Dr Anna Watson: Waste we don't see is other half of story

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The Independent Online

I suspect I am not alone in having a packaging pet hate - whether it is potatoes in plastic trays or cellophane-wrapped bananas. Yet the packaging foisted on the unsuspecting shopper is only half the story. The waste we don't see - huge quantities of food that doesn't make it onto the shelves and the wrapping our food is delivered to the store in - is the other half. Much of this waste ends up in landfill or is burnt in incinerators. That not only squanders valuable resources but also releases potent gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, into the atmosphere.

Fortunately this is one problem that is easily solved. Friends of the Earth have been talking to some of the major supermarkets about the measures they can take to cut down on waste. Reducing the amount of packaging is a good place to start. Their next step should be to ensure that all of their packaging can be reused, recycled or composted. Out with milk cartons produced from a complex mix of aluminium, plastic and paper and in with reusable glass bottles.

Plastics are a particularly thorny issue. Supermarket products are encased in many different types of plastics yet most local authorities only collect one or two varieties. This makes it impossible for even the most eco-conscious shopper to recycle. To solve this problem, retailers must stick to using plastics which local authorities can recycle.

Supermarkets also need to make sure that more of their packaging is made from recycled materials in the first place. This would boost the UK's recycling industry - creating jobs and making it easier and cheaper for us all to recycle more.

Retailers own food waste can be dealt with even more easily. Out of date or damaged food should be composted or anaerobically digested to produce renewable energy. Marks & Spencer has committed to trial this approach to provide heat and light in a number of their stores. Friends of the Earth welcomes this move and wants to see other supermarkets follow suit.

Finally, the retailers need to use some of their profits to help fund doorstep recycling schemes which deal with the packaging they pass on to customers.

But dealing with waste is not an issue we can leave to supermarkets to address in their own good time. The Government needs to take a lead when they publish a new waste strategy in the next few months. It should use this opportunity to set legally-binding targets for the amount of waste that retailers compost and recycle. They should also introduce a ban on sending recyclable and compostable materials to landfill or incineration. If supermarkets are serious about their green credentials they will actively support both these measures.

Dr Anna Watson, Waste and Recycling Campaigner, FoE