/ 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?.


I don’t buy bottled water because I would rather have tap water and I’m not wasting plastic. When I go walking I take a plastic bottle filled with tap water. It must have been filled a hundred times.

My fridge is kept as cold as possible without freezing and a 2 litre container of milk lasts about a week, but that’s 50 plastic bottles binned each year.

Sadly, I have at least a hundred ‘fresh’ soup containers – each about 35g of polypropylene, which is non-biodegradable. Some have been used in the garage for storing screws, nails, etc and others stacked and waiting to find a use. I always used to make my own soups, but have become lazy in the past year. I must go back to making my own soups and storing the surplus in the in the freezer. I have some suitable containers.

Thanks for raising this important environmental issue, Hannah. It is well established that plastic microparticles are a serious problem for aquatic animals. Maybe when we learn of the dangers to humans we might become less addicted to use of disposable plastics.

is there a reason why people don’t use metal flasks which keep a liquid at the temperature at which it was poured into the flask?

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I use stainless steel vacuum flasks if I want to take milk or water [or other drinks] out with me. They are not that expensive and are lighter and easier to clean than traditional vacuum flasks.

Admirable efforts all round @wavechange. I consider myself to be extremely green-conscious but my eco-endeavours pale in comparison. I now bring my reusable, metal WaterAid flask I bought at Glastonbury a couple of years ago into work with me everyday to dissuade myself grabbing a plastic cup every morning.

I would love to be able to make my own soups and other meals that would normally use a lot of packaging. It’s just a shame that all of the ingredients for these big meals normally come wrapped in a lot of packaging themselves.

Philippa says:
22 April 2017

I do make my own soups especially in the winter and since the large plastic pots that ready-made soups come in usually take two portions and recipes usually make four I have recently been reusing a pot to put the remainder in and often freeze it allowing us extra time to eat it in.
Some of the pots have peel off labels. You get to know which soups you are going to be bothered to make. The easiest store-cupboard one I think is with a chopped onion, carrot and stick of celery softened in a little oil with a tsp of ground cumin and tsp ground coriander. Add half a cup of red lentils and about 1 litre stock made from cube or powder and cook for about 20 min. Add more water if necessary.

I now always use a slow cooker to put the carcase in to make stock when we have had a roast chicken. This stock can then be frozen for soup when anyone has a cold (proven to help) or used in fried rice using leftover meat. We always manage at least three meals from a roast chicken. Too much meat left over then freeze some – don’t just keep on eating it until you are sick of the sight of it!

We are lucky that we can recycle all our plastic pots and tubs although we prefer to dramatically reduce the number we use. It is the plastic film that we find irritating. A lot of this can be taken to the larger supermarkets to recycle with the carrier bags – and it says this on the packaging but has NEVER EVER said this on the carrier bag recycling banks! Also not enough of the supermarket packaging film is marked up like this. “Check local recycling” is exasperating and we need to call on the supermarkets not only to update their packaging but to make it recyclable. If it doesn’ t get there it doesn’t but at least there is the option.

would everyone look at the bigger picture we are destroying the planet/ we are creating materials that will eventually suffocate the planet all the man made fibres and chemical clothing will suffocate the earth killing all life on this beautifull earth already there are billions of tons of this product poisioning our sea just for clothes that and bags to carry these material on to our land/our rivers and our seas .

Graham says:
17 April 2017

Whilst I agree that cutting down on use of plastic and using more recycled plastics would be an all round good idea – surely the original research is a little misleading – “7% of throwaway plastic bottles are made from recycled materials” – but of the 100% of bottles made, how many are then recycled into other products?

The plastic continents growing in all the major bodies of water suggest much much much more can be done, but all Greenpeace have really done is point of that soft drink bottles are not made from recycled material.

I always keep a supply of long-life milk in case I run out of fresh and I am not well enough to visit the local store, which is sold in cardboard containers and will keep in the fridge once opened for up to 5 days. There is probably a good reason why fresh milk is not sold in this way and would be interested to know why it is not.

Ultimately, us consumers are to blame for the current widespread consumption of drinks in “throwaway” bottles. We choose to buy these products; no-one is forcing us to do that.

Personally, I prefer bottled beer (or wine) to bottled water. I do my best to sentence all such “throwaway” (or single-use) bottles into my domestic recycling box.

