/ Food & Drink, Sustainability

Do we need to rethink our reliance on plastic?

plastic bottles

Did you know that less than 10% of plastic bottles are made with recycled materials? Doesn’t seem like much, does it…

Recently, The Guardian reported that a survey of five of the six biggest soft drinks firms found just 7% of throwaway plastic bottles are made from recycled materials.

To put that figure into context, it equates to more than two million tonnes of throwaway plastic soft drinks bottles every year. What’s more, Greenpeace, which conducted the research, says that if figures from Coca-Cola were included, the numbers would be much higher.

Single-use plastic

There’s a growing lobby for companies to move away from single-use plastic and embrace reusable packaging and make sure the rest is made from 100% recycled content.

And with that shockingly high percentage of drinks bottles that are made from single-use plastic, I can see why.

With an increase in the volume of recycling, and more advanced technology to do so, should using recycled materials in this kind of mass production be a prerequisite?

What makes this even more pressing is the growing concern around plastic making its way in to the fish and seafood we eat.

Last summer, Plymouth University released a report stating that plastic was found in a third of UK-caught fish, including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish. While a recent study by Ghent University in Belgium calculated that shellfish lovers are eating up to 11,000 plastic fragments in their seafood each year.

According to experts, we only absorb fewer than 1% of these fragments, but they still accumulate in our body over time – and we’re yet to find out exactly what impact this is having on our health.

Cleaning up this plastic mess

So what do we do about this?

Maybe there needs to be clearer information on packaging to show what proportion contains recycled materials, too. Not only would this make the companies’ practices more transparent, it would also enable those of us who want to shop more ethically to do so.

When it comes to improving recycling, while plastic bag charging has squeezed people’s wallets, progress reports show that it’s encouraging behaviour change – so should a similar tactic be tried here?

So, do you think more could be done to clean up our plastics usage? What do you think is the solution here?

This is a guest contribution by Hannah Jolliffe, a freelance writer. All views expressed here are Hannah’s own and not necessarily those shared by Which?.


Yes, we can all do better to reduce use of plastic, using substitutes like tap water and glass containers etc.
Since many, many people will do little, it is a national and international government responsibility to set standards, rules, fund research, use tax and incentive schemes to develop appropriate industry-wise practices. The failure to feature this is a telling indictment of our political parties and electorate.

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After insisting on glass milkbottles for some years even at greater cost recently took pity on my milkman and went for plastic b ottles, so much easier and probably safer for him. However I am appalled at the quantity of plastic I now haved to put in the recycle bin. Of course the milk suppliers are doing well they no longer have to run bottle cleaning plant and pass the costs effectively to the local council who have to remove and recycle the plastic bottles. I also wonder if others struggle to open the plastic bottles, I find some take a lot of strength.

Years ago when in Canada milk was sold in polythene bags that fitted inside a purpose-made jug that was kept in the fridge. You snipped the corner off the bag. Seemed a very sensible form of pack.

I wonder why we need cardboard boxed containing inner packs on so many goods – cereals for example.

I think the plastic bag/jug system appeared here a few years ago in my local Sainsburys. I don’t recall having noticed it there recently.

Personally, I’d worry about the durability of those plastic bags during the journey from store to home (or office).

Milk bottles are made from HDPE and pop bottles from PET, neither of which contains BPA. BPA is generally associated with PC (polycarbonate). The only food use I can immediately think of is polycarbonate drinking glasses, which some pubs use if customers are going to take their drinks out into the bear garden or when there is a game shown on TV. For this short term use, the amount of BPA that gets into the drink is very small.

Polycarbonate should not be used for longer term storage of food and drink and I’m not aware that it is in the UK.

To answer Malcolm’s question, the card used for breakfast cereals etc. is not moisture proof without a sealed plastic liner. Cornflakes would not remain crisp and there is the possibility of spoilage.

