/ 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.


How were things packaged before the advent of plastic some were not packaged at all but sold loose and you provided your own packaging if needed ??!!

Instant coffee refills have always been available. And we always re-purpose our biscuit tins. But I like the ideas for machine-readable identifiers – Tags, I suppose – but that’s the sort of thing that only a government would be able to achieve – through legislation. How would you go about persuading them?

Good convo malcolm 👍🏻.

I have just had a look at all the bottles and jars in my kitchen.

Most glass containers have metal lids that are magnetic (just tested them) so they would be easy to separate for recycling.

All plastic containers and some glass containers have plastic lids of which very few have the recycling triangle symbols on them. A few have an empty triangle. I imagine most of these end up in landfill, and that is not good enough.

Plastic lids need to be standardised and recycling codes clearly marked on them. I would suggest on the top of the cap for easy identification.

Thanks for bringing up an important topic, Malcolm.

I suggest that ALL plastics used in packaging are prominently marked with the ‘resin identification code’, the recycling code number that most of us are familiar with: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Resin_identification_code Councils could provide a sticker showing which codes can go in their recycling bins, which currently depends on where you live.

Production of aluminium requires large amounts of energy but aluminium trays, foil, etc. is readily recyclable and this takes less energy. The problem arises when aluminium – even small amounts of foil – is incinerated because this creates air pollution.

Perhaps consumers could forgo large fancy chocolate boxes, etc. and opt for simpler understated packaging conveying the message that the giver cares about both the recipient and the environment.

Ready meals are extravagant in use of packaging and perhaps if we do more cooking for ourselves then there would be less waste and it’s more fun cooking a special meal than reheating a supermarket ready-meal.

Yes, this is something to be concerned about. Bio degradable wood based products could replace plastic in many areas. The problem is that manufacturers look for easy ways to pack their foods and plastics have provided solutions for vacuum sealing, freezing, prevention of damage and automated production of attractive consumer items. The takeaway industry also needs products that keep food warm and secure in transit, though the traditional newspaper chippy seems to have this sorted. Even their sauces and beans come in polystyrene containers. The package has to perform a large set of criteria. It has to keep food safe and transportable. It has to fit on Supermarket displays. It has to sell the product. It has to be easy to use both by manufacturer and consumer. It has to adapt to any form of liquid or solid placed within it.
The suggestion made of pouches for milk, fails on several levels. Transport in shopping bags; use in the fridge before opening; storage in the supermarket and material strong enough to withstand their amorphous and flexible shape; machinery to fill these at the dairy. Traditional glass has been abandoned as heavy and unsuitable for large quantities. Change from the ubiquitous plastic bottle has to address their advantages and someone has to invent a material that will do the same job. I have always hoped that when put in the recycle bin, the milk bottle can be used again with minimal loss of material in the reprocessing plant. It is those that don’t get there that pollute the world. We do need a concentrated research and development programme to look at the whole area of product packaging. Once we have viable alternatives we can insist that they are used. To do so before we have them is putting the cart before the horse -and milk churn.

“The suggestion made of pouches for milk, fails on several levels.” I agree. I’ve seen them on sale in my local shop, but would never dream of buying them, for the reasons stated.

I use a lot of ready meals myself, because they are tasty, cheap and convenient, not least after long days at work.

In my experience, they don’t all use one trip plastic packaging – some suppliers are trying to make more use of paper, cardboard and easily recyclable plastic containers. Perhaps more could be encouraged to do likewise.

As I walk to and from work, I’m quite often appalled by the number of discarded plastic bottles and other items that some folk must just chuck away once they no longer want them. Those of you who travel by bus or train may be familiar with this too.

Phil says:
24 March 2018

We could do a lot more with cardboard and paper mache which in turn could be made from re-cycled paper and card and either re-cycled again or broken down for compost.

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The best solution for any issue of waste disposal is to provide financial incentives and penalties towards the goal of closed-loop recycling. But these incentives and penalties need to be imposed on the manufacturers. The only people who gain from recycling today are the local councils and ultimately their rate payers, but these are still a minority of all consumers of most products.