Nonetheless, for family days out I don’t always seem to find the time to re-use squash bottles as containers for the carriage of home prepared squash, water or other refreshments. At supermarket prices, pre-bottled squash, like “Robinsons Fruit Shoot” is very inexpensive and is widely accepted by our children and their friends. From the example I have in front of me, I see that all those bottles can be recycled, but, of course, whether or not they will be is down to many factors, starting with whether or not the user can be bothered to sentence them for recycling.

Some “family friendly” restaurants like Pizza Hut and Toby Carvery now offer their customers the option of “unlimited” soft drinks by means of drink dispensers and re-usable glasses. I think it would be great if more cafes and such like did this, as it would help to reduce the usage of pre-bottled drinks.

I’m trying to reduce the amount of plastic bottles we get through by buying fizzy drinks and mixers in aluminium cans instead. I hope at least they get recycled. Glass is great but heavy and costs much more, so let’s get back to returnable glass. It worked in the 1950s – why not now?

Maybe it is an opportunity for the glass industry need to come up with a strong thin bottle to replace the plastic for milk and make it returnable by charging ?.
2nd it is educating people to recycle and be more thoughtful on rubbish in general no one appears to give a FF with what the do with their discarded bottles, Mcdonalds, KFC packaging we are a disgraceful untidy nation

lessismore says:
25 April 2017

If you look at the WRAP website you will see that a lot has been done to lighten the weight of glass bottles and jars, and of steel tins. Also the design of plastic milk bottles has been changed to reduce the amount of plastic used and strengthen the handle.


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It’s not just plastic bottles that are an issue, too much food packaging still isn’t recyclable. I did write to Tesco last year pointing out a long list of products whose wrapping wasn’t 100% recyclable, all they did was thank me for my feedback. And guess what, nothing has happened. Needs more than just me making a nuisance of myself. How about Which set up templates for all the big companies for us little people to fire off emails ( similar to what they did with the watchdog MP appeal) maybe we could get through to them that way.

See http://www.myzerowaste.com and http://www.therubbishdiet.org.uk Both Rachelle (Mrs Green) and Karen have made names for themselves by reducing their unrecyclable waste.

That feedback is VERY important and more of us should be bothered to make it. Unfortunately the attitude of the supermarkets seems to be that unless there is any negative response the public are in favour of their decisions on what can be excessive and unnecessary packaging – when in fact they are just putting up with it, unaware that they can be aiding and abetting any increase and so actually making it more difficult for themselves to deal with. They need to be held to account.

Milk stored in clear glass bottles apparently reduces levels of important vitamins A and C as well as some B vitamins, although calcium and other minerals remain unaffected. This is why plastic milk containers are usually opaque to prevent exposure to ultraviolet responsible for this vitamin loss.

Research led me to the Swedish origin of the Tetra Pack used for long-life milk, now produced in Switzerland, and its recycling potential.
More on this subject can be found @ en.m.wikipedia.org – Tetra Pack. Also of interest @ berkeleywellness.com – Is Milk in Plastic Bottles Less Nutritious?

Beryl, it is my belief that Tetra Paks must be one of the worst offenders not going for recycling.

Maybe there are some good councils, but the majority don’t seem to collect Tetra Paks with household recycling so you have to go out of your way to find a collection point for them. Cornwall currently recycles NONE so they will ALL go to landfill. On the other hand, Scotland collects them from the kerbside so the majority should get recycled.

You can check your area here: http://www.tetrapakrecycling.co.uk/where-can-i-recycle.asp . I think the numbers on the map are a reference number and not the number of collection points.

Milk cartons, alternative to milk cartons, fruit juices, frozen deserts, we probably all use them one way or another and more effort needs to be put into recycling them.

Because we drink oat milk and get through a lot of cartons, we have a dedicated bin for Tetra Pak recycling that gets taken to one of the 2 local recycling points near us once a week.

Here in Gloucester, our domestic recycling scheme includes tetra paks.

Never had a problem recycling Tetra Paks in my area either. All domestic recycling waste now has to be put in the recycling bin loose (no plastic bags) to stop sanitary articles being dumped in there.


“In 1991, the Institute of Food Technologists rated the top 10 innovations in food technology. Aseptic processing and packaging ranked No. 1, ahead of juice concentrates, safe canning processes, freeze-drying and food fortification.”


I believe that they have made the system pretty economical and so long as efforts are made to continue to be made to reuse the recycled cartons usefully they are a good packaging option. We need different types of packaging and tetrapak type cartons keep food edible for a good amount of time. They also stack well.

You may find this piece of info and expanation newly issued to residents in the South Hams in Devon interesting:


Thank you Lessismore. It was interesting to see what the end-use is for the recycled cartons.

