Leading Article: Even unto the yoghurt pot

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The Independent Online
WHY do sophisticated companies spend considerable sums of money packaging goods that need no additional packaging, and packaging others unnecessarily elaborately? The answer must be: because their marketing experts reckon it helps to sell the product, in different ways for different items. It makes shoddy goods look less shoddy, quality goods look even better, small quantities larger. It emphasises the brand name. It may guarantee that the object concerned has not been handled by other shoppers. Often, it is labour-saving: less effort is required to pick up a pack of six apples than to put loose ones into a bag that must then be weighed.

Packaging is sometimes attractive but often maddening, as when it is almost impossible to remove. It can also prompt a pang or two of guilt: after a supermarket spree, the pile of waste plastic is a small monument to the throwaway society. 'Secondary' packaging is a particularly gratuitous form of rubbish: why should a toothpaste tube, itself a form of packaging, be marketed in a further container? Or certain luxury whiskies be sold in a bottle in a rigid tube?

In Germany, where ecological awareness is several years ahead of this country's, the government last year introduced the most radical laws in Europe to discourage excessive packaging and increase recycling. From last December, companies were obliged to take back and recycle packaging used during transport, or to arrange for someone else to do so. From April this year, the same law extended to secondary packaging. From next January, it will apply to all packaging, even unto the humble yoghurt pot. Companies have set up their own system to help cope with these demands. The products of firms taking part carry a green dot to show that their packaging qualifies for collection and recycling. Other firms must make their own arrangements. Between 80 and 90 per cent of the collected materials must be recycled.

These regulations have caused great annoyance both to German firms and to foreign companies exporting goods to Germany. Many of the latter complained to Brussels that the rules constitute a barrier to trade. Now, as reported on Page 13 today, the European Commission has come up with outline proposals setting a timetable for a comparable programme across the European Community. Each member state would be able to decide how best to reach the proposed targets, but must give three months' notice of its plans. That would enable other member states to object if, say, proposals on packaging were thought to create a barrier to trade. The targets look ambitious. But this is a field in which it is logical that the Commission should hold the ring.

One thing is certain: the Germans will benefit from having taken the lead on this issue, and other countries will be obliged to follow their example - at least where exports to Germany are concerned. In this country, recycling is in its infancy, with huge variations in the availability of 'banks' for bottles, paper and tins. Some councils have adopted the Canadian system of separating 'dry' and 'wet' waste. Within a few years we shall no doubt all be sorting our rubbish into numerous different categories, for collection on different days of the week. It may not be much fun, but as an alternative to dumping, incineration and unnecessary waste, it makes sense.