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UK: Supermarkets told to come clean

Pressure mounted on Tuesday on Britain's supermarkets and retailers to reduce packaging drastically as political support intensified for The Independent's anti-waste campaign. Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, challenged leading stores to produce a detailed breakdown of how they contribute to the 4,6-million tonnes of household waste generated every year by packaging.

Retailers are to be asked whether they would back a tax on plastic bags - similar to the one which has slashed carrier bag use in Ireland - and to reveal what proportion of their fresh produce is wrapped in plastic or placed on trays. The increasing momentum behind The Independent's push to cut the volume of retail waste came as dozens more readers voiced their anger at the excess of plastic wrapping and campaigners called on Britain to learn lessons from other European countries.

Environmentalists pointed to a range of initiatives in Europe - from vending machines in Belgium which refund deposits on plastic and glass bottles, to bins at the checkouts in German supermarkets for customers to throw away excess packaging - and warned that Britain was lagging behind. One reader wrote: "If you buy a product, any product, in a German shop, you can give the packaging straight back. They must then dispose of it responsibly. Wouldn't it be great to unwrap that swede or broccoli and give the cashier the clingfilm?"

Sir Menzies said there was growing unease among consumers about the quantities of packaging they have to deal with and that companies, including the big supermarkets, had to respond. He has written to all the large retailers with a list of 17 questions on issues from reducing plastic bag use to their recycling rates for paper and cardboard. Sir Menzies said: "People want to know that retailers are taking a responsible attitude towards the environment. It is important that companies respond by reducing the level of packaging in products."

The focus on packaging came as the Government's competition watchdog expressed concern that the four big UK supermarkets - Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsbury's and Asda - could be achieving unfair dominance on a local level. The Competition Commission said it was worried that small retailers were being squeezed by the presence of one or more of the big four in specific towns and the use of large "land banks".

The commission said it was also concerned that farmers and suppliers could have been intimidated into silence over practices in the supermarket sector in its ongoing inquiry into the food retail industry. In response to The Independent's campaign, leading supermarkets have pointed out various initiatives to win the public relations battle over green issues. Sainsbury's has said all its ready-meals, one of the most complained about items of packaging excess for Independent readers, will be in compostable wrapping by September.

In a statement, the company said: "We already have a target to reduce our use of packaging by 5 per cent every year. Our customers tell us that they care about the environment, and we are constantly looking at new ways to package our food." Tesco said it was saving 112 000 tonnes of cardboard a year by switching to reusable trades for transporting its fresh produce.

But campaigners said retailers and the Government could learn much from anti-waste practices on the Continent. In Sweden, non-recyclable batteries have been taxed since 1991 to encourage a switch to alternatives, resulting in a 74 per cent reduction in the amount sold. In Germany, plastic bags are unheard of in supermarkets and deposits are paid for reusable plastic and glass bottles for beverages. Hannah Hislop, policy officer of the Green Alliance, said: "The major retailers have a lot to learn if we are to become a zero-waste society. Sweden has cut its use of non-recyclable batteries by three quarters whereas we recycle only 2 per cent."

Friends of the Earth (FoE) said it was pushing for the Government's waste strategy, due to be published in March, to include a significant improvement on Labour's current target to recycle 50 per cent of domestic waste by 2020. Michael Warhurst, FoE's senior campaigner on waste and recycling, said: "This is not only about what retailers are doing but also the Government.

"They have to look at ways to cut the amount we throw away in the first place such as allowing local authorities to charge householders on how much we put out for the waste collection." Ann Coffey MP, secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Group for the Markets Industry, said: "Local markets sell food in its natural state. There are no sweating Swedes, plastic peppers or clingfilm carrots, just the raw produce in the way nature intended it."

The key questions Menzies Campbell is asking retailers:

- Is your business covered by the EU Packaging and Waste Directive?

- Did you meet the EU Packaging Directive recovery and recycling targets for businesses in 2002?

- What volume and percentage of the cardboard and paper you used was recycled last year?

- How many of your stores have recycling facilities for cans, paper, glass, plastic and polystyrene, and what was the average volume per store recycled in this way?

- What percentage of your packaging waste is a, incinerated, b, land-filled and c, recycled?

- How many plastic bags were given to customers at your stores last year?

- Are the bags you hand out biodegradable?

- Do you offer the sale of stronger, reusable "Bags for Life" carrier bags and promote their purchase?

- Do you support the introduction of a tax, similar to that in Ireland, on plastic bags?

- What measures are you taking to encourage re-use of plastic bags by customers and to have recycling points for them?

- What percentage of fresh produce is a, packaged in plastic containers; b, packaged on a paper-based card tray with cellophane wrap; c, packaged on a polystyrene tray with cellophane wrap; d, sold loose in bags, and e, sold loose in plastic bags?

- Could labels be placed on cling film of chilled produce rather than boxes?

- Do you have plans to introduce "green trays" to minimise need for cardboard secondary packaging?

- What measures have you introduced to reduce packaging on goods sold?

- Do you accept, or encourage, the return of packaging from goods sold in your store. What facilities do you have to encourage this recycling? What actions are you taking to encourage suppliers to reduce packaging? Have you changed supplier to reduce packaging?

Ten ways to cut waste:

- A charge of €0,15 for every plastic bag was brought in five years ago. The number of bags used has fallen by a billion a year.

- Rather than purchase olive oil in small, luxury bottles, Greeks buy their supplies in bulk directly from the source - in aluminium cans

- Packaging based on natural products such as corn starch is being pioneered so that food will be sold in edible containers.

- At supermarkets, there are three separate recycling bins in which to throw away the plastic, paper or metal packaging of products.

- Producers of tyres, packaging, vehicles and electrical goods have to dispose of their products in an environmentally friendly way when their life span ends.

- Supermarkets take deposits on plastic and glass bottles with a refund voucher given when the empty is returned.

- Aban has been enforced on tinned drinks. Empty bottles are dumped in special machines, which return a deposit.

- When Italians have finished their wine they go to 'vino sfuzo' wholesalers and refill their bottles from vats instead of buying more bottles.

- Carrefour, the supermarket chain, sells 'soap sausages': shower gel, soap and shampoo refills in polythene tubes which reduce the need to buy new bottles each time.

- A market culture means wrapped produce is viewed suspiciously. Food is displayed in the open to be checked for freshness.