I confess that we buy small plastic bottles of fizzy water to make soft drinks from cordials. But we do reuse our plastic several times, if possible.

For example, the drink bottles are filled with tap water and chilled for the gym or bike rides or days out. Yoghurt tubs and similar are used to mix paints, store screws, bolts and other paraphernalia or starting seedlings. So nearly all our plastic is reused before it is put into recycling.

Although it’s far from green, plastic bottles and containers are extremely light to transport. They don’t need returning and sterilising for reuse like old milk bottles, so they are not that bad. And now that we use green bags for our shopping, we have to buy many more black waste bags for our non-recyclable rubbish. We also have to use far more water because so much recycled waste has to be washed and dried before putting into the bin. Overall, I don’t believe our policies have been well thought out.

Philippa says:
22 April 2017

What about a soda siphon? I looked into these as they were probably still are readily available in stores at the time – and I thought I’d get one for the office. We don’t buy bottled water – and we always ask for tap water in restaurants – after all we are usually drinking something else as well. I myself don’t like fizzy water.
I also don’t want anything with extra salts in it which will raise my blood pressure.

We use a dustbin for our residual waste and only when it is full do we put it into a black bin bag. We used to line the dustbin with a black sack and tip our small non-recyclable bins into it but the dustbin men kept taking it – when we only make a large crisp packet/popcorn size bag of unrecyclable waste per week so it was far too big.

If we take a bottle of water out with us, we quarter fill it with water and put in the freezer the night before to create a giant ice cube so we have cold water for most of the day. Make sure to freeze it on its side though otherwise the bottle might burst.

Good tip.

We used to do that in Spain with water. We also do this with a litre of semi-skimmed milk in a plastic bottle. If we take it out of the freezer in the evening and leave it in the kitchen sink to defrost overnight we just have to give it a shake in the morning .

The large iceberg or milk-berg in a bottle helps to keep other food cool too. No need for freezer packs.

It’s a pity the manufacturers don’t provide a returnable deposit for plastic bottles. For example, put up the prices of plastic bottled products by let’s say 10p for a small bottle or 25p for larger (e.g. 1+ litre) bottles. Each time someone returns a bottle when purchasing a new product, they would get that amount taken off the purchase. Those still who choose to dump the bottles in the trash will be the one’s who lose out as they’ll not get their deposit back.

Excellent idea. To provide stick with the carrot they would be forbidden in collected waste.

“To provide stick with the carrot they would be forbidden in collected waste.”

In which case carefree folk will just chuck them away as litter, as they do now anyway.

A serious drawback with this idea is that modern manufacturers don’t want or need these bottles back to re-use. In olden times, glass bottles were used and re-used for milk, fizzy pop (Corona) and beer (Davenports), so a system of deposits worked well then.

As I see it, the single use packaging of individual or family sized portions of food and drink is a necessary feature in our present day system of supermarket shopping. I’m old enough to remember the previous system, when bulk food supplies went to our local grocer for onward preparation, packing and distribution to individual customers.

“” “To provide stick with the carrot they would be forbidden in collected waste.”
In which case carefree folk will just chuck them away as litter, as they do now anyway.””

But the beauty of it is that children etc . will collect them from where ever and take them back for the money . It is immaterial to me that the drink companies do not want them back as the aim is to stop them polluting the landscape and particularly the oceans.

There is no 100% pain-free solution but my belief is it is easier to load cost of a system onto a producer than to clear up a problem down the line when it has reached epidemic proportions.

Industry is wonderful about telling you the virtues and benefits but not at all interested in explaining the drawbacks either; not looking for them or actively suppressing them. Think lead in petrol, numerous marketed drugs, microbeads, and for an outstanding example – DuPont

Charlotte says:
18 April 2017

I think we should defenatly start making more use out of these bottle it is better for us

Because the UK imports a lot of products in glass bottles we actually end up with much more glass waste than can be economically recycled. Even shipping it back in empty containers to the countries of origin is grossly uneconomical so we have created a glass mountain. Some is reused in industrial processes, and some is reused in the construction industry, but melting and purifying glass to produce a useful raw material is extremely expensive. A lot of glass waste is also specially treated or laminated to give it additional properties and is not easily converted back to ordinary glass.

JW thanks for the info but do you have the source? I note the rider “economically recycled” but could be marginally too expensive to over the top expensive. Finding new uses or making plastic bottles more expensive may solve the problem .

Here is a view on the market:
and a new use
in low cost batteries.

