/ Food & Drink

What are your solutions to our plastic waste problem?

Plastic packaging is a hot topic at the moment, with many in agreement that we need better solutions to reduce waste. Our guest and community member, Malcolm R, puts forward some plastic-saving suggestions and asks for your contributions.

In January, we discussed here on Which? Conversation ‘Who is responsible for reducing our plastic waste?’ and received hundreds of responses. I think we should be aiming to reduce packaging to only what is necessary. And, what we do use must – as far as possible – be recycled.

In his Spring Statement, the Chancellor called for evidence to tackle single-use plastic waste. So as a community of consumers, the question I put to you is: what is the solution?

Easy plastic packaging alternatives

There are a few key areas where I’ve noticed a lot of waste. Like liquids; do we always need bottles, or could it often be sold in pouches? Some places sell milk in plastic bags that can be decanted in a reusable jug.

And loose leaf tea and ground coffee are sold in bags, but instant comes in jars. Why is that? Why can’t we just buy refills?

Some packaging is arguably used for protection from handling damage like fruit, or to preserve it, like meat. But could there be times where we supply our own containers rather than buying contained food?

The same goes for ready meals and takeaways, which often come in plastic and aluminium trays and containers. I wonder if we really need these when we have our own reusable tubs?

Arguably, packaging makes the product look more appealing – a nice boxes of chocolates, Easter eggs and tins of biscuits to name but a few. But these are costly and discarded once they’ve been used, unless you can find a way to repurpose the pretty biscuit tin.

Making sense of plastic materials

When it comes to plastic, there are far too many different types in circulation, making separation difficult at recycling plants and adding complications to plastic waste being turned into new products. Here are some of the ways that I think this could be tackled:

  • Standardisation: can we standardise the different types of plastic to, say, clear PET that can be more easily separated and usefully recycled? I would even argue that all essential trays could be aluminium.
  • Markers: include machine-readable identifiers in plastics materials to allow automatic sorting.
  • Contamination: do we currently prevent recycling by laminating different materials, using foil, paper labels bonded to plastic? How can these be redesigned more effectively?

What’s the solution?

It’s time to review the packaging we use, starting by considering its necessity: what could be sold loose instead of packaged? Does it need to be contained, like a liquid? Does the packaging protect it?  And ultimately, could we reuse or repurpose it before we consider adding it to the ever-growing pile of waste?

This is a guest contribution by Which? Conversation community member, Malcolm R. All views are Malcolm’s own, and not necessarily also shared by Which?

We would like to hear your examples of packaging that you think can be improved – do you have any ideas or solutions on how this could be achieved? What examples have you already seen or heard of that could be used more widely? Please share your thoughts and ideas below.

Analize O'Brien says:
20 April 2018

A deposit should be charged on ALL glass bottles, no plastic bottles unless completely recyclable. ll eggs should be in cardboard, deposit on those as well as they used to do in The Netherlands, Firms should only use products for wrapping that are recyclable, We understand that times have changed and food needs packaging due to Health & Safety etc, Pubs and food outlets must use china & glass. Charge a deposit on glasses and a fine if they are broken, Then there are the nappies, for centuries there have not been disposable nappies, unless they are also recyclable then not allowed to produce them, Councils MUST fine companies and residents for not doing their recycling, WE MUST ONLY USE RECYCLABLE WRAPPINGS


I ordered loose bananas with my delivery from Tesco and they put them in a plastic bag. At first they said this would extend their life by 7 days, then they said they were “obliged to by law”.

Is this true?

They also put my loose tomatoes in a plastic bag and a bottle of bleach – already in a sturdy plastic bottle – in a plastic bag…

It seems telling them not to is not an option.


My guess is that they could argue that should do this as a consequence of UK Health and Safety law, as reasonable precautions to prevent your bleach from leaking onto your bananas and tomatoes.


Companies are not obliged to put bananas in plastic bags. Many years ago I used to tell Tesco checkout staff that nature had provided bananas with a biodegradable wrapping, remove my bananas and give back the bag. Putting bananas in a plastic bag will actually shorten their life by accelerating their ripening. Bananas give off a gas called ethene (ethylene) which accelerates ripening of bananas and some other fruits, which will shorten their life. You could give them a science lesson next time they make a false claim. 🍌

The Tesco checkout staff act more sensibly now, at least where I live, but I have not had any deliveries from them. Excessive use of plastic bags seems to be a problem with other companies too.


I suspect it helps to have loose fruit and veg – smaller ones certainly – in plastic bags to help weigh them. And I wonder how many shoppers would object to having them just tipped loose among all their other shopping? It might be better if we got into the habit of taking a bag or bags with us for such loose items; I’m all in favour of avoiding single-use packaging.


