It's hard not to be impressed by the grocery retailers' high-profile efforts to reduce packaging waste in the next five years. But there's a problem with the plethora of bold strategies - they are all different. And it's making life increasingly difficult for suppliers.

Too much responsibility is being placed on the shoulders of suppliers and they are struggling to meet the different demands, claims Stefan Barden, chief executive of Northern Foods. "We are in the position where we have to do all the work," he says. "We have to talk about what the priorities are for that particular retailer at that moment in time. The targets coming from the retailers overestimate what we can do in the short term."

Barden made the comments at last week's IGD conference on packaging reduction and optimisation, which brought major retailers and suppliers together to discuss how effective the industry is in the reduction of packaging. He warned that unless retailers started singing from the same hymn sheet and standardising their objectives, many of their grand plans would come to nothing.

Several delegates agreed it was unrealistic to expect manufacturers to try and cope with such a raft of different packaging specifications and targets. Morrisons has pledged to reduce own label packaging by 15% by 2010, for instance, while Tesco intends to cut packaging on branded and own label lines by 25% in the same time frame. Under its Plan A initiative, Marks & Spencer wants to reduce non-glass packaging by 25%, but has given itself until 2012 to make the changes while Sainsbury's says all its ready meals will come in compostable packaging this year.

Retailers themselves admit their demands are causing headaches. One problem is that their targets tend to be more ambitious than those of the branded manufacturers.

"We recently had a meeting with Procter & Gamble in Brussels and there was a disconnect between targets," says Alasdair James, category director at Tesco. "P&G has said it would reduce its packaging by 10% by 2012 whereas we are targeting 25% by 2010. This margin of difference is something we are going to have to work through with many organisations."

Unfortunately for manufacturers, they're having to work through these differences over and over again with different retailers - not to mention carry out time-consuming tasks. Tesco recently sent out forms for its suppliers to fill in detailing the weight of all their product lines so it can measure progress in packaging reduction, for instance.

What is missing, retailers and suppliers agree, is guidance from government on whether to make more packaging recyclable or whether to make it lighter. Morrisons and Sainsbury's, for example, are focusing on more recycled and compostable material whereas Asda and Tesco have made making lighter packaging more of a priority.

"Suppliers have a choice between reducing weight or switching to a recyclable material," says James. "But what's the priority? We need this uniformly agreed across industry for everybody."

Retailers have not helped their cause by adding a list of green demands to an already weighty list of supplier requirements. "Our buyers talk to the suppliers and say 'here is our green initiative and it's really important to us'," admits James. "The supplier thinks it could be a fad, or that there is not enough time to do it properly. Often the supplier response is 'if we keep our heads down the issue will just go away'. All those things are going on in the minds of suppliers."

This is not to belittle the collaborative efforts that have been made to reduce, reuse or recycle packaging. Northern Foods has removed thousands of tonnes of packaging from the supply chain by redesigning its Goodfella's pizza packaging, Asda has so far invested £50m in regional recycling centres and two weeks ago Tesco achieved a 25% reduction in carrier bags, ahead of its 2008 deadline, to name just a few initiatives.

However, a more cohesive strategy is needed to build on this good work, agrees Jane Bickerstaffe director of the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (Incpen). Defra's commitment is to send zero food and packaging waste to landfill by 2015 . But Bickerstaffe says this target is too vague and, hence, counterproductive. She says more specific targets are needed on the types of packaging, the logistics of recycling and the energy used to ensure the entire supply chain pulls in the same direction. There also needs to be greater clarity on the size of the waste problem if realistic and standardised targets are to be set, she adds.

"We don't really know what we are talking about when we think of waste these days," she says. "According to Wrap, UK household waste is 6.3 million tonnes a year, but according to Defra's waste strategy report it is 4.7 million tonnes. If we are aiming to reduce that we need to know what the figure actually is."

Only then will retailers be able to work with manufacturers to outline where the real priorities should lie, she says, controversially suggesting that recycling may not always be the right approach.

"Consumers are told that recyclable and compostable are good things to have," she says. "But because of consumer and media interest the market is being skewed to materials that are easier to recycle or compost even if they are not the most efficient in the supply chain. We need to be careful that recycling doesn't increase the carbon footprint."

With no hard-and-fast policy on where retailers and manufacturers should direct their efforts, clearer government guidance and more collaboration are essential, say suppliers. Just as importantly, central government needs to ensure local authorities have the facilities to cope with recyclable packaging, an issue highlighted last month when M&S was pilloried for only having 60%-recyclable packaging when in fact the figure was closer to 70% - it was just that the facilities weren't there to handle it.

All too often local authorities pass the buck, says Bickerstaffe. "Local authorities find packaging an easy scapegoat, they like to blame it for the waste problem," she says. "They say the supply chain should pay for collection and packaging must be minimal, in line with consumer expectations. But if you are just making recyclability the issue there are many other consequences."

In short, there has to be collaboration not just between suppliers and retailers to make packaging reduction strategies work, but also between the industry and government, says Barden. "We need to work together with government to get a range of materials that we can use and for recycling facilities to be created," say s Barden. "As an industry we must work hand in glove with government." n