NEVER has the spud been sold with such swank. Bred for uniformity, free from worm or blemish, scrubbed smooth, it basks among its genetically perfect-looking siblings on a polystyrene couch shaped like a Botticelli clamshell, under a shimmering caul of polymer film. The label carries the words: St Michael Marfona Baking Potatoes With A Smooth Creamy Texture. This is a tattie at Marks & Spencer today, three for nearly a quid.

Nearby, Scottish swedes are twinned inside a glistening film, shorn of root and leafy shoot, at 52p the pair. Beyond them, St Michael Ribier Black Grapes rest on a bed of bubbles in a crystalline PVC pirate chest, booty from far-

off Chile. Opposite are Dutch cucumbers, each safely wrapped, not only in the skin nature gave it, but in the plastic shrinkwrap St Michael provides, along with a glued-on colour photograph of a cucumber and the comfort of a guaranteed length (40-50mm), in case you can't see for yourself.

Practically everything is sealed under plastic, muffled in paper: don't feel, don't smell, just look at the gourmet photograph. Freshness is assured by the motto 'Do not display after . . .' Display, not sell: this is a gallery, not a barrow. Such anxiety-free food, cosseting us with instructions not just on preparing it (microwave on high power for 4 minutes) but on how to remove it from the wrapping: discard sleeve, peel here, remove foil, pierce film before heating.

OF THE rubbish we throw out every year, a quarter by weight is made up of packaging. 'Just 25 per cent,' say the packaging industry representatives, defensively. But we generate 20 million tonnes of household waste annually, which means that five million tonnes of plastic and paper and metal and glass find no higher calling than as containers for the things we really want to buy; we tear off the wrappers, empty the cans, strip off the shrinkwrap - and chuck them away.

Plastic: non-biodegradable, made from non-renewable oil. Paper: think of the raw tracks left by logging trucks through the virgin forests of British Columbia; think of the 140 species under threat of extinction from intensive forestry in Sweden. Aluminium cans - picture the bauxite mine scars in Queensland and Brazil. From all over the world come raw materials which end up as landfill, buried in holes in the ground in the British countryside. What a reckless waste of natural resources.

Last week, the European Commission approved a draft directive which will, within 10 years, require all EC countries to dump no more than 10 per cent of their packaging waste. Two-thirds of the 90 per cent recovered must be recycled; the rest can be incinerated for power. Brussels also wants product labelling indicating how a container should be recycled.

This is ambitious. In Britain, at present, a quarter of all household waste is considered recyclable (though a large proportion may be packaging), but only about 5 per cent is actually recycled. Even pilot recycling programmes have yet to achieve recovery of more than 50 per cent of recyclable waste. This is the Department of Environment's target for all local authorities by 2000 and it is asking them to report next month on how they intend to meet it.

There must be far-reaching changes not just in the mechanics of how rubbish is collected and processed, but in attitudes towards waste. Consumers will have to understand their rubbish and undertake considerable preliminary sorting themselves.

'PACKAGING is an emotive subject and lots of balderdash gets talked about it,' says Tim Rothwell, financial analyst specialising in packaging at Barclays de Zoete Wedd. 'The fact is that without sophisticated packaging, the whole economy of food and drink manufacture and retail would collapse.' He speaks witheringly of pressure groups who, he says, have no idea of market economics. Briskly, he runs through packaging's virtues. It protects and preserves food: 'People worry about additives. Packaging is the single most important preservative element in the food and drink chain.' It reduces food waste to around 2-3 per cent, he says, compared with the 30-50 per cent wastage in the developing world. It has improved hygiene, made self-service shopping possible, and more recently provided tamper-evident packs that protect consumers against sabotage.

'If the British consumer was really concerned about the environment, he would use his car less,' says Mr Rothwell, defiantly.

He has a point. After all it's the customers who demand convenience, buying sandwiches in triangular plastic boxes, or microwaveable meals packed in polyethylene which offers the choice of conventional or microwave cooking. We complain indignantly, sometimes litigiously, when we find a trace of an impurity - a hair, a speck of sawdust - in our food. When Marks & Spencer offered Marfona potatoes - the ones with the smooth and creamy texture - in an ordinary bag without the clamshell, and put both sorts on the shelf, the elaborately packaged ones sold first.

We choose packaging; for every pounds 65 spent on groceries, pounds 10 goes on packaging. Stripping the outer wrappings from a load of shopping is part of the ritual of making it your own.

