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The bottle that heralds a plastic revolution

It is the container that could launch a revolution. The first biodegradable bottle has gone on sale in Britain, raising hopes we may one day stop adding to the mountain of plastic packaging accumulating in shopping baskets and landfill sites.

The plastic water bottle - from a new company committed to environmental production, Belu - is made of corn and decomposes in home compost in months. Its launch is an attempt to stem the tide of plastic wrappers, tubs, trays and bottles that threatens to engulf landfill sites in the UK.

People in Britain throw away their body weight in rubbish every seven weeks. A growing consumer backlash against the growth in packaging has prompted businesses to explore greener alternatives.

Sainsbury's, for example, has introduced home compostable wrappers and trays on organic food at 140 stores, partly because of growing disenchantment at the extent of wrapping and packaging of everyday food.

Sainsbury's said the problem had been picked up in research, with a spokeswoman saying: "Consumers' concern has increased in the past year."

Coca-Cola has been carrying out tests to reduce the weight of its plastic bottles and says it is studying the "feasibility" of biodegradable bottles. The Swiss giant Nestlé is developing a plastic tray for Dairy Milk and Black Magic chocolate boxes that disintegrates on contact with water.

Other companies are going biodegradable too, such as Marks & Spencer, which has introduced a corn starch film on sandwich boxes. And Tesco plans to introduce biodegradable carrier bags later this year and double the amount customers recycle at its stores.

Belu insists that its bottle - which is stocked by Waitrose and whose profits go to the charity WaterAid, which builds wells in developing countries - will stimulate consumer demand for biodegradable products. "Think about it - plastic made from corn. The potential for helping the planet is enormous," said Belu's Mai Simonsen.

But although welcomed by environmental groups, such piecemeal moves may not have enough impact to turn back the tide of rubbish in an inveterate throwaway society.

Many environmentalists are questioning whether we need to be buying so many products in the first place, and say bottled water is a case in point. One recent study by the US-based Earth Policy Institute estimated that bottled water is 10,000 times more environmentally damaging than tap water because of the effort involved in extraction, packaging and transportation. The US's second most imported brand, Fiji, is shipped around the world from the middle of the South Pacific. Yet global sales of bottled water have leapt by 57 per cent in a decade, to 154 billion litres in 2004.

"Why not drink from the tap?" suggested Anna Watson, of Friends of the Earth. "We should celebrate the fact that we have fantastic drinking water in this country. We ask: do you need that product and do you need that packaging? The bottled water industry is very clever selling us something we do not need."

Norman Baker MP, chair of the All-Party Environment Group, said: "It's entirely laudable to try to help WaterAid, but increasing sales of bottled water is not the way to do it. Bottled water is extremely damaging for the environment; the best thing to do is to drink tap water. Biodegradeable materials are better than non-biodegradeable materials but there's no substitute for proper environmental action. People should be minimising their waste."

British families are estimated to be inadvertently paying out £460 a year on food packaging, which includes such seemingly absurd examples as shrink-wrapped coconuts.

Ministers are concerned about how wasteful Britain is in comparison with the rest of Europe, where recycling rates are often double ours. And improvements in recycling rates have been matched by rises in consumption, adding to the plastic mountain dumped in holes in the ground - where it will remain for 1,000 years. Officials say that the annual amount thrown away in England and Wales - 100 million tons a year - is growing by 3 per cent, about the same level of economic growth.

Belu executives insist that people will always demand drinks on the go and says the potential from introducing biodegradable bottles is "enormous".

Although sturdy enough to hold half a litre of Welsh mineral water, its "bio bottle" breaks down in 12 weeks with commercial composting, although the process takes longer in domestic composts, between nine months and a year. As yet there are no commercial composting in the UK for such bottles and the other downside is that the corn polymer is shipped in from the US.

Reed Paget, managing director of the company, said: "Hopefully, our bottle will kick-start the market and consumers will say 'we really like this idea' and encourage bigger companies."

The bottle retails for about 45p. The purchase of one bottle will, the company says, fund clean drinking water for one person in India or Africa for a month.

Plastic problem

* Britain uses 20 times more plastic now than it did 50 years ago

* Only 22 per cent of household rubbish is recycled. Most goes straight to landfill

* Of the 15 pre-expansion countries in the EU, only Greece and Portugal dump more rubbish in the ground

* Packaging waste weighs in at 9 million tons - 5 million of it from homes

* By quantity, most packaging is plastic (53 per cent), followed by paper/cardboard (25 per cent), glass (10 per cent), metals (7 per cent) and mixed materials (5 per cent).

* Britons use 275,000 tons of plastic bottles each year - 15 million a day

* Most water bottles are made from PET plastic, a crude oil extract. Eight per cent of oil production goes into plastics

* Sources: Department for Environment and Rural Affairs, Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment and Belu.