The previous link was a bit finnicky but here is a technical article on using the glass for batteries. Very encouraging.

and I know some of you will be interested in what ee think are the best Kickstarter offers back in February!!
and probably best spoken of in the Lobby.

Patrick – I missed your previous post asking about my comments on glass waste. I don’t have a specific source for what I wrote, it was just the distillation of various things I have read.

Recycling of glass waste is a big industry that has been going for many years and so it is a partial success story but it does not deal with all available waste and is struggling to find new end-uses. A lot of post-consumer waste glass is still going to landfill or incineration.

Waste glass can be reformed into new glass but it is difficult to keep the cost below that of processing virgin materials, especially for the purer grades. It is a heavy material to transport and if it has to be collected from a large number of different sites there are economic and environmental drawbacks. Waste glass also has to screened to remove non-conforming material. Some new goods can be made entirely from waste glass if colour, transparency and freedom from impurities are not critical factors. The use for battery cells shown in the link you posted seems like a good one and there must be many other applications where, if we can tolerate some inconsistency in the finished product, glass would make a good substitute for metal, or plastic even. Uses where a smooth and impermeable surface are the chief requirements would be best.

Glass fibre production [glass-reinforced plastic – GRP] is probably a substantial user of waste glass where the fibres of glass are a reinforcing material for the polymer and the resulting light-weight material lends itself to pressing and moulding.

I read some time ago that waste glass was being partially reprocessed – basically just crushed, combined with other waste like fly-ash, and heated to give it some plasticity and composition – to make a hardcore base layer for roads, runways, foundations, and other such purposes, but ideas on what else to do with it soon run out, especially since other low-cost materials [like crushed concrete] are readily available in ever increasing quantities. I have wondered whether glass roof tiles would be worth experimenting with – not for their translucency although that could be a sub-benefit – but for their impermeability, resistance to moss and lichen accretion, and appearance in preference to concrete tiles. Glass or part-glass building blocks might be another possibility. These kinds of uses would substitute for extractive activity and cement production to obtain the basic raw material, however so long as concrete can be produced cheaply either in prefabricated or site-made form glass will find it hard to compete unless aesthetic qualities are important.

It is the weight and reprocessing cost of glass that has driven the use of plastic. Reuse of glass consumer waste was once a significant and cost-cutting activity. Jam jars and beer bottles were largely uniform in standardised contents volumes across all food and drink manufacturers and could be returned to any factory or brewery for reuse. When most beer was sold through pubs and off-licences run by the breweries this was cheap, quick and easy. Now there is a multiplicity of shapes and sizes unique to individual contents and probably very little reuse as they are sold through supermarkets and, at best, the empty bottles go in the recycling bin.

I was interested to see on the BBC News website this morning an item about a Scottish company that is recycling plastic waste into road surfacing material. The plastic is turned into tiny pellets which are combined with asphalt and bitumen to produce a smoother, stronger and longer-lasting road-making material; it significantly reduces the amount of asphalt and bitumen [oil-derived material] needed for the road surface. It made the important point, though, that we should not keep increasing the use of plastics now that we have a good method for using the waste! It would be interesting to test whether a road made with a sub-stratum of waste glass mix and a top coating of plastic-infused asphalt would be a less environmentally-damaging structure with comparable or superior performance characteristics while at the same time economically neutral at worst.

We recently bought some rustic-looking drinks tumblers made from recycled glass and thought we were helping the UK to reduce its glass mountain, but when we took off the labels on the bottoms of the glasses we noticed they had been made in Spain. Typical!

Thanks for the long and thoughtful post. I did see about the Scottish road surface and one might consider in all of these things the possibilities of giving the alternative ideas a leg-up until they can reach critical mass where they can compete. Or it may be that socially we need to use the alternatives despite them costing more.

Glass tiles is an interesting one as it does seem to provide plenty of new options. I am rather partial to glass as a material because of its essential durability and lack of exotic additives. Though we do have art glass which does have such stuff.

I feel I should mention again the Spacia glass which gives near triple glazing performance with two thin sheets of glass. Invented in Australia, made in Japan , sold in the UK.

In the not too distant future there will be an awful lot of replacement double-glazing to be considered.

While checking out home batteries, I came across solar roof tiles which Tesla are launching later this year, and which I have long thought all new build homes should come with as standard.

They are made of glass and although I could find no mention of using recycled glass, perhaps they will be in the future..


Patrick – Thanks for your response.

