Rules banning wasteful packaging in shops have too many loopholes to be effective, officials have warned.
While the law requires that packaging should be restricted to "the minimum amount to maintain necessary levels of safety, hygiene and acceptance" for the consumer, trading standards officers and council leaders have warned the regulations are almost unenforcable.
Based on an EU directive, the regulations are hedged about with ifs and buts, including a clause allowing extra packaging where it has "consumer acceptance", where it is needed to "provide identification", or for "stimulating purchase".
The get-out clauses were added after chocolate manufacturers insisted that children expect Easter eggs to come in large, brightly coloured boxes much bigger than the confectionery inside - prompting fears that officials could be branded "killjoys".
Paul Bettison, the leader of Bracknell Council in Berkshire, who speaks on environmental issues for 400 local councils, said the rules have too many loopholes, and that fines are too small to deter the major operators.
Since the packaging regulations were introduced in 2003, four firms have been successfully prosecuted. They include a company called Office World, which consistently used large boxes to dispatch relatively small items. In one case, it used a box 15 times the size of the goods it contained - not knowing that the customers were Northamptonshire trading standards officers, who took them to court where they were fined £2,000, plus £550 costs.
Northamptonshire officers have also prosecuted a butcher who sold pre-packed meat on an upturned polystyrene tray, inside another, larger tray. He was fined £1,000. In Cambridgeshire, a customer complained after buying some Cadbury's Giant Chocolate Fingers at Tesco, only to find they were far from giant. They came in a tin nearly seven inches long, but inside were individually wrapped chocolate fingers less than four-and-a-half inches long. The company responsible, Burton's Foods of St Albans, was fined a total of £5,000.
And a firm called Nadia Luciani was fined £500 after trading standards officers in Oldham discovered that the tin in which they were selling dried mushroom powder had a false bottom, making it three inches longer than necessary.
David Hedger, a Northamptonshire trading standards officer who was involved in two of the four prosecutions, said: "The onus is on trading standards to prove the offence, but how do you disprove 'customer acceptance'? We want much tougher regulations."
Mr Bettison, who chairs the Local Government Association's environment board, said: "A law that is supposed to outlaw excessive packaging is proving woefully unenforcable. Local authority trading standards services have found their hands tied by regulations which allow businesses to cite customer preference as a reason for using excess packaging.
"There is no incentive whatsoever for producers to cut down on packaging, because they know they can get away with it. Loopholes that make it easy for businesses to get off the hook must be closed. Equally, a £5,000 fine is a drop in the ocean for big companies. Only serious fines will act as a genuine disincentive to over-packaging."
Waste with your cuppa?
Sarah Gaunt contacted The Independent to complain about the "ridiculous" packaging of Tetley Fruit and Herbal tea bags. Her 20 tea bags came not in a cardboard box but a sealed tube with plastic lid, the sort of container used for Pringles crisps.
"Surely there are ways to keep 20 tea bags fresh with less materials that this!" Ms Gaunt wrote. "I no longer buy this tea." When we brought her complaint to the attention of the company, it said the packaging had largely proved a hit with customers because it preserved the flavour of the leaf. It seems likely that a cardboard box or a glass jar at home could do the same job.
But Tetley did admit that its guidelines for recycling the tube may be impractical. It said in a statement: "We do understand that whilst each part of the container is recyclable, its construction makes it hard to achieve this in practice. In light of the popularity of this particular container, and in keeping with our desire to continually improve, we have a team of people looking to address this issue of recycling."
* Do you have examples of absurd packaging? Have you been infuriated by the level of waste in something you bought? If so, tell us and we will highlight it in The Independent and take it up with the companies concerned. Send your examples to: email@example.comReuse content