Wrong way round, wavechange. 🙂 I was suggesting we don’t need the cardboard box, just the protective inner pack.

Crumbs – there’s nothing more disappointing than broken biscuits. Some cereals such as muesli are commonly sold without a cardboard box but the plastic bag is thicker and stronger to prevent damage and leakage. It would interesting to find out which is better from an environmental point of view.

Most biscuits do not come in boxes. We buy plenty of relatively delicate items in the weekly shop that we don’t want to crush – salads, bread, pastries for example and simply put these in the top of the shopping bags. We need to cut down on packaging waste.

We could also cut down on paper waste by reducing the rubbish in weekend newspapers.

One solution is to bake your own biscuits etc. I’ve become a bit lazy but used to do a lot of baking, but I do when I have time. A lot of bread and bakery items is sold off cheap, sent to charities or wasted by supermarkets. Last time I was in Morrisons, someone was standing at the till pushing me to buy bread for 5p a loaf. I said I don’t buy white bread. At my previous visit I picked up a bag of rolls and someone stuck a 19p sticker on it.

I remember an occasion when a Tesco checkout operator took my bunch of bananas and put it in a plastic bag. I explained that nature had provided bananas with biodegradable packaging and putting them in plastic was a waste.

Newsprint is supposed to be very easy to recycle compared with glossy magazines, but that presupposes that old papers are recycled separately. Newspapers and other publications are available online.

I’m all in favour of cutting down on packaging waste.

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Water quality is one of my interests, Duncan. We sometimes talk about air quality on Which? Convo, but keeping our rivers and water supplies free from harmful chemicals is equally important. The European Water Framework Directive and associated legislation is the main driver in the UK.

Here’s a non-technical article about the problem you have mentioned: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/jun/02/water-system-toxic-contraceptive-pill This is just one of the threats to our water supplies and manufacturers of drugs, cosmetics, agrochemicals and a whole variety of other products need to be kept under control. My nomination for the most worthless product on sale is antibacterial handwash, which may achieve nothing but is harmful in the environment.

I can remember when breakfast cereals came in a cardboard box without an inner plastic packet. Shredded wheats, for example, were laid in lines of three with a handy piece of card separating each layer. The introduction of an inner bag probably occurred in the mid-sixties and the cardboard box was then made thinner than previously.

It annoys me that biscuits [and various other foodstuffs] are now almost universally wrapped in metallised paper that cannot be recycled. This perhaps protects the biscuits better from any atmospheric or moisture deterioration and extends their shelf life but I question whether that is necessary – they are a fairly high turnover product. Premium or luxury biscuits are over-packaged with a plastic tray within a thick cardboard box. If sugar can still come in a paper bag then surely biscuits can.

I noticed that Pringles came in for some drubbing in the media because their cylinders defy the recycling process because of the mixture of materials – plastic lid, metal cover, foil-coated cardboard tube, metal rings top and bottom – which cannot easily be separated. I can see no reason – other than brand presentation – why they could not be packaged like potato crisps.

One of the aspects of Morrisons that impressed me was that their larger stores had fairly elaborate cafeterias where the meals were fully prepared and cooked in a kitchen on the premises. They were able to use up lots of foodstuff that might otherwise have gone to waste. I am not sure if that feature has survived Morrison’s changes as we no longer live near one of their big stores. Other supermarkets also have cafeterias but it seems they only reheat meals prepared off site or very simple meals like bacon, egg and sausage – any chips being made elsewhere.

I have noticed that supermarkets are now ‘presenting’ some varieties of tomato in a cardboard box enclosed within a cellophane wrapper. I suppose this is better than on a plastic tray within a cellophane wrapper. For hygiene reasons it is better for fruit and vegetables that might not get cooked to be sold in sealed wrappers but do they also need to be in a tray? I am not happy that grapes are now being sold in slide-closure bags that are not sealed. I have noticed customers opening the bags and taking grapes out to taste them.