I find that bananas that have just been brought from the warehouse or have spent time on a chilled shelf are covered in condensation that could dampen other shopping so I always put them in a plastic bag which I later reuse. I would prefer it if supermarkets provided paper bags for produce but they don’t.


I agree about the paper bags John , as a real live example, I bought two plastic sealed bags of Jersey Royal potatoes , days later , due to the heat, evaporation took place , having nowhere else to go the moisture rotted the potatoes .


Yes this does happen sometimes if there is no ventilation and I can’t bear to see Jersey Royals go to rot so I eat them as soon as possible after purchase.


Jersey Royals do not seem to taste the same as once upon a time – lacking flavour. I believe it may be due to the EU banning the use of seaweed as a fertiliser, but that may be a myth. If not, roll on Brexit and the restoration of common sense 🙂


I think Jersey Royal potatoes have suffered from the industrialisation of production and probably take longer than they should to reach the supermarkets spending too long in their polythene bags and an unnatural environment. In going for the mass market the producers have possibly lost something in the quality which will in time affect the price they can get for them. Some Scottish potatoes are just as tasty and keep better.


I am pleased to see Which? keeping plastics waste in front of the public.
Today in a Which? press release “https://press.which.co.uk/whichpressreleases/a-lidl-less-conservation-up-to-a-third-of-supermarket-packaging-not-widely-recyclable/.

Given the number of Convos and contructive comments made on this topic, including “statements of intent” made in this one by a number of supoermarkets, perhaps Which? could formulate its own plan, to put to government, on how some of these problems might be tackled? Tesco, Aldi, Sainsbury and Asda all provided comments for this Convo, published earlier above.

@gmartin, as you and Alex seem the only contacts (has Patrick moved on) could I trouble you once again to see what Which? could do other than just Which? is calling on the Government to make clear and simple recycling labelling compulsory after it found up to 29 per cent of plastic packaging used by supermarkets is either non-recyclable or difficult to recycle.“.

One partial solution surely is not just to put labels on packaging but to make sure that the plastic packaging materials used are minimised, those used are all easily recyclable into useful forms, and that other materials such as aluminium containers are used instead, where appropriate. The objective must be to reuse, not burn or bury.


An excellent and comprehensive plan already exists – it’s Marks & Spencer’s Plan A 2025. It’s exceedingly ambitious and innovative – possibly unachievable in its entirety, but full marks for trying. Other retailers would do well to emulate it. I am sure some people will say it could be better but we shouldn’t let the best become the enemy of the good.


@patrick is still here, Malcolm 🙂 We are actually looking to discuss this story on Convo next week, so I’ll send your comment to our author to see if it’s something we can address.


Thanks @gmartin. I hope a new Convo will take note of what has been said in previous convos on the topic, and build on them.


Hi – I’m still here Malcolm! Been a busy bee working on some plans, but will try and show my face a bit more often.


It would be good to know how the new community strategy is going, Patrick.


@patrick, hello Patrick. I hope they are cunning plans. Nice to hear you will be chipping in still.

I have some busy bees outside my front door – there is a gap between the step and the wall. I think they are like small bumble bees but it’s a bit hard to see them as they only occasionally fly in and out.

Plastic waste has gone right up my scale of priorities over the last 12 months as we see the damage it causes, its profligate use, lack of control and uncoordinated collection and recycling (so it seems). Many very constructive suggestions have been made in various Convos that could be started very quickly. And that is my main concern at the moment; plans to tackle plastic packaging have a far far-too lengthy timescale, most particularly the Governments. Ridiculous in view of the crisis; it needs action starting now.

I hope Which? really get hold of this problem and don’t let it go. I also hope they will collaborate with the consumers’ associations throughout Europe to get this moving on a grand scale.


The August 2018 issue of the Which? magazine has a report covering various aspects of the impact of plastic waste. We are informed that Morrisons has the most easily recyclable plastic and also has the least unrecylable material.

I do look forward to Which? raising awareness of environmental issues where the consumer can make and impact and campaigning for waste reduction.

It’s more difficult to assess how much potentially recyclable packaging is actually recycled. Who washes and recycles greasy tubs of butter or spreads or meat packaging, especially chicken bags that are likely to be heavily contaminated with campylobacter.


The press release says:
Aldi, Asda, Lidl, M&S, Morrisons, Ocado, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose have signed up to the UK Plastics Pact, which pledges the following by 2025: 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable; 70% of plastic packaging recycled or composted; eliminate problematic or unnecessary single-use packaging items; 30% average recycled content across all plastic packaging.

It also says;
“The Government plans to achieve zero avoidable waste by 2050 and double resource efficiency by 2042, outlined in the 2017 Clean Growth Strategy, but this timeline has been criticised for being too long.
What an aspiration? And one, like electric cars, they have little chance of being held to account for. The “timeline” comment is quite an understatement. I like the “avoidable” get out.