Rather than focus on the more complex question of plastics, take the example of manufacturers of soft drinks who choose to package in 330ml aluminium ring-pull cans. The raw material cost of the aluminium is around 0.1p per gram and there are 17 grams required to make a can.

It should be obvious that there is no financial incentive for manufacturers to recycle when the raw feedstuff is so cheap. (The same is true of oil/plastic.) Even a 100% (2p) deposit would not incentivize enough consumers to return their cans.

But what if the raw material cost 1p per gram (after taxation) and the tax could be reclaimed by the manufacturer, based on their recover rates? A 20p deposit would be enough to encourage many consumers (and scavengers) to return used cans. Manufacturers could either operate their own dedicated schemes, or buy in recyclate materials from supermarkets and collective schemes, to replace their raw materials.

Now extend the principle to all packaging material feedstuffs. Companies that choose to use unrecyclable materials like blown polystyrene (takeaway foam food boxes), or composites (tissue boxes of cardboard and polyethylene), would carry significant overheads to those that find more sustainable methods of packaging.

Problem solved?

I agree that companies should be taxed according to the materials they choose for packaging but I’m not sure about the practicality of getting consumers to return used cans, etc. I keep aluminium cans and foil for a charity that I have been a member of for many years.

AJH says:
24 March 2018

So my Which magazine arrives encased in a plastic bag. I remember the day when newspapers were deivered in an addressed paper sleeve.

In the USA free newspapers are put into long plastic bags and chucked on driveways. We put our maps in them as they are the perfect size to stop them getting damaged when traveling.

Hi! The polyethylene (PE) plastic wrapping we use to mail out the magazines is compliant with the On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRL) scheme and fully recyclable along with carrier bags at major supermarkets (as stated on the wrapping) – these include larger stores of Asda, Co-op, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose. OPRL strongly encourages the use of PE wrapping over other types of wrapping for magazines, but it is important to recycle it as stated here, rather than through kerbside collections.

We are planning to review the material we use in the coming months to see if it is still the most appropriate choice available to us. For logistical reasons, it is very unlikely we will be able to move away from plastic to paper, for example, but if there are any better alternatives to PE on the market, we will certainly consider them.

I think that using polyethylene (polythene, PE) wrapping for magazines is reasonable. Paper would need to be waxed to provide protection against rain damage and that creates problems for recycling. It would be helpful if all magazines carried advice on how to recycle recycle these wrappers.

Councils who sort recyclables at the kerbside appear to have better recycling statistics than those where everything is chucked into one bin.

I agree there needs to be a standard national scheme, so when visiting other parts of the UK you know what can and can’t be recycled.

I refilled an instant coffee jar from a pack today. It is often a cheaper option to buy refill packs but it’s difficult to compare whether a non-recylcable pack composed of plastic and aluminium composite is a better alternative than a glass jar with plastic cap. Whatever packaging is used for instant coffee, it must exclude moisture.

One of the problems with plastic is that it is permeable to oxygen and oxygen can increase the rate of food spoilage. At one time, crisp bags were made of plastic but now the plastic contains a thin layer of aluminium to make them impermeable to oxygen, allowing for longer storage. These composite plastic/aluminium packets cannot be recycled.

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So why aren’t crisps bags made wholly of aluminium?

A google fact states aluminium is 100% recyclable and nearly 75% of all aluminium ever produced is still in use today.

Looking at a crisp bag in the cupboard, the disposal instruction is to put it in the waste bin.

So the google fact is probably incorrect as an awful lot of crisp packets are emptied daily.

So I delved a bit more and on Walkers website found:

Question: Are your crisp bags recyclable?
Answer: Currently our Walkers Crisps packets are comprised of an inner foil layer, and an outer plastic layer (plus some sealant between). As you will appreciate, technically, virtually anything can be recycled, however, because separation of these materials is both costly and energy intensive it would make little sense to do so, environmentally or economically. And there is not the infrastructure for the ordinary consumer to actually recycle the material in question. So our current Walkers Crisps packets are not, in a meaningful sense, recyclable.

