packaging Council is an initiative of the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN). It was put together following a Government request in 1990.

The Council's task will be to field complaints about packaging which fails to comply with a new code of practice on packaging of consumer goods.1 Its Chairman is former EC Environment Commissioner Lord Clinton Davis. Seven of its members are from industry and seven represent consumer, environmental and local authority interests.

Friends of the Earth (FoE) responded to the launch by criticising the code as "unenforceable." The one-page code certainly cannot be said to be draconian.

Its three paragraphs on the environment stipulate that the package itself should be designed "with due regard to reuse and/or recycling, and to its ultimate safe disposal in accord with relevant Government waste management targets." Packaging systems should use the minimum amount of energy and raw materials "consistent with the requirements of protection, distribution, preservation and presentation of the product," and should minimise emissions. The business named on the product will also have to justify any environmental claim made for the packaging.

The BRC, representing the main retailers, has issued a guidance note on packaging intended to avert regulatory action by the Government.2 A heavy emphasis is laid throughout on the responsibilities of packaging suppliers to conduct life-cycle analyses of packaging systems and offer products which minimise environmental impacts.

The note urges retailers to set "realistic but rapid targets" for the reduction, reuse and recycling of packaging materials. Whether this means that the targets should be set quickly or should have short timescales is unclear.

A potentially important target urged by the BRC is that packaging systems which are recoverable for reuse or recycling are achieved by 2000. FoE has criticised this aspect of the guidance because it makes virtually no allusion to reusable or refillable packaging.

Nevertheless, the guidance should help to reduce the adverse impacts of packaging. It strongly discourages the use of multi-material packs and laminates, for example, and promotes alternatives to solvent-based inks and adhesives. Everything now depends on how retailers respond.

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