From what I see around this area there already is a lot of double-glazing waste, both glass and UPVc frames, as people fit more aesthetically pleasing windows and upgrade their first-generation conservatories. I notice that most skip companies claim to reuse or recycle a high proportion of the contents nowadays; this is probably due to the Landfill Tax. I don’t know anything about the reprocessing of the UPVc frames; I cannot believe it is a low-energy and harmless activity except under strictly-controlled conditions.

I had not realised that glass roof tiles were already a practical proposition, Alfa, so thanks for that link. As you say it would be better if they could be made from recycled material. I think the aesthetics of our roofscapes are particularly important and a more harmonious treatment would be most welcome. We have grown to live with satellite dishes everywhere, just as we did with ugly TV aerials, and over the years they became less obtrusive as the technology improved. I am hoping this will happen with solar panels; some installations look appalling with no thought given to appearance as the scheme is driven by optimising the solar gain and the crude economics of uniform panel sizes. I hope I am not prejudiced but I feel that the older generation are most prone to this tendency, especially those living in bungalows.

It’s interesting – and perhaps a clue to the economics – that in the Tesla demonstration examples the glass tiles were attached to high-status real estate. It certainly looked attractive, however, and would enable the solar gain to be achieved, virtually invisibly, across a very high percentage of the south-facing roof area rather than in the concentrated surface-mounted rectangles that we see today.

It is time that housing developers here gave more consideration to the orientation of their dwellings so that they predominantly have south-facing roofs to one aspect or the other.

Duncan says that, in the USA, householders are barred from installing renewable energy generation due to pressure from the power companies, and yet Tesla is offering this system that will be fully independent and owned by the property owner. Luckily we have Ofgem and the Competition & Markets Authority to ensure that such restrictive practices as exist in the USA cannot be pursued in the UK. I cannot see the concept of “The Englishman’s home is his castle” being compromised in the Brexit Britain we have today; indeed the sentiment might actually be reinforced as time goes by.

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They never seemed to catch on though, Duncan, presumably because slate and then concrete tiles were cheaper to produce. They seemed to be reserved for small out-buildings like wash-houses and privies where there was not enough wall space to install windows. Perhaps their time has now come with the inclusion of a PV cell in the tile.

One factor that will affect the cost of a glass PV roof tile installation will be the ease with which each individual cell can be linked electrically behind the tile to all the others to feed back to the intake system. Perhaps a mass-produced grid or net of connexions, or a special form of sarking, is laid across the roof before the tiles are fixed in place, or, alternatively, perhaps each tile has male and female connectors that will interlock across the roof. Tesla are a being bit coy on the practicalities and the design features.

Companies are keen to hide the amount of waste they are responsible for creating, so I guess it is no surprise that consumers might expect a “recyclable” plastic drinks bottle to make up part of a new plastic drinks bottle and companies do little to disabuse such notions. There are lots of things that a plastic drinks bottle could end up as, but a food container is not normally one of them.

Consider all the problems.

How does a recycling plant distinguish between food-safe plastics and other plastics, like detergent bottles? Generally, they can sort by density and colour, but knowing if a particular plastic, which often contains fillers and dyes, is food-safe or not is well beyond their capabilities.

How do we ensure that even food-safe plastics are sterile and haven’t been contaminated with leachable chemicals; a householder using a bottle to mix up weed-killer, store petrol, or on their way to the recycling plant in the back of a refuse cart that was last filled with God knows what? Would you be prepared to drink the contents of a bottle that has been in contact with this muck?

Even the tiny amount of “recycled” plastic in drinks bottles is unlikely to be post-consumer waste, but rather plastic that is recovered from the manufacturing process before it leaves the controlled environment of the factory.

I am not saying that recycling plastic drinks bottles is a bad idea, just that it is far more likely that they end up in a new polyester jumper or quilt than back on supermarket shelves.

Given that we all now use supermarkets and all expect high standards of food safety, we all probably need our food to come safely and securely packaged.

But we can still then apply the 4 R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Recover

Reduce: Hardy any-one in the UK needs bottled water – tap water, filtered if need be, is safe to drink. It follows that bottled water is a needless luxury and could be taxed as such.

Reuse: Direct re-use of drinks bottles is possible (we did it a lot in the 1960s), but might require re-structuring of our food and drink industries.

Recycle: Where bottles and such like are needed, care should be taken to ensure that the materials used for their construction can be recycled, in so far as is reasonably practicable.