I bought a salmon & cucumber bap in M&S yesterday – it came on an elaborate cardboard tray within a sealed cellophane wrapper. Why? It was all gone in a few minutes and there was nowhere convenient to dispose of the cardboard for recycling so it went in a general waste bin with the wrapper. And yet every time I go up the escalators in M&S I see in big letters their ‘Plan A’ manifesto on the wall proclaiming their green credentials. I think they should look around their food halls to see where they could reduce the amount of packaging.

I had not realised that Shredded Wheat (we called them pan scrubbers) used to be devoid of wrapping. It’s interesting that they and Weetabix don’t deteriorate rapidly if open to the atmosphere, whereas many biscuits soon lose their crispness when unwrapped. I assume that the higher sugar content of biscuits is relevant, yet sugar on its own can be left in an open container for days or even weeks without obvious deterioration.

I have little doubt that over-packaging of biscuits is used to persuade customers that they are buying a superior product since as you point out, it’s not really necessary.

Some fruit needs to be handled very careful or have protective packaging to avoid wastage. The popularity of selling ripe fruit means that it does need careful handling and protective packaging. I certainly don’t like the idea of people fondling fruit and have not seen anyone sampling it but unpleasant as it is, it is unlikely to be a health risk.

I don’t think education will work but legislation could help deal with overuse of packaging.

John – Prompted by your comment about the M&S Plan A, I had a look and did not see much about packaging. I noticed that they have removed sweets etc. from the checkouts but my local Tesco did that about ten years earlier. Here is their food packaging charter: http://corporate.marksandspencer.com/documents/policy-documents/food-packaging–charter.pdf which is dated 2007, yet contains has references to later dates. Most worryingly, it ends: “Plan A. Because there is no Plan B.” But fear not, we now have Plan A 2020.

There is already legislation regarding overpackaging. However we do not hear of many cases brought to court and I have heard of very few in recent times probably due to fewer Trading Standards officers.

There are global companies which do not pay tax in this country and since there are also regulations about paying for packaging once turnover reaches a certain amount you can only presume that they are not paying this tax either. Companies who should be registered for this and aren’t tend to be fined with the fines going to environmental charities. I have seen lists published of these companies.


Having moaned about the packaging of biscuits and other products in metallised paper that was not recyclable through the normal channels I was pleased to discover – by reading the small print on the side of a chocolate digestive packet – that there is a recycling scheme through an organisation called TerraCycle. Their website says “TerraCycle® and McVitie’s® have partnered to create a free recycling programme for any brand of biscuit wrappers, and a fundraising opportunity for participants.” It’s not exactly straightforward; you have to set up an account, get a box, apply for a shipping label that will be e-mailed to you, and then send it off. It must be primarily intended for local groups and organisations because you would have to eat a colossal quantity of biscuits and save every wrapper to justify participating although there is no minimum shipment size. There is a points system for rewarding the sender or a designated charity or voluntary group. According to the website “once collected, the biscuit wrappers are cleaned and melted into hard plastic that can be remoulded to make new recycled products”. TerraCycle also has a number of other programmes for recycling things that are outside the regular systems. TerraCycle takes the view that there is nothing that cannot be recycled or reprocessed into something useful. Among other things, they deal with aerosols, beach plastic, cigarette waste, coffee packaging, nitrile gloves, and writing instruments.

I referred to metallised paper but it is probably more correct to describe it as plasticised paper. I am not sure why the programme is limited to non-savoury biscuit wrappers [other than because it is a McVities initiative although it includes other brands] as I can see no reason why the wrappers around multi-packs of yoghurt pots and other similar wrappings could not be included.

I have been browsing Terracycle’s website and there are a few gifts for those difficult people who seem to have everything. How about a Zero Waste Box for Vitamin Bottles, Outdoor Furnishings, Luggage and Travel Bag Waste, Jewellery or Glue Sticks and Bottles?

