Leading article: One green bottle

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The Independent Online

Our report that a company has developed a biodegradable plastic bottle is undoubtedly excellent news. The "bio-bottle", so called, is made of corn starch and decomposes within 12 weeks. Even better news is that, although now on sale only at branches of Waitrose and Fresh and Wild, talks are advanced with the biggest supermarket chains.

This is only the latest sign that green consumerism is going mainstream. More biodegradable packaging, including supermarket bags, is on the way. And while the trigger for the change is, in part, the rising oil price that makes production of conventional plastic containers more expensive, it is also - and perhaps especially - pressure from ordinary customers. Efforts by councils to promote recycling have also had an effect, if only in showing householders how much packaging they throw away. Britain's record on recycling, however, is not good, compared with that of many of our European partners. We are lagging dismally behind in our capacity to dispose of old fridges and electronic equipment in an ecologically friendly way.

Even as our efforts to recycle plastic improve, the amount of packaging has risen faster. The bags and bottles littering public places in our cities and motorway verges across the country are yet more evidence of our inability to cope with much of our plastic waste.

While the arrival of the biodegradable bottle should make a contribution, it is a blessing that could be distinctly mixed. The chief use of such bottles is for sweet soda drinks, whose contribution to child obesity is known, and for mineral water, which is consumed by the gallon in the very countries where the water that comes out of the tap is quite good enough to drink. Improving the disposability of the bottle should not provide an excuse to buy more of drinks that are bad for our health or a commodity that is an expensive luxury.

What applies to plastic bottles also applies to other forms of packaging. Food and drink producers could do far more to reduce the excessive quantities of plastic and paper that cocoon everyday goods. Products are frequently double- or triple-wrapped by the time they appear on shop shelves and the packaging is often far larger than it needs to be.

And then there is that most basic of today's wrappings, the plastic bag. In some European countries, they are taxed. In France, some large supermarket chains have stopped supplying them at all, requiring customers to buy a reusable bag or bring their own. The discarded plastic bags that used to disfigure the countryside have been almost eliminated. The "bio-bottle" is an advance on its non-biodegradable predecessor, but it can only be a start.

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