Recover: If all else fails, plastic bottles can be used as a source of fuel. As noted above by Duncan Lucas, you cannot just burn any old plastic anyway you like – or you risk producing unacceptable levels of toxin partial combustion products. So this option needs careful controls on bottle composition and expensive specialised incinerators.

We have already had recycled plastic bottles on the market – including milk in recycled plastic bottles. The colour of the green lids was amusingly made lighter because the small amount that got into the body of the bottle turned that a pale green shade which didn’t look so inviting. Until more recently we had our milk delivered in glass bottles twice weekly. This is much better as glass bottles can be REUSED up to about 20 times. Only when our routines made it too difficult to manage this did we start buying it when we needed it from the supermarket and keeping a spare plastic bottle in the freezer. We also have UHT milk in tetrapaks for emergency and making sauces, hot chocolate and custard because nobody can tell. Tetrapaks can be recycled in our kerbside collection. Where our parents live we collect them in a box , flatten them and take turns to take them to a recycling bank managed by the carton manufacturers.

Consider re-cycled milk bottles, which are made of HDPE. The HPDE pellets that are produced by carefully selecting bales of input (empty milk bottles), grinding, washing at 90 degrees and reforming into pellets contain traces of colour (the bottle tops you mention), residual odour and black specks. They also have different mechanical properties from virgin HDPE. For these reasons, a maximum of 30% recycled HDPE can be used to make a new milk bottle.

In other words, recycle a new plastic milk bottle 5 times and more than 99% of the original plastic disappears from the process, not even counting the ones that get rejected before they make it to the re-cycling process.

Unfortunately, today’s low oil prices mean that making food grade plastic recyclate is not economically competitive with all the cleaning and quality controls required.

And here is the process in action. In case you miss it, the “feel good” M&S milk bottle contains only 10% recycled HDPE. You could save more plastic than that by buying a larger bottle.


One of the problems that I remember was the residue of the plasticised silver foil top which is underneath the coloured plastic top. These don’t always come off cleanly from the bottle. Seeing the process led me to always be more careful so that my contribution to the recycling process didn’t have this problem. However I have noticed more recently a different version of this top – one with a sort of wing in the middle to pull. It has to be strong enough to stay on yet easy enough to take off cleanly. I don’t find this type particularly easy either but am pleased to see that there is change and innovation happening. This is what needs to continue.

I love the way that the film lid on a punnet of blueberries now pulls off cleanly. OK so it won’t be recycled but the punnet can be.

I have just participated in Greenpeace’s campaign supporting the creation of a plastic bottle deposit return scheme, which included writing directly to Coca Cola.

Something should be done about plastic bottle tops too.

When I went around a recycling plant for plastic bottles they were quite happy to have both the bottle and the lid. In other countries the ridged water bottle can be squashed down like a concertina and the lid replaced – which keeps the volume reduced. The volume of these things is important. We don’t want to be storing large amounts of air as well as the bottles. We don’t have room. The lids are not made of the same plastic as the bottles. One of these plastics sinks when chipped and the other floats. The age old excuse for lids off has been that it is a problem when baling. Hasn’t this been overcome yet? is the problem the fear that the bottles will be full rather than empty?

I loved the Greenpeace pamphlet but haven’t been able to look at the pictures with the app because I don’t have a smartphone. Now that we are getting some good weather it is horrifying the way that some members of our community (mostly youngsters) seem to feel that it is OK to just get up and leave their waste where they were sitting in the park. How did we get here? Recycling appears several times in the curriculum so the schools obviously need some help in getting the message across. This of course should be consolidated by parents and carers. It would be good if some of the Greenpeace info was delivered straight to the schools. The damage that plastics in the sea does to wildlife needs to be seen to be believed.

Putting a value on packaging so that it is more likely to find its way to a recycling bin seems to be a logical solution. We buy it so we should be responsible and deal with it. Don’t want to deal with it? Then don’t buy it. We MUST also complain when there is excess and unnecessary packaging – or we are tacitly agreeing to wanting it! There are packaging regulations and we need Trading Standards and the Government to make sure that companies are paying what they should towards the system. I don’t believe that it is just Corporation Tax that is being avoided.

Liquid contained in bottles with lids is one of the concerns. Where co-mingled recycling (all in one bin) is used, a bottle full of water will rupture and soak the paper, making it stick to the sorting machinery.

It’s odd but in all the info we were given that is the one bit of info we were never given – that the bottle should be EMPTY!

Now in order to make recycling “easy” we get no info at all other than what they want. Nothing about lids, nothing about labels, nothing about rinsed, nothing about squashed, nothing about drained and dry. Lack of knowledge increases difficulty.

