New laws will compel the retail giants to join new corporative organisations charged with the task of boosting recycling by financing the spread of neighbourhood collection banks and large plants where plastic, glass, metal and paper are separated out of raw household refuse.
The draft waste-packaging regulations - published yesterday by the Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer - will become law next year. They will cost industry between pounds 300m and pounds 635m a year to implement by the year 2000, according to his department.
Mr Gummer said the rules could add between 5p and 25p to a typical family's weekly shopping bill of pounds 50. "But the shopping may end up costing less if all goes the way we hope it will," he said.
In the long run, increased recycling could bring down the cost of packaging.
The new regulations will apply to every company handling more than 50 tonnes of packaging a year - from the manufacturers of the raw material all the way through the packaging chain to the final retailers.
Although "tiny corner shops" will be excluded, more than 11,000 businesses are expected to be covered by the laws and all will have a legal obligation to recover a proportion of used packaging.
The regulations are needed to comply with the EU's waste packaging directive, which says that, by 2001, 25 per cent of all packaging waste must be recycled. Furthermore, at least 50 per cent of this waste must be usefully recovered - which includes recycling or burning the material in garbage incinerators to generate electricity.
Although the obligation is shared, the lion's share, 47 per cent, falls on the retailers and the smallest share, 6 per cent, on the raw material manufacturers.
The regulations were devised in close collaboration with business. Their publication yesterday followed more than two years of intensive wrangling between different parts of the packaging chain - with all wanting to minimise their responsibility and costs.
Companies covered by the regulations have two options for complying. They can either do so individually - producing detailed figures on how much packaging they handle and how they much recycle and recover, for inspection by the Government - or they can join a "compliance scheme", a co-operative set up solely to deliver the obligation of individual companies collectively.
One such organisation, called Valpak, already exists in embryo. It has 60 member firms, including supermarkets Tesco and Sainsbury, and reckons that by 2000 it may have thousands of members, together paying pounds 250m a year to boost recycling and recovery schemes.
Whether the regulations actually reduce the amount of packaging used in the first place remains to be seen. The quantity stands at about eight million tonnes a year and continues to rise in line with economic growth.Reuse content