Excess Packaging

Excessive packaging is wasteful, expensive and damaging to our planet. Something must be done about it. In this section I explain the laws and voluntary agreements which currently govern the packaging industry, as well as the actions I have taken as part of my campaign against excess packaging. These range from the high-level – introducing a Bill in Parliament – to the grassroots. I also suggest some things you can do to support the campaign against excess packaging.

Packaging (Reduction) Bill

In October 2007, I presented a bill to Parliament, setting out a case for a reduction in the amount of packaging used for products bought in our stores. Excessive and wasteful packaging makes absolutely no economic or environmental sense. Despite increases in recycling, domestic waste has risen by a fifth since 1997. The average family now spends £470 per year on packaging. Government attempts to tackle the packaging problem have been much too timid and much too slow. The bill set out how to tackle excess packaging, including giving consumers the right to send their packaging back to the manufacturers, and helping Trading Standards Officers to clamp down on waste. The Packaging (Reduction) Bill proposed a national body be set up to promote and enforce packaging reduction, as well improve existing regulations. Customers would also be able to recycle packaging in supermarkets. In the video on the right, you can watch some of the speech I made as I presented the Bill to the House of Commons.

Unfortunately, the Government did not back the Bill, but I continue to campaign for better legislation to cut out excess packaging. This page explains some of the other actions I have taken to combat excess packaging.

Packaging Law: Essential Requirements

It is not a well known fact, but we have laws in the UK which require retailers and manufacturers to minimise the amount of packaging they include with their products. These are the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2003, which actually started out as EU legislation in the form of the 1992 Directive on Packaging and Packaging Waste. The Essential Regulations put the following requirements into UK law:

  • Packaging should be designed such that its volume and weight be limited to the minimum amount necessary for safety, hygiene and acceptance by consumers.
  • Packaging should be designed and produced to permit its reuse or recovery, including recycling, and to minimise the impact on the environment of any waste.
  • Packaging should be designed to minimise the levels of hazardous substances which may cause damage to the environment when the packaging is incinerated, put in landfill or otherwise disposed of.

These laws are intended to be enforced by Trading Standards Offices. This means that if you believe the packaging on a product you have bought is excessive, you can report it to your local Trading Standards Office and they can prosecute the company responsible. However, despite the many examples of excess packaging we see on the shelves every day, only four prosecutions have ever been brought under the Essential Regulations since they were introduced in 2003.

In 2008 I carried out a survey of Trading Standards Offices which revealed that they lack the resources to pursue prosecutions under the Essential Regulations, and that the unusual wording of the legislation makes it difficult to enforce.

  • Read the results of my survey of Trading Standards Offices here

In a House of Commons debate on 24th April 2008, I pressed the Environment Minister Joan Ruddock to strengthen the legislation and equip Trading Standards Offices to enforce it. The Minister admitted that the Essential Regulations are not working, saying: “The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) raised questions about the packaging regulations. We agree with her. The essential requirements do not work. We have asked for a review, but progress is slow.” I subsequently met with Joan Ruddock and made the case to her that packaging legislation must be improved.

Packaging Law: Producer Obligations

As well as the Essential Regulations, the Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations 1997 introduced responsibilities for manufacturers in relation to their packaging.

The Producer Responsibility Obligations Regulations oblige businesses with an annual turnover over £2million who handle more than 50 tonnes of packaging per year to register with the Environment Agency or another compliance scheme. These compliance schemes record how much packaging is being produced so that they can measure what percentage of packaging is recovered and recycled. This enables the Governent to work out whether the UK is meeting its recycling and recovery targets. The Regulations also require companies to certify that their obligations have been met and, if they are retailers, inform consumers of how they are increasing recovery and recycling.

There have been several recent prosecutions under this law, however many companies are still not even aware that they have these obligations. The soft drinks company Red Bull and the company who make GHD haircare products have both recently been fined for failing to register with compliance schemes. Both of them pleaded guilty to the charges, saying they were unaware of the Regulations and came forward as soon as they realised they were breaking the law.

I am calling on the Government to make more effort to raise awareness of the legislation. For more on this please see the following news story:

Courtauld Commitment

The Courtauld Commitment is a responsibility deal aimed at improving resource efficiency and reducing the carbon and wider environmental impact of the grocery retail sector.

Phase 2 follows the original Courtauld Commitment (Phase 1), launched in 2005.  It moves away from solely weight-based targets and aims to achieve more sustainable use of resources over the entire lifecycle of products, throughout the whole supply chain.

At the launch of Phase 2 on 4 March 2010, 29 major retailers and brand owners had already pledged their commitment to this voluntary agreement.  Today there are 53 signatories

WRAP - material change for a better environment

The Courtauld Commitment 2 voluntary agreement ends in December 2012 and the final results will be reported in autumn 2013. WRAP is working with governments, current Courtauld signatories and trade bodies, to determine the best way forward following the completion of Phase 2. The agreed outcome will aim to build on the significant progress delivered so far within both phases of the Commitment.  It is anticipated that we will launch Courtauld 3 in spring 2013

I believe that, rather than reporting on packaging levels across the industry as a whole, it would be better to report on each company, as this would empower consumers to make informed choices about which companies to support by buying their products. Assessing the industry as a whole allows some to companies to carry on being wasteful while others make great reductions. I also believe that, although the Courtauld Commitment is certainly a step in the right direction, given the urgency of the matter we ought to be looking at creating enforceable laws rather than voluntary agreements.

Easter Egg Packaging Campaign

Easter eggs offer a prime example of over-packaging – a small chocolate egg, and an unnecessary amount of cardboard, plastic and foil. However, they are getting better. I  carried out six annual studies to find out just how excess Easter egg packaging is and how the confectionary companies to account. The market for Easter eggs is certainly not the only one where excess packaging is a problem, but it provides a good opportunity to assess how the actions and attitudes of leading food manufacturers have changed each year.

Cadbury's 'Eco Eggs' are an excellent example of reduced packaging

To download my annual reports on Easter eggs packaging, please use the following links:

Take Action

There are many ways that you can take action to support excess packaging campaigns:

  • Join an action group on sites such as the BBC Action Network, or Facebook “Stop Excess Packaging” group (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=4814662661)
  • Download our standard letter to Trading Standard Officers
  • Write direct to DEFRA at Nobel House, 17 Smith Square, London SW1P 3JR stating your support for the campaign, and citing examples of over-packaged goods.
  • Raise the issue with your local supermarket – ask if they will recycle your packaging for you. Tell us if you are successful

Jo’s featured links


WRAP is an organised which works with local authorities, business and households to prevent waste, increase recycling and develop markets for recycled and sustainable products. WRAP has been one of the leading campaigning organisations in the fight against excess packaging.


Packaging News

The best source of up to date news on the UK packaging industry.

Packaging News

Sign in with Facebook, Twitter or Email.