In answer to Wavechange, I use the end of a loaf of bread to wipe all the butter/spread residue out of a tub and then put it in the food waste caddy; I then wash the tub and its lid and it goes in the recycling bin. I am in regular receipt of objections to using water for washing or rinsing articles going for recycling and notice that many people don’t do that because of the waste of water and detergent, so perhaps I am unduly profligate.


I wash the tubs too. I don’t wash black plastic meat trays, and I’m not sure they would be recycled according to what is in the magazine. It would be really good to have good clear advice and a countrywide standard for what we should do with waste. If children learn about this in school they could hand up the information to their parents.


We’d all appreciate our children telling us what to do :-(.
I regret that I put used plastic containers straight into the recycling receptacle in the kitchen, from which mrs r retrieves them and puts them in the dishwasher. It really uses no resources as they simply wash with the crockery and cutlery.


I realise that my household is abnormal. Everything going in the dishwasher is clean.

Some things, like glassware, don’t go in the dishwasher so there is at least one daily bowl-wash and once the glassware etc has been done the tubs and trays are left to soak for a bit in the hot water and detergent then washed and allowed to dry.

I agree there should be standardisation of recyclability. I take the view that councils have had more than enough time to get to grips with this so I don’t worry too much about what should or should not be put in the recycling bin. All plastic goes in and it’s up to the council to sort it.

My bugbear is the sheer amount of un-scrunchable foil and cellophane wrappings that cannot be recycled. There is a tall pedal bin dedicated to these discards and it fills up in no time.


It was a serious suggestion, Malcolm. Get people into the habit of recycling when they are young and they are likely to continue and hopefully have an influence on friends and family.

John – What you are referring to is a composite material – aluminium bonded to plastic. This and other composite materials are difficult to recycle.


Yes, I think the material is usually referred to as ‘metallised plastic’ and it has become far too prevalent. I don’t know why paper wrapping cannot be used for much of the food like biscuits and multipacks for yoghurt etc. Not only is the metallised plastic too difficult to recycle it will not compress and takes up too much space for such little mass.


It was a tongue-in-cheek reply wavechange 🙂


If you cook your chicken in its bag any campylobacter will be destroyed. The FSA has told us how much campylobacter has been reduced by the supermarkets, so “heavily contaminated” is unlikely to apply.


For this country to achieve an acceptable overall recycling rate around a third of the population will probably have to recycle everything possible to compensate for those who recycle little or nothing.


Which? mag August has an excellent article on plastics, waste, and packaging. Clearly we need a national strategy to deal with it. Local authorities have different practices and collection criteria which seems plain silly. They should all be bound together to ensure consistency country-wide.

We should also reduce the amount of packaging – show those retailer and manufacturers that perform well and highlight those that are less thoughtful.

Importantly, in my view, we should reduce the types of plastic used to the bare minimum and ensure all those can be reused sensibly, ideally as replacement packaging. PET and HDPE generally fall into this category.

Perhaps if Which? kept regular updates on progress by retailers, it might be an incentive for them to work even harder.


We have discussed a bottle returns scheme recently, but whether this will happen remains to be seen. How difficult is it to take a reusable bottle or a flask of coffee when you go out of the house?

At one time, people used to make their own sandwiches but supermarkets, filling stations and even village shops have an ample selection. The packets are often mixed materials such as cardboard and plastic film, which is not good for recycling and I expect that most of this is treated as non-recyclable material.

For the past fifteen years I have been a member of a group of volunteers that takes visitor to visit an attractive rural area that is near to a national nature reserve. The small groups of visitors usually bring a picnic and at one time this was mainly home-made savouries and cakes but now it’s mainly shop-bought food. Yesterday a family group of 11 people produced a collection of sandwiches and other buffet food neatly arranged in plastic trays with plastic covers. Why is it necessary to be so wasteful?


It’s because we have become wealthier and lazier, wavechange. Was there not a Costa or Starbucks at the reserve to rip them off for a cup of tea or coffee?

“All drinks containers in England, whether plastic, glass or metal, will be covered by a deposit return scheme, the government has announced.“. That’s the good news. The bad news is, possibly, M. Gove is in charge, and the other bad news might be that it will start with a “consultation”. goodness knows when it will come to fruition.

Mixed materials should be banned. I accept that people “on the move” might need sandwiches (but they are pretty awful at petrol stations unless they have a Waitrose or M&S outlet). They need protection which could be provide by recyclable PET only with a loose label inside.


‘Poverty’ is also relative and it depends on what is regarded as essential. There will always be some poverty and only a wealthy country can eventually relieve poverty.


Clearly while belonging to the EU our “poverty” has increased. Brexit could cure it. 🙂