To be serious, I think that the top priority is to define exactly which waste we can put in our recycling bins and boxes and to standardise this across the country.

Recycling of plastic bottles is often suggested in discussions but unlike recycled glass, plastic is not as good when recycled. Plastic waste from manufacturing processes is better, but how would recyclers know if plastics had been in contact with hazardous chemicals and unsuitable for food use.

There are various excellent uses of recycled plastics. For example, I have used board made of recycled plastic for outdoor purposes. Unlike plywood it does not deteriorate if it gets wet.

Of course we can reuse plastic bottles and containers. Fill bottles with tap water and use plastic containers for storage of home-made food in the fridge and freezer.

The plastic bottles I have seen being recycled is chipped, melted and turned into pellets and is tested for quality.


If you can segregate waste effectively then that gives the best opportunity of recycling of plastic. In your example, I presume that the used milk bottles were separated from other types of bottles and dirty ones discarded. Let’s hope that no-one had used them to store pesticides or other hazardous chemicals. 🙁

I’m just thinking about some of the practical problems and am totally in favour of reducing waste in our unsustainable world.

If you look at the bottom of your plastic packaging eg the black tomatoes box it is sometimes marked “rPET” which is recycled polyethylene terephthalate. So maybe not quite so bad.

RPET is now used in food packaging too. Since it is transparent, my guess is that it is made from waste produced in the packaging industry rather than what goes in our bins.

I regularly check our council’s website for updates on what they accept for recycling. Plastic bags are a new entry, as are soft plastic plant trays.

Reading through the comments it seems there are four strands to this: What is given to us in the shop; What we throw and what we recycle; what the recyclers actually recycle and what the processors do with the end product. Many of you have good scientific knowledge which has been applied to thoughts about what use different plastics can be put to and I am saddened to find that there is such a thing as single use plastic. I also reflect on the various types of packaging I encounter from the shopping trip. Meat/fish trays that are vacuum sealed and very hard to open, tins, any number of bottles and glass jars. Indeed, unlike the days after the war, very little is sold loose any more. This stops contamination and products have to be contained in order to fit on supermarket shelves.

Manufacturers and food producers have developed packaging that they believe will both sell and preserve their food, (and make chemicals safe), also making it easy to transport from the source to our kitchens. They have used the most economic materials that they can to keep costs down. Perhaps it needs an external body to look at all packaging and advise on findings and ways to improve. There also needs to be honesty about the life style we lead, the way we shop and what is provided on the shop shelf. Likewise, either better raw packaging materials need to be available, or new ways of recycling what we are already using needs research and development. Whether this is industry led or government led is a matter for debate. We despair about our polluted environment and no one part of society can escape blame. There is a chain: raw materials, packaging, supply, usage and disposal. Let’s start at the top and work down, then there will be no excuse for any of us to shirk our duty.

Do take a look at the WRAP website. Great strides have been made to lightweight packaging. A lot of work was done on the redesign of the plastic milk bottle. They were at one time Government funded.


We need to keep on encouraging innovative change and new and better packaging.

Also take a look at the Ellen Macarthur Foundation : https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/

When in Canada, relatives took us to a store where they took and filled their own containers.

It wasn’t this one but you might be interested in:

There are several I believe in this country too.

Websites to look at are http://www.myzerowaste.com (probably more active now on Facebook) and http://www.therubbishdiet.org.uk

One of the questions to be asked is why buy bottled water at all?. One of the greatest public health developments in UK is a safe supply of drinking water for which most of us are not sufficiently grateful!

It shows the power of marketing, Lesley. Anyone who prefers sparkling water can make their own very easily.

Thankfully we have made some progress with getting people to take bags when they go shopping rather than relying on the shops to provide them. That could have been done years ago.

I used to live in an area where by the time a saucepan of water came to the boil, it had a yellow scum on the top of it.

That was when I turned to bottled water.