Question: Why don’t you use recycled materials for your packaging?
Answer: Our outer bags of our multi packs are Polypropylene (Symbol 5). You can find this symbol on the back of all of the outer bags of our multi pack packaging. These bags can be recycled where the facility exists. Check with your local council if they accept this type of plastic as this can vary. Inner bags in a multi pack and single bags cannot be recycled.

There are some interesting suggestions on reusing / recycling empty crisp packets here:

At least here in Gloucester, our council doorstep recycling scheme does not take aluminium foil.

They do, however, accept drinks cans, including aluminium ones.

Personally, I seldom ever buy crisps, but some children seem to almost live off them.

Would the person who gave me a thumbs down like to explain why?

We can put clean aluminium foil in our recycling bin.

Phil says:
25 March 2018

Ours too providing it’s clean and crushed into a ball.

A good solution would be to stop buying crisps altogether, they’re expensive and laden with fat, salt and other bad stuff.

“Wear your trash” – what a cracker! (in the zerowasteweek website)

I don’t think so. The latest fashions are rubbish.

So are some of the latest hair styles. Did anyone see Vettel on F1 at the weekend?

But keeping on topic, I did a bit of research into human hair recycling….

There are negative points I won’t go into here, but some current uses and some under research are whips, clothes, jewellery, wigs, hair extensions, fertilizer, moulded furniture, engineering polymers, follicle cell cultures/tissue regeneration, flexible microelectrodes, concrete reinforcement, pollution control, oil spill remediation, traditional medicines, birds nests, keeping deer & mice away, woven into mats to protect plant roots from weather & insects, soy sauce, ropes.

Couldn’t find any uses to replace plastic waste in food.

I suppose the old joke about telling the waiter there is a ‘hair in my soup’ could become a discovery of plastic microbeads – though it’s likely to be true. Thanks to waste plastic getting into the food chain, we are consuming the stuff. 🙁

By putting most unsoiled items in the recycle bag and washing others before doing so, I am shifting the responsibility of filling up land fill sites from myself to the recycling plant that accepts my bags. I look to them to improve the methods of recycling so that more and different materials can be processed and re-used. They, are probably fed up with folk like me not adhering to their bag fill instructions!

I used to do the same, Vynor, but if we put items that are not recycled in the recycling bin this means that the what is in the bin is less useful for recycling. We really need all plastics to show their recycling code and for our councils to provide labels showing which codes can be put in the recycling bin.

I think there is a widespread misconception that recycling is managed down to the item level, and individual items that cannot be recycled are somehow plucked out and diverted to black bin waste by humans.

At least in West Sussex, where the process is entirely automated, the accept/reject criterion is at the dustcart level. Too many contaminants in a 7 tonne load turns £500 worth of potentially recyclable materials into 7 tonnes of waste, costing £500 to incinerate, sort and dispose of. (Very little goes to “landfill” these days.)

Please make sure you only put materials into the recycle bin that your local authority says they can handle. Just because something says “recyclable”, or you think it should be, doesn’t make it so!

I’ve agreed with your post, because what you say is true; they are fed up with folk like you. It does nobody any favours, least of all other ratepayers.

Our bin men certainly do not open each bag before consigning it to the cart. At the recycle centre there are conveyor belts manned by twelve people. Everything is sorted and magnets deal with ferrous and non-ferrous metals at the end. The sorted material is baled and stored for re-use.

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A ban on single-use plastic straws may be on its way in the UK and in Europe and several companies have made moves to get rid of them: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-43169004

The last time I bought straws – for use by friends’ children – I don’t think plastic ones existed.

I think there’s a fair argument to be had about the plastic straws. When I go out at the weekend, I always drink using a straw and I get a new one with each drink. This is mainly because they take the glass away( with straw) when I’m done, but partially my own habit of getting a new straw with every drink. For a long time, my friend has carried a reusable straw, which she changes and washes etc because she has sensitive teeth. I think I will get a few of these, because the alternative of cardboard straws which a lot of pubs/restaurants now offer, get soggy too quickly.

