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News analysis: Is it right to give supermarkets taxpayers' money to recycle?

Last week MRW carried three news stories on retailer recycling projects funded by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP).

One of the featured projects was a £1.2 million trial of front of store recycling and reverse vending techniques at branches of Sainsbury's and Tesco.

WRAP is a Government-funded agency, created to remove barriers to recycling and waste minimisation while creating markets for recycled products.

Is it right to be handing £1.2 million of taxpayers' money to companies like Tesco, which in 2004 reported profits for the first half of the financial year of £822 million, and receives one out of every £8 spent in British shops?

WRAP has rightly identified supermarkets as influential in both reducing waste and increasing recycling, and with so much headway being made through local authorities' kerbside collections, shops' importance to landfill targets is growing day by day.

There are broadly two focuses of the WRAP-funded retail projects: reducing packaging waste and increasing in-store recycling.

In March it was announced that a number of retailers including Argos, Tesco and the Co-operative group would receive over £490,000 to pilot new types of packaging.

The Argos project, which looks at using reusable packaging on a single product, was estimated to reduce household waste across the retail sector by 11,270 tonnes per year.

Other companies such as ASDA, Britvic and Marks & Spencer have all received money from WRAP's Waste Minimisation Innovation Fund, doing things such as producing thinner glass bottles and restricting the amount of plastic carrier bags that customers can take from the checkout.

The innovation fund aims to reduce packaging waste by 310,000 tonnes per year by March 2006, which represents roughly 3% of the 10.2 million tonnes of packaging waste generated in 2004 (55.5% of which was recycled).

It is worth £8 million and is part of WRAP's wider retail initiative, which also looks at increasing recycling, handing out money to projects such as to Tesco and Sainsbury's latest trials.

WRAP chief executive Jennie Price said that the millions of pounds being handed out were justified because the retail sector generates nearly half of all household waste sent to landfill.

She added: "The projects we are currently part-funding will have the potential to reduce waste going to landfill by 350,000 tonnes. At an average price of between £8 and £15 per tonne, well below the cost of landfill [roughly £38 per tonne for landfill tax and gate fees], this represents good value for money."

WRAP's support for the waste minimisation efforts of big players such as Tesco and Sainsbury's follows research it undertook for the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit's Waste Not Want Not report.

One of the key findings of this research was that 35-40% of household waste, mostly going to landfill, originates from the top five supermarket chains.

Through kerbside collections and civic amenity sites, councils are at the front end of dealing with household waste and Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee chairman Lee Marshall said: "If you looked on the face of it you would want to question the validity of giving taxpayers' money to a multi million pound organisation."

However, WRAP argues that these organisations occupy a unique position between massive global supply chains and mass consumer markets, and are in a key position to stimulate innovation that lea

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