But packaging is visible waste; and we come into direct contact with it - unlike, say, the effluent from sewage treatment plants. This visibility, and greater awareness of environmental issues over the past five years, has created a surge of hostility against excessive packaging from consumers, pressure groups, governments and the EC, and has left the industry feeling victimised. It has also galvanised it into reviewing its practices, with the aim of making them greener, or at least making them seem greener.

SO, BACK to Marks & Spencer where James Stafford, Technical Manager Responsible for Food Packaging, is surveying peaches in the Kensington High Street branch. Some are sold in clear plastic boxes and some are loose: M&S is experimenting with a return to unwrapped fruit and vegetables. Mr Stafford points out that some of the loose fruit has become bruised through handling. 'You may think,' he says, 'that you don't have to choose these damaged ones. But you pay for them in the end.'

We move to a display of plastic pots of soup next to plastic pots of hummus. The hummus plastic containers have cardboard sleeves telling you what's inside; the soup has the information printed directly on the pot. The soup is 14p cheaper than when it, too, had a cardboard sleeve, a typical example, Mr Stafford says, of environmentalism and good business practice going hand in hand.

There are others: strong, lightweight plastic replaces older, heavier kinds, reducing the need for raw materials. The plastic trays that used to prop up products on the shelves have been discarded, at a saving of pounds 5m a year.

In the huge refrigerated store room, we shiveringly admire the reusable plastic transit trays which the company devised two years ago to transport goods between stores and suppliers: 300 stores, two million trays in circulation, each making two or three round trips a week, and lasting up to 15 years. It seems environmentally sound: it saves 25,000 tonnes of cardboard a year.

Elsewhere, too, there is evidence that retailers and packers are responding to environmental concerns, or at least waking up to the fact that economies in the name of environmentalism is good PR. Sainsbury's has reduced the size of its free tear-off vegetable bags, saving 600 tonnes of plastic a year. Removing polystyrene bases from its pizzas saved another 100 tonnes a year, and produced a windfall of pounds 150,000. B & Q, the DIY chain, has conducted an exhaustive green audit in an effort to impose environmental responsibilty, not just within the company, but on its suppliers and their suppliers.

Mr Stafford's suppliers spend pounds 130m a year on providing packaging to M&S specifications. He says he is increasingly able to persuade them to produce high-quality recycled or lightweight goods: not so long ago, they would have shaken their heads and told him it was impossible. So, slowly, pressure to turn green trickles up the supply chain.

THIS BRINGS us to the German Solution. Brussels' draft directive is not inspired solely by concern for the environment. Harsh packaging laws in Germany demand, among other things, that the packager has ultimate responsibility for disposal and recycling of packaging outside the public waste disposal system. This raises the dreaded spectre of unfair competition between EC members. Countries could use their own packaging laws to keep out competing products.

In Germany, packagers and retailers have had to establish a parallel collection system, in addition to providing points in stores where consumers can dump unwanted packaging materials. Think of the plastic, cardboard and glass that Mr Stafford, at Marks & Spencer, would have to contend with. And what if beer and soft drink firms had to be responsible for every can now lying in the street? No wonder the thought of similarly stiff rules Europe-wide galvanised the British industry into producing a voluntary code.

Critics of Germany's 'Topfer' system (named after their environment minister, Klaus Topfer) are legion. 'A sham and a shambles,' says Tim Rothwell. Peni Walker, packaging campaigner at Friends of the Earth, concedes that the German approach has led to over-collection of waste materials without facilities to reprocess them or markets to use them, while packaging executives at a British Retail Consortium conference last month, where the German system was discussed, were highly criticial of the consumption of vast amounts of fuel whizzing this waste material around the autobahn system.

But now that package makers are responsible for their own waste, new recycling technology is being developed. More than 35 per cent of the polystyrene foam used in packaging in Germany is being recycled, a far higher proportion than here. Car and domestic appliance manufacturers are planning for when they will have to take back their products for recycling. Disposal is being considered at the design and costing stage. This process - life cycle analysis - is the key to integrated approaches to waste disposal.

Life cycle analysis merges environmentalism with economics: environomics, this new discipline might be called. It evaluates materials in terms of their overall impact on the environment, from the moment they are extracted or harvested as raw materials (and the effect this has on the local environment), through processing (including fuel use and by-products) and use, to disposal. Its findings, expressed in megajoules per kilogramme and relative calorific values, can be mind-boggling.