Sensitive front teeth! (For me anyway)

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For the majority of us, buying vegetables ready peeled and cut up is just lazy, but some things like butternut squash with a tough outer skin, might be a godsend for people with arthritic hands who have trouble holding a knife.

The number of plastic straws used could be greatly reduced by making them available on request, which one pub or restaurant chain has done. For home use, reusable straws seem to be a sensible solution. It’s a case of having a sensible balance.

PLA is polylactic acid, which is a genuinely biodegradable plastic. It will degrade in commercial composting but unfortunately home composting is not adequate.

None of these vegetables need to be in packaging. They could all be sold loose with paper bags supplied that could then be put in the recycling bin. Vegetables packaged in plastic bags sweat and rot quickly so there would be less food waste.

I agree, Alfa. I have often wondered why supermarkets generally provide plastic bags for loose produce, rather than paper bags. The exception seems to be mushrooms, where paper bags are often provided.

I often use the mushroom bags for other veg!

I don’t know why I’ve never done that before. Maybe because mushroom bags are a bit small.

I once gave a checkout assistant a lecture for putting a bunch of bananas in a plastic bag, in the days before charging.

They are good for carrots and brussel sprouts. I try and only buy the amount I know we are going to use in the next few days and lot of packaged veg packs are too big unless you want to live on them.

They all used to be ! is it public demand that they are packaged ? In a way I think it could be ! ease of storage carrying things home and more convenient for them to buy in packages The rise of doing all your shopping in a supermarket instead of going to a local shop all adds to packaging waste Those who are now complaining about plastic and other waste are partly to blame if not fully

I think it has more to do with supermarkets making sure they shift ALL stock not just fruit and veg sizes people want. They might be cutting down on food waste, but they are shifting the waste to the customer in at least 3 ways:
– sizes that are not used
– products going bad as pack sizes are too big to use up
– veg kept in their plastic bags makes them sweat and rot prematurely

I rarely buy pre-packed veg, partly because packs sizes can be too big, but also because the sizes of veg do not suit what I want to do with them.

Baking potatoes are often too big for one person and not enough to share for 2 people, so I buy loose ones the size I want.

Take a look at a bag of parsnips. They are mixed sizes, you might get one big one, a couple of medium sizes and too many tiny ones. Depending on whether I am making roast or stew, I want to select the size and amount I know I will use and I am never going to use a whole bag of parsnips. If I can’t buy them loose, I do without, and we had roast carrots instead of parsnips with our last Xmas dinner for that very reason.

I have never understood veg sold in packs for a stew, usually made up of an onion, carrots, swede and parsnip. Who are they intended for? Is it to shift swede that many people don’t like as that is always the prominent veg and the rest is never enough to balance it out?

My fridge has 2 veg drawers and I make full use of them. Nearly everything gets taken out of plastic bags so it lasts longer.

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I don’t like green peppers. Several times I have tried to buy a yellow pepper but they are only available in these mixed packs. So I don’t buy any. These peppers do not need to be in their excessive packaging.

That’s frustrating! Do you think packaging like this may also increases food waste?

Definitely Alex.

This pack size costs £1.15 whereas single peppers cost 53p each. So for an extra 9p, you almost get a free one or a disposable one if you don’t like one of them.

How long does it take to cut up a broccoli? This is just plain lazy and unnecessary.

Cutting up broccoli and cauliflower will shorten its life and it will become brown where cut.

A friend left me a similar pack of broccoli florets and also a pack of ‘Chef’s Style Rainbow Carrots’ just before going on holiday. Unpackaged broccoli and carrots that have not been scrubbed would last longer and save waste.

I noticed supermarkets sell vegetable noodles, which I once thought was a great idea! I then realised you can buy a spiralizer for £20 and buy loose carrots which soon became a LOT cheaper (once you paid of the spiralizer) 🙁

One strawberry in a plastic container? Plain ridiculous:

Another waste of packaging:

I wonder how many of these go to waste if they are not sold quickly enough: