Stationery supplier Office World’s grisly fate before Northampton Magistrates for over-packaging goods ordered online signals another lega threat for e commerce. It’s courtesy of so far shy and retiring packaging laws introduced 2003.
Who: Northamptonshire County Council Trading Standards Service and Office World
Where: Northampton Magistrates Court
When: September 2004
Northamptonshire County Council Trading Standards Service prosecuted stationery company Office World for using an excessive amount of packaging.
The relevant law was the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2003 (in force since 25 August 2003).
The facts were that Trading Standards carried out three test purchases from the company, the first in November 2003 and then two more in January 2004.
The items were ordered from the www.office-world.co.uk website, and the unsuspecting Office World dispatched the products by mail to the Trading Standards purchaser.
Unfortunately for Office World, the stationery items that were delivered filled only 19% of the packaging that was around them in the case of the November 2003 purchase, whilst the first of the two January 2004 orders came in a package that was only 7% full, with the last package being 29% full.
At Northampton Magistrates Court Office World pleaded guilty to one offence regarding the 7% full box, but the other two purchases were also taken into consideration and the company was fined £2,000 plus £550 costs.
Why this matters:
Buying on-line for direct to home delivery is a rapidly expanding sector of the market. According to some figures, orders for home delivery will grow from £18.9 billion in 2001 to £34.5 billion by 2005. Northamptonshire Trading Standards' action here may seem like applying a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but clearly it was felt that an example had to be made.
The Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2003 principally implement EU Directive 94/62/EC on packaging and packaging waste.
The obligations imposed by the Regulations are placed upon an entity called a "responsible person". This is defined in the Regulations as any person who is responsible for packing or filling products into packaging. For these purposes a "person" can include a legal person, namely a company.
The first duty introduced by the Regulations is a "general duty relating to the placing on the market of packaging".
"Placing on the market" is not defined but it is clearly intended to extend beyond selling packaging and to encapsulate putting products in packaging and sending them out to the consumer in that form. Whether or not that intention has been fully carried out in the regulations is another question, although this aspect does not seem to have been challenged in this case.
The "general duty" provisions indicate that no person who is a responsible person shall place on the market any packaging unless "the essential requirements have been complied with in relation to it".
Essential requirement for packaging
"The essential requirements" are separately defined in Schedule 1 to the Regulations. The first of these is a requirement specific to the manufacturing and composition of packaging. The first limb of this section states that "packaging shall be so manufactured that the packaging volume and weight be limited to the minimum adequate amount to maintain the necessary level of safety, hygiene and acceptance for the packed product and for the consumer".
It is not clear whether in this case Office World were actually "manufacturing" the packaging in question as opposed to simply buying it from a third party and using it to pack their products before they were sent out in the post.
The term "manufactured" is not defined in the regulations, and the wording of relevant sections of the Regulations is somewhat unfortunate, since it gives the impression at first glance that the rules only bite on those who actually make packaging as opposed to those who buy in packaging from third parties and then use it to wrap up their own products.
Clearly in this case Northamptonshire Trading Standards and the Court took the view that the Regulations applied to any use of packaging, whatever its source, in the packing up of materials before they are dispatched to the consumer. As such, therefore, this decision underlines the importance of these Regulations and the need for those in mail order to take great care with the amounts of packaging used.