Ian Boustead, staff tutor in technology at the Open University, is currently struggling to write the textbook on the subject. He has some startling views, one of which is that sending solid waste to landfill is not the problem - 'plenty of holes in the ground in this country, disused quarries and so on'. But it is a waste of stuff which might, in a more imaginative economy, be seen as raw, not spent, materials.

He has doubts about recycling. Aluminium - fine: the price is high enough and the process easy enough to justify any amount of reprocessing. . But take glass, often seen as the model of a successful recycling industry. 'Recycling glass, as opposed to producing it from virgin materials, which are relatively plentiful and easily obtainable, represents a saving of - here we go - four megajoules per kilogramme, which is about the amount of energy it takes to drive a car a mile. So energy benefits of recycling are easily lost in transportation.'

Mr Boustead cheerfully entertains the thought of another, traditionally shocking solution to piles of mounting waste: incineration. For paper. And worse, for plastic. At present, less than 10 per cent of domestic waste is disposed of in this way, and there are only four incinerators in Britain sophisticated enough to yield usable energy as a by-product. At high temperatures, in furnaces that do not have to operate, as our older ones do, at over-capacity, poisonous emissions are minimal, says Mr Boustead. Result: a plastic-fuelled power station.

But what about waste paper? Surely a tree deserves a better fate - a garden chair, perhaps, or a book of poetry - than ending up in an incinerator? Back comes the unsentimental reply: 'Trees are renewable, oil isn't' Burning paper reclaims the solar energy that was fixed by the tree as it grew; new trees can be planted to replace those harvested.

But surely some system of sorting waste into recyclable and non-recyclable materials must be an improvement on burying the whole lot? At the moment, goods are collected for recycling in a patchwork of schemes organised by local authorities, private companies and voluntary agencies. Hence 'integration' of the collection system is another favoured idea. There are two options - 'bring' schemes, where the householder undertakes to deposit certain types of waste at central collection points; and 'collect' schemes, where waste products are collected from the doorstep. Not surprisingly, the latter have higher success rates. But even if waste could be perfectly sorted, recycling still presents problems, mostly financial. It will only work if it is economic: no one will collect materials and reprocess them if raw materials are cheaper. Reprocessing almost invariably degrades the material, producing a 'cascade effect' whereby white paper turns into speckled paper, clear glass into greenish glass, fine cloth into upholstery stuffing, and almost all plastic into traffic cones.

If local authorities succeed in meeting targets, and recycling is to increase dramatically, there must be reprocessing plant in place and markets for reprocessed products. It is not cheap. A planned de-inking facility for recycling paper in Lanarkshire will cost pounds 200m; a plant in Warrington that will provide 50,000 tonnes of aluminium a year from recycled drinks cans will require an investment of pounds 28m. Companies must be sure people will continue to want aluminium and recycled paper before they lay out such sums, and that there will be a reliable supply of scrap to feed the factories.

'The false idea that besets this whole debate is that there will be one solution to all the problems of waste disposal,' says Mr Boustead. 'There never will be one solution: it depends on the priorities you set out with. If your goal is to reduce the production of greenhouse gases, you will not opt for incineration. If your priority is to reduce solid waste - in a country where there is a real shortage of landfill space - then incineration with energy reclamation might be the best solution.'

LOOK where the Marks & Spencer potato has brought us: to a perplexing vista of difficult choices, warring priorities, whose implications stretch through time as well as distance. No easy solutions. It's all a far cry from taking our bottles to the bottle bank; though that, and choosing to consume less packaging, may be the only option we have for a while.


HOW much household rubbish could be recycled? A typical dustbin contains the following:

Paper 33 per cent: 30 per cent of the paper we use gets recycled. Low-grade is recycled into packaging; high-grade into writing paper or tissues.

Putrescibles 20 per cent: Food waste - meat and vegetable matter. Almost all goes to landfill, producing landfill gases, which include the greenhouse gas methane. Most organic waste could be turned into compost or peat substitute.

Glass 10 per cent: There are more than 5,000 bottle banks nationwide, but the UK still has a poor recycling record: 20 per cent compared with 55 per cent in Switzerland and 53 per cent in the Netherlands.

Metal 8 per cent: Around 10 per cent of steel and aluminium cans are recycled, either collected at banks or extracted from household waste. Aluminium can be recycled into new cans, so the scrap price is high, and more than 40 per cent gets recycled. More than 45 per cent of the iron and steel gets recycled.

Plastics 7 per cent: Little reprocessing of the million tonnes used each year for packaging.

Textiles 4 per cent: Little systematic reclamation.

Miscellaneous 18 per cent.

(Photograph omitted)