Red, blue, yellow and Green

With the Lib Dems looking to adopt an interventionist stance on waste reduction, Angus Montgomery explores the politics of planet-friendly packaging

With the party conference season on the horizon, the three major political parties are honing their policies – and waste reduction is high on the agenda for all of them.

As part of their wastereduction strategies, packaging and product design are coming under the microscope. And while Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats all agree that reducing waste is a key issue, that’s as far as the consensus goes, as all three have very different ideas about how to go about it.

The Government’s current policy is based around the Making the Most of Packaging strategy, which was published in June. MMP looks at reducing waste by examining the entire life cycle of packaging, starting with design. Rather than imposing legislative restrictions, it proposes the use of voluntary agreements to set standards.

This approach would build on the Courtauld Commitment, a voluntary agreement between the Government-funded Waste & Resources Action Programme and major retailers which aims to cut packaging waste through methods including design.

Conservative policy is still under development, with party leader David Cameron having commissioned former shadow environment secretary Archie Norman to develop a paper looking at a ‘responsibility deal’ on packaging design. Norman’s findings are due later this year.

It does seem clear, however, that the Tories will be following a predictably laissez-faire line, similar to that adopted by the Government. In a speech made to think-tank Policy Exchange in July, shadow environment secretary Nick Herbert said, ‘I do not believe that a regulatory approach will succeed [in cutting packaging waste]. We will not regulate waste out of existence.’

Instead of taking a legislative approach, the Tories – like Labour – want voluntary industry agreements to play a greater role. The party points to the success of similar agreements in the Netherlands, Germany and Austria.

Dorothy Mackenzie, chairwoman of Dragon Rouge, says, ‘I can’t see anything new in the Tory proposals – they seem to be simply echoing what the Government is currently doing.’

But she does see this handsoff strategy as an approach that will be effective, saying, ‘It does seem to me that industry-led guidelines can have more of an impact than vague legal structures.’ Helen Hughes, sustainability director of Design Bridge, agrees, saying, ‘The element of competition, which isn’t brought about when bodies are just aiming for standardised guidelines, can bring about leadership.’

And Mark Frost, creative director of BR&Me, says, ‘A legislative approach will get things done, and if the voluntary system wasn’t working then it might be a worthwhile move, but the Courtauld Commitment seems to be working very well.’ But if it’s a legislative approach you’re after, and as Hughes says ‘this approach could lead to more consistency in getting waste reduction on to design briefs’, then the Lib Dems is the party for you.

The party’s guidelines, set out in its Our Natural Heritage: Policies on the Natural Environment paper, which will be debated on 21 September,
call for the introduction of an independent resource efficiency committee, which would be able to make legally binding recommendations to Government. This single body would be the sole organisation looking at tackling waste, and would replace organisations such as Wrap and Envirowise.

Paul Burall, a Lib Dem local councillor and one of the report’s authors, says, ‘We want to ensure that there is a simple system and that something is done about the gap between information given to businesses and that given to consumers.’

The Lib Dem paper also looks to introduce legislation on product design, an area that Burall says is undersubscribed. The paper calls for a ‘traffic light’ system – similar to the GDA guidelines on food packaging – which could be applied to products to measure their sustainability.

One thing all parties do agree on is that wastemanagement policies need to tackle the entire design and production system, not just the end result, and packaging designers are keen to point out that this holistic approach is necessary – for example, Mackenzie cites current recycling policies, which vary between local authorities, as holding back sustainable packaging design.

She says, ‘Often if you have a packaging material you know is recyclable, you can’t label it as such on the pack, because you can’t be sure it will be recyclable in all areas.’ Frost agrees, and points out that BR&Me client Sainsbury’s – like other supermarkets – uses a standardised recycling labelling system.

As well as this joined-up policy, Mackenzie says an intelligent approach to measuring the carbon footprint of packaging is necessary. At the moment, only Labour seems to have picked up on the idea of judging packaging by the carbon footprint of its whole life cycle, rather than its weight – the MMP says, ‘Weightbased targets – used in most European Union legislation – are fairly easy to understand… However, they do not always work well in the wider climatechange context.’

– based on the June 2009 Making the Most of Packaging paper. This tackles the whole life cycle of packaging, starting with design, and advocates the use of voluntary targets. It also looks at moving from weight-based to carbon-based targets
Liberal Democrats – based on Our Natural Heritage: Policies on the Natural Environment paper, to be debated on 21 September. This suggests setting up an independent resource efficiency committee, which would offer legally binding guidance on waste management. It also calls for a ‘traffic light’ labelling system and guidance on product design
Conservatives – policy is still under development, with former shadow environment secretary Archie Norman developing a
responsibility deal’ paper. The party has outlined dedication to a voluntary code of practice, rather than a legislative approach

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