The difficulty that was there before was in my opinion just an excuse promoted by a minority for not doing anything. Most people do something. I reckon more would do more if they were taken on the journey of trials and tribulations of finding and changing solutions to improve the circular economy – or at least given a taste of it with a few anecdotes.

I agree with both of you. How about:

1. Councils standardise what plastics can be recycled.

2. The manufacturers mark acceptable plastics with a coloured dot so that people know that these products belong in the recycling bin and a different mark to identify caps, film covers and other plastics that are not currently acceptable.

3. Councils provide advice on what not to put in the recycling bin. My guess would be to avoid putting in empty containers that had contained gardening chemicals, motor oil, etc. and not to include anything that is not empty or is dirty or wet.

It’s all very confusing and different people and websites can provide conflicting advice.

Relying on the general populace to follow these rules is optimistic. Many will, and many will wash plastic containers before they put them in the bin. But many will not – just like they put waste oil, fat, engine coolant down the drain. So we need to think about sorting on site, and/or legislation on packaging construction. Why there has to be so diverse a mix of materials I don’t know; perhaps someone will enlighten us. The milk industry have managed to address this by using the same materials for the cap and the container. The supermarkets could drive this between them by requiring standardised packaging materials perhaps.

Norfolk County Council includes in its occasional magazine delivered to all households advice on what and how to recycle. It asks us to wash out all bottles and cans, shake out any water, and replace the caps on bottles [as they will be dealt with at the recycling plant – presumably by someone having to twist them off and sort them into bins]. They particularly emphasise the need to put the caps back on glass bottles because that reduces the risk of them breaking.

Tony Cursons says:
21 April 2017

This is an ideal cause for Which to lead by example in several ways; stop using a plastic envelope to send out the monthly magazine, offer a reduction to members who decline the monthly magazine in favour of an electronic copy, state the amount of recyclable & non-recyclable plastic on products reviewed(especially Best Buys) and when reviewing food products state clearly whether the retailer accepts the packaging back for recycling.
We need a credible organisation to lead by example as so many others including political parties who claim to have these issues as their driving ideal have not performed!

Hello Tony, some very interesting suggestions you have there – thank you. I’ll share them with the relevant teams 🙂

It depends on whether you want your magazine to be read or not IMO. Too much stuff comes in on email and even when quite ruthless in culling the unwanted the inbox keeps on filling up. I’ve commented before that the info regarding recycling the plastic bag is very small. I’ve also commented before that the recycling bins for carrier bags and film inside the larger supermarkets have never ever actually said that this film can be included. It feels as if the supermarkets are not participating fully and why does the WRAP/Recycle Now logo not include this?

Good points.

Which?, as I say perpetually, should be a reliable resource for matters consumer – a consumer wiki – CAwiki.

To keep up-to date an article with relevant [and safe] links to relevant sites and provide an overview is part of my dream of what Which? should be. A low-cost to run but very attractive benefit for members. And funnily enough one were the mass-brainpower of the 670,000 subscribers could be used to assist the paid staff.

Seems to me that over the last thirty years I have never seen a request/survey of what Which? should be. In fact in the last decade only in the last decade would/should it been necessary as a road to commercialistion has been embarked on without any discussion.

Ann Wilson says:
3 May 2017

Of course we do and the best way to do it is to make Hemp plastic . It degrades and leaves no harmful residue. We should also be using Hemp for the other things it can do like replace wood use. However, it will never happen because Hemp is cheap, easy to grow, is not susceptible to any plant disease . A no-no for the relevant corporations who now make billions out of the blight of the world plastic.

Hemp plastic – live and learn!!

The economics are not explored but still interesting.


No they do not need the money but it is an attempt to stop the enormous amount of man made fibres disappearing from your washing machine into the ocean to be taken up by the marine life we eat.

In terms of plastic bag equivalents per city times washes per day it is astonishing numbers. ” According to a research team from the University of California at Santa Barbara, a city of 100,000 inhabitants releases a wash-related volume of microfibers equivalent to 15,000 plastic bags. A city the size of Berlin may be responsible for more than 500,000 plastic bags – every single day. Guppy Friend is an easy to use, uncomplicated, affordable and pragmatic solution to protect guppies and other sea dwellers.”

Hi, I would have thought filters added to the washing machine would be more effective than bags for certain items. These could be cleaned like the ones in dryers.

