Councils across England have warned that they are ready to use a little known European Union regulation to force food retailers and manufacturers to reduce unnecessary packaging.

Businesses convicted of breaching the rules could be fined up to £5,000 a time - and risk unwanted publicity.

The crackdown was announced at the Local Government Association's conference this week in Bournemouth, where delegates spoke of increasing concern about the rising cost of dealing with the nation's millions of tonnes of refuse.

Packaging makes up roughly a quarter of household waste and will cost more than £2.5bn to collect and dispose of this year.According to one estimate, one and a half tonnes of packaging is thrown away every second in England - or 31.5 million tonnes a year - and this figure is growing at 3% a year.

In a bid to rein in the problem, local councils are to be encouraged to invoke the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 1998. This legislation imposes legal requirements on companies throughout the EU to ensure the volume and weight of packaging is "limited to the minimum adequate amount to maintain the necessary level of safety, hygiene and acceptance of the packed product for the consumer".

Among examples of alleged abuses cited by LGA officials were the growing tendency to wrap fresh fruit such as bananas in cling film or sell grapes in individual plastic boxes.

LGA chairman Sandy Bruce Lockhart singled out the major grocery chains for criticism.

"The cling film coconut mentality of supermarkets has to come to an end," he said. "Supermarkets may say that their customers prefer all their products to be wrapped in extra packaging, but they also have a duty to their customers to cut the amount of waste that is produced to help save taxpayers money, cut emissions and reduce the amount of landfill taken up by unnecessary wrapping."

Confirmation of the LGA action will come in letters that are due to be sent to every business in the country, outlining details of the problems caused by unnecessary packaging and highlighting the penalties.