National supermarkets criticised over failure to cut levels of packaging

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Supermarkets are failing to do enough to reduce packaging and an average shopping trip produces so much rubbish that the Government may miss European recycling targets, local authorities warn today.

National store chains such as Marks & Spencer produced more waste than local high street stores or markets and as little as 40 per cent of the packaging from retailers is recyclable, according to a study by the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents 400 councils in England and Wales.

The LGA has warned that councils face fines of £3bn unless they drastically cut the amount of waste going to landfill, in line with the EU's target of halving landfill in the UK by 2013.

The Independent's Campaign Against Waste has shown how oil and other precious resources are being squandered to produce throwaway packaging when wrappers can be reduced, recycled or composted.

To assess the scale of the problem, the LGA commissioned BMRB research to buy a basket of 29 everyday goods from eight retailers,; Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Lidl and a high street shop and a market.

The market was best overall, with packaging weighing 710g, 79 per cent recyclable, while local traders also performed better than most of their national rivals. Asda was the best performing supermarket, with packaging weighing 714g – 70 per cent of which was recyclable. The worst performing chains were Marks & Spencer, Morrisons and Lidl.

Overall, packaging accounted for 5 per cent of the weight of the products. Local authorities are expecting financial difficulties because the Government has increased landfill tax steeply, from £24 to £32 a tonne, and threatened fines of up to £150 per tonne of rubbish dumped into landfill sites over a quota, in order to meet the European Landfill Directive, which demands a 50 per cent cut on 1995 levels.

The British Retail Consortium, which represents the store chains, argued that packaging played a small part in Britain's waste problem and a big role in the transportation and protection of goods. "All packaging accounts for only3 per cent of waste going to landfill so of course there is scope for reductions that and retailers are even more focused on reducing packaging on products," said its head of media and campaigns Richard Dodd.

"But it's wrong to suggest that retailers are pointlessly covering products in packaging because they are aware of the obvious environmental problems and there has always been a cost consideration to doing that, so why would they do it?"

He added the LGA's figures on recyclability were "spurious" because what could be recycled varied according to local authority. He called on councils to standardise the doorstep collection of recyclable materials.

The LGA insisted supermarkets were producing too much waste. Paul Bettison, chairman of the LGA's environment board, said: "People are working hard to increase their recycling rates but their efforts are being hamstrung by needlessly over-packaged products on sale in supermarkets.

"We all have a responsibility to reduce the amount of waste being thrown in landfill, which is damaging the environment and contributing to climate change. Many supermarkets are taking action to cut back on excessive packaging, but this research proves there is an urgent need to do more."

How they rated

* Marks & Spencer

One of the worst culprits. It had the second heaviest packaging and the lowest proportion of packaging material that could be recycled, 60 per cent. An embarrassment given M&S' commitment toreducing climate change emissions, Plan A.

* Tesco

A mixed performance. Britain's biggest retailer with more than 30 per cent of the grocery market had the lightest packaging but relatively little of it could be recycled – 62 per cent, the third worst.

* Lidl

Perhaps not surprisingly, the budget store fared badly. Its packaging weighed 799 grams, the heaviest, and it had the second lowest rate of recyclability, 61 per cent – making it one of the worst

* Sainsbury's

The supermarket that has arguably done the most on packaging has one of the highest levels of recyclable packaging, 70 per cent, but a mediocre score on weight, 749g.

* Morrisons

One of the heaviest packagers, 779g, and the fourth lowest level of material that could be recycled, 68 per cent. Morrisons has a poor environmental record, which it is seeking to improve.

* Asda

The store which has been conducting some radical experiments on packaging does best of the six national chains. 70 per cent of its packaging was recyclable and it had the third lightest wrappers, weighing in at 714g.

* The local rivals

Markets performed best, with the joint highest level of recyclability, 79 per cent, and the second-lowest weight, 710g, probably because of the practice of wrapping fresh produce in paper bags. Local retailers also had 79 per cent recyclability but the weight was in the middle of the range, with a total of 769g.