David says:
12 May 2017

Hi. A few thoughts.
As a child, most people had milk delivered in glass bottles which were returned to the milk round, washed and re-used. A few years later, whilst in Germany, I noticed that virtually all drinks were dealt with in this way; the retailers would deduct a few Pfennigs from the bill when you returned the empties.
According to a friend who manufactures cider, this system isn’t allowed in the U.K. !

Re: returning bottles to (product) manufacturer, to get deposit back.
I seem to recall a lecture which pointed out that a (cider) company had very serious accounting problems because they could not prophesy how much money they had to set aside to pay bottle-returners… so perhaps disallowing was stable-door closing?

Jacquie says:
14 May 2017

Why not take a step back in time and use urns to collect and store milk? It would be a simple matter of either taking your urn to a store and filling it up from a dispenser or even swapping an empty urn for a full one, How much plastic would that save? The urns could be of various shapes and size to cater for peoples taste or needs.

Good idea, Jacquie. The supermarkets could dispense the milk from tanks refilled from a tanker lorry. Savings all round.

I have noticed in places where there is still a milk round with doorstep deliveries that returnable glass bottles are still used. Milk rounds declined in the face of severe competition from convenience stores and supermarkets for which the use of returnable glass bottles was impractical [because casual shoppers would not return them]. Cheaper and lighter plastic containers were seen as the answer and they saved a lot in transport costs and energy [an environmental advantage set against the disadvantage of the use of plastic]. It was naively thought that all plastic packaging would be recycled, and although a lot of it can be it is not as economical and environmentally satisfactory as re-use [even after very high-temperature washing] so we have ended up with cheap milk in a useless plastic container that cannot be safely re-used so is either expensively reprocessed or dumped.

I stopped getting bottles of milk from the milkman when it started to ‘go off’ rapidly. Obviously there was a problem with the bottle cleaning equipment. Soon after, the milkman stopped delivering in our area.

It’s often assumed that plastics can be recycled to produce more plastic, but recycled plastic is inferior. For example, plastic milk bottles made from recycled plastic would not be as strong and there is the danger that the milk could be contaminated by chemicals in the feedstock.

I think going back to the use of urns would have some significant cost and health and safety issues.

Supermarkets would need to either pay staff to handle the urns and dispense milk from them, or invest in some kind of vending machinery.

Churns of similar size to those used traditionally could now probably only be used after the provision of appropriate handling aids.

Supermarkets would need to keep their dispensing equipment scrupulously clean and prevent cross contamination from any customer supplied urns.

Customers can already buy milk in 4 & 6 pint sized bottles when they need to get a lot at once. But, I suspect, many customers who don’t use milk rapidly still prefer to buy individual sealed pints, to get a longer fridge life.

Filtered milk has a storage life of several weeks when unopened because the bacteria that cause souring have been removed. UHT milk is sterilised and can be stored at room temperature prior to opening, but it’s an acquired taste that I don’t think I will acquire. Both filtered milk and UHT milk become contaminated with bacteria once the bottle or carton is opened. With care, it should be possible to carry out an ‘aseptic transfer’ of part of the contents of a bottle of milk to another container without introducing contamination. As a retired microbiologist I will give this a go. Now where did I put my bunsen burner?

Under your stool, so be careful.

Supermarkets use milk as a loss leader to attract customers in who then because of marketing strategy have to walk right across the store past all sorts of nice smelling and deliberately placed and attractively packaged goods. To make a cup of tea you may well have to go in several completely different directions and so pass by an awful lot of other potential purchases!

However on a snowy and icy morning it is just wonderful to open the door to find that the milkman has been and delivered your milk right to your very own doorstep by electric float AND taken away the empties. As a service it is brilliant – and the milkman is/was a very useful community asset. He knew when there was a problem when the milk had not been taken in. Also a very useful service now as other food items can be delivered with the milk – and not in such large quantities as those from the supermarket.

I prefer milk from glass bottles and I think milk tastes much better as a drink from a glass bottle than a plastic one.

However milk in the plastic containers with a handle is easier and lighter to hold, and the big plastic containers fit into the fridge better taking up less room. So this may suit families better.

There is a problem with milk being poured down the drain – and I do wonder how much is actually being thrown away.

It was bad enough when someone didn’t put the one pint bottle of milk back in the fridge!

Sour milk used to be used in cooking. Now there are dire date warnings on plastic containers. With the glass bottles you knew that you had to taste the milk to check that it hadn’t gone sour. Sniffing the bottle meant that the only milk you smelt was the residue around the top of the bottle and that might be on the turn when the rest was fine.