Boiling water used to produce a white scum and tea (made with leaf tea) had a film with bits of tea on top. I switched from tea to coffee. The water became softer once the company started to introduce river water, yet it is still described as ‘very hard’. Where I live now, the water is ‘hard’ and tea is just about drinkable.

We lived abroad for many years when we had to boil, cool and filter our drinking water.

When we came back to the UK it was such a luxury that we could drink water straight out of the cold tap.

Vince says:
5 June 2017

Please could WHICH start a campaign to bring back glass bottles.

when glass bottles were used (before plastic bottles) they had a deposit included in the purchase, that was refunded when returned to the shop or Off licence .-

So instant happy re-cycling.

Lets get Back to Glass !

A very wide range of products do come in glass bottles, Vince, but there is no deposit & return facility so recycling and potential re-use depends entirely on the conscientiousness of users to put them out for recycling. Ideally they would be re-used without reprocessing but drinks and food manufacturers have adapted the shapes and sizes so much to carry their branding that there are very few universal types nowadays. Just look at the number of different types of instant coffee jars or beer and spirit bottles there are in any supermarket to see what a problem it would be to organise the return of each type to its originating company. Beer bottles in brewers’ own pubs are still returned for re-use I believe but I don’t think that happens with free houses and since most are now bought in off-licensed premises I reckon only a minority go straight back into the supply chain.

It’s very easy to spot bottles that have been reused because abrasion is very obvious on a brown beer bottle and close examination of a clear soft drinks bottles would reveal signs of abrasion. I would be surprised if there are any breweries that are still reusing glass bottles. There might be the odd microbrewery.

I have noticed that the bottles for bottled beer sold in some pubs owned and managed by the brewery are put in a large bin behind the bar which I assumed goes back on the dray delivering the next consignment, but maybe things have changed. It’s a long time since I last organised a tasting session in a brewery and in those days the empty bottles came back in crates, were lifted out by a vacuum machine and put through a washing and sterilising process which took off the old labels before going on to the bottling line for refilling.

With so many different shapes and sizes of bottle now, as well as clear ones, many uniquely branded for their contents, the bin I see behind the bar is probably just a stage in the recycling process and it is tipped into a green bin out the back of the pub. It’s not the sustainable life I was hoping for. I suppose it suits the accountants.

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The way to find out is to ask questions of companies and even those in the trade. Pubs or pub companies have to pay for disposal of trade waste, so it’s possible that part of the deal is collection of waste glass.

I do have a beer bottle that has obviously been reused from the abrasion below the shoulder and near the bottom. It contained ‘Nutfield Lyte’, brewed by the Brewing Research Foundation International. It is marked “Brewed for research purposes” and was never sold, as far as I am aware. “This beer is produced using a genetically-modified brewers yeast, which reduces the calorie content of the beer in comparison with other premium lagers of the same strength. Use of this yeast avoids addition of enzymes during production which can lead to reduce foaming on pouring out of the beer.” The large brewers were very wary about genetic engineering back in the mid-90s, so the technology was not adopted at the time.

The bottle is marked PLEASE RETURN but I kept it because I’m interested in biotechnology. It also provides a reminder of the days when we used to recycle beer bottles.

I never thought you would be labelled a ‘tree-hugger’ Duncan.

Thankfully, in this country all beer is sold either in glass or metal containers or direct from the cask [admittedly through a plastic tube these days in place of the old copper pipes]. If you go into a pub just after opening, get the first round in and give the early pours to your fellow drinkers. A good publican would have pulled a pint or two through the system already but some are not so diligent.

I don’t have much experience of lagers, Wavechange. I didn’t realise there were ‘premium’ ones, although I am aware of the multitude of ‘throwing’ lagers that I see people carrying around. I suppose brewing test examples helps ensure they are harmless. Any form of genetic modification is questionable, even that derived from plastic bottles.

