Councils attack “excessive” supermarket packaging
17 February 2009
"Excessive" food packaging used by supermarkets is undermining householders' efforts to recycle, according to a report published by the Local Government Association today (February 17).
In its third survey of the food packaging found in a typical shopping basket, the council organisation found that almost 40% of supermarket packaging could not be recycled. And, the organisation claimed this would cost councils an extra £360 million in landfill taxes over the next two years.
However, retail sector trade body the British Retail Consortium (BRC) has hit back at the findings, claiming that packaging is necessary to protect food and reduce waste and has challenged councils to do more to improve their recycling services.
Bob Gordon, the BRC's head of environment, said: "Retailers pay over £5 billion a year in business rates towards local authority funding. The biggest barrier to recycling is local authorities' failure to agree on which materials they are prepared to recycle".
The LGA research was carried out by the British Market Research Bureau and looked at eight supermarkets and the weight of food packaging they used in a typical shopping basket.
The survey found that Lidl had the lowest level of packaging that could be easily recycled (58%), and Waitrose had the heaviest packaging (802.5grams).
Tesco had the lightest packaging (645.5grams) and Sainsbury's had the highest level of packaging that could be easily recycled (67%).
The LGA claimed that, since its first survey on the subject, in October 2007 (see letsrecycle.com story), the weight of food packaging had been reduced overall but the proportion that could be recycled had changed little. Marks & Spencer was found to be the second best in terms of the weight of its packaging, having been second last in the previous two surveys.
Commenting on the findings, the LGA said that, whilst people were recycling more waste, their efforts were being held back by supermarkets and that this was contributing to the estimated £1.8 billion councils would need to spend on landfill tax between 2008 and 2011. Landfill tax costs councils £32 a tonne - a figure which will rise to £48 a tonne by 2010.
Councillor Margaret Eaton, chair of the LGA, said: "At a time when we're in recession and shoppers are feeling the pinch, we have to move on from a world that tolerates cling filmed coconuts and shrink wrapped tins of baked beans. Families are fed up with having to carry so much packaging home from the supermarket.
"If we had less unnecessary packaging it would cut costs and lead to lower prices at the tills. When packaging is sent to landfill, it's expensive for taxpayers and damaging for the environment. Supermarkets need to up their game so it's easier for people to do their bit to help the environment."
As a result, the LGA is calling on the government to make retailers responsible for funding the collection of packaging so they have a direct incentive to produce less.
Cllr Eaton said: "Taxpayers don't want to see their money going towards paying landfill taxes and EU fines when council tax could be reduced instead. If retailers create unnecessary rubbish, they should help taxpayers by paying for it to be recycled."
However, the British Retail Consortium said that the LGA survey "failed" to acknowledge the role that packaging played in preserving food and thereby reducing food waste, and that many local authorities failed to recycle materials that could be recycled.
As a result it challenged councils to make "positive moves" to increase recycling rather than "looking for new ways to pile costs onto retailers and customers".
Mr Gordon said: "It's a nonsense to suggest that retailers swathe their goods in masses of unnecessary packaging. This would simply be a pointless cost. Packaging reduces waste by protecting and preserving products.
"The LGA is right to say the overall weight of food packaging has been reduced. Retailers are working towards more sustainable packaging, using less material and more recycled content. Stores reward and encourage recycling. They also offer a variety recycling facilities where practical," he added.