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The brewing industry has been very wary of genetic manipulation of yeast because of negative perception by the public. Here is a recent non-technical article: http://www.nature.com/news/tapping-genetics-for-better-beer-1.20336

Back in the 1970s there was concern about genetic manipulation of bacteria but the production of ‘human’ insulin, first in GM bacteria and then in GM yeast, has proved to be safe and has helped many diabetics.

I’m far more concerned about genetic manipulation of plants. The only time I drink lager is when I visit an Indian restaurant.

Duncan – Yes I was aware. The takeover has been cleared by the EU and the UK government has little option but to pass it. RM will not control what is beamed to 22 million homes; the viewers will decide what they watch and if what he supplies pleases them they will choose to view his channels. I don’t have a problem with that. In any case not every home subscribes to Sky TV. I don’t think we can get Fox News on Freeview so I have not seen it. My viewing extends to very few channels and only those in the lower numbers. I can always find something intelligent and interesting to watch if I have a few spare moments.

Well it looks as though I was wrong about that. Mr Murdoch has crashed into the central reservation and will have to wait now to see whether he can gain total control of Sky. The Competition and Markets Authority [CMA] are likely to investigate a number of competition concerns across various forms of media in which 21st Century Fox has powerful interests.

As for influence with the government, I have always been of the opinion that Downing Street needs Murdoch & Co more than he needs Downing Street, which in a way proves the point that his organisation’s media domination is a major worry and does deserve a penetrating probe. Clearly his charms have eluded the Culture Secretary Karen Bradley. Over the next fourteen days he has the right to challenge her intention to refer the acquisition of the 61% of Sky he does not already own to the CMA before she makes the final decision.

We can only hope the crash is damaging…

Paul Lewis says:
10 June 2017

Paul from Swindon
My father had his own Fruit, Veg and General provisions shop in Swindon. In the late 1950’s and early 60’s, the obsession to washing clean everything that came out of the earth, put in polystyrene trays and then shrink wrap in plastic, started. He was a business man not an environmentalist but he said to me then, that this was the destruction of the earth. How right he was. Do we honestly need to put a swede in a shrink wrap pack, 4 potatoes in a tray, shrink wrap and call them baking potatoes. Thank you supermarkets for thinking, who buys them are as daft as a brush. What shall we do with them , now we have bought them.
We have all the technology to return glass bottles to reuse. The truck who delivered them has to come back again to the supermarket to deliver the next supply. So take back the empties. Don’t anyone tell me it is added value to the cost, to do this. If you want a planet for the future the cost is negligible.
Who started this culture of carrying a plastic bottle of water around with them all the time, in England. I am 70 years of age always drunk tap water when I was thirsty. I don’t have to be paranoid to keep one in hand just in case I flake out in the street. My father laughed when this culture came. He died in 1964, I can still hear him laughing now at the absurdity of it all.

We now live in a throwaway world Most things cannot be repaired only thrown away if something goes wrong with them Small parts to repair things with are very hard to find ask for anything and you are told throw it away will sell you a complete unit at great expense Some small parts are to be found but only if you order them from China Plastic bottles are just the tip of the iceberg

Pamela Hunt says:
28 June 2017

This is a life impacting problem – plastic already in the oceans and waste tips and scattered around the world will last for at least 100 years. It is vital all countries in the world recycle their plastic but sadly it’s not going to happen in the foreseeable future or infact ever! I have several plastic bottles which I fill with tap water, keep in the fridge and take with me where ever I am in the world although I do realise some countries do not have safe drinking water easily accessible. I recycle every possible piece of plastic whether it’s bottles, butter or yogurt containers or similar or even plastic bags and packaging, however it’s the manufacturers that need to address this problem and sadly they will always take the cheaper option. We need to continually bring this world changing problem to all Governments.

Television continues to raise awareness of plastic pollution in our oceans: https://canvas-story.bbcrewind.co.uk/blue-planet-two-six-months-on/