/ 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.


Quite a few clothes washing liquids have a detachable measuring cup. I always remove them and put them straight in the recycling bin. I then turn the bottle upside down and stand it so the opening is on top to avoid leakage. An unnecessary piece of plastic that could be saved from previous containers or sold separately to those who want them.

A nationwide solution is needed for bubble wrap especially with the growth in internet shopping. A few councils accept it but mine is not one of them.

Some companies use shredded cardboard instead of bubble wrap and at least this can be recycled.

There seems to have been a move back to traditional egg boxes, so congratulations to those who have stopped using foam plastic egg boxes or have never used them. The plastic ones are not recyclable.

Many supermarkets now offer mashed potato in plastic containers with a plastic film lid. Before that we had instant mashed potato. How hard is it to make mashed potato from potatoes?

I do not really know , but is plastic the easiest, cheapest most hygienic reason for packing everything in plastic if it is it must be made the most expensive and then other ways of packaging would have to be found just to keep costs down or most likely prices would increase as companies must make large profits to keep the shareholders happy

Cheers for the convo, malcolm r.

We get an organic veg box delivered once a week and this oviously reduces some of our packaging use. Some items in the box were wrapped in a plastic bag before, but the company has made an effort to reduce this and some items needing protection now come in a paper pag or are wrapped in a paper sheet.

The last time I was in France I noticed that the Casino chain of supermarkets now offers compostable “plastic” bags at the fruit and veg counter, so you can re-use them at home if you have a compost bin. Spiffing idea as far as I’m concerned. I have been meaning to write to Tesco et al to ask them to follow suit but not got round to it yet. Shall we start a campaign?

I like to get a caffe latte on a Friday morning for a treat at my place of work and I have asked if I could bring my own travel mug for them to use and they said they weren’t allowed to use that. I suppose the problem would be how to measure a small, medium or large drink, but I don’t believe that’s insurmountable. I’m guilty like everybody else who has take-away hot drinks, but the use of non-recyclable cups is a scandalous load of nonsense. Recyclable hot drink “travel” cups exist, and until we hit the companies serving the hot drinks where it hurts, eg through taxation, nothing much will get done. Same with the rest of unnecessary plastic use.

I would be interested to know how compostable the plastic bags are, Sophie. The corn starch ones provided by many councils and sold in shops are compostable but often split easily. The reason I ask is that many of the so-called biodegradable bags were nothing of the sort. If you would like to start a campaign, I’ll be happy to join as long as we know that the bags are readily compostable.

I will carry on using my vacuum flasks (Thermos et al.) when travelling or going out for the day. I’m happy to buy coffee in a proper cup but I do my best to avoid buying drinks in disposable cups.

I haven’t got one of those bags at hand to check, but from memory they were made of corn starch. I will check and get back to you. Their use is limited, but it’s a start.

A few years ago we stayed in a hotel next to a Starbucks in the USA. I took our travel mugs in for our morning coffee and they were happy to fill them.

Totally confused the supermarket checkout operators when we took our own carrier bags though.

Our council issued us with corn starch bags for food recycling a few years ago, but we have never needed them. When I turned out our old kitchen drawers, they had disintegrated into tiny bits.

I have been able to check and the bags given are “fabrique a base de matiere vegetales”, so yes, they are biodegradable and compostable.

Pens are another everyday thing that doesn’t have to be made of plastic. A tax on plastic where its use is unnecessary and there is an environmentally friendly alternative would be good!

The cases of ballpoint pens could be made of wood, like pencils, but most use a plastic ink tube. This could be replaced by metal, although plastic does a better job. Goodness knows how many cheap pens are made every year.

When I visited San Sebastian in Spain, I saw what I think is possibly the coolest initiatives to cut waste and support local businesses.

Fresh milk is distributed to the city through re-filling stations/vending machines which are supplied by local dairy farmers. All residents buy their fresh milk from these stations – which are accessible 24/7 – and all these stations require is for you to take your refillable container (you can buy a glass one) and pay for the quantity you wish to buy. I thought it was very cool and also well used.

Excellent idea. Presumably the milk needs to be brought to the boil to ensure it is safe to consume.

Raw milk cannot be sold in Scotland but can in the rest of the UK: https://www.food.gov.uk/science/raw-drinking-milk-and-cream

Bringing milk to the boil will ensure it is safe but pasteurisation achieves this with less effect on the taste and nutritional value.

Stop it at source. Stop wrapping fruit and veg in plastic wrap and plastic tubs. Force all meat retailers to go back to using a butchery counter and stop retailing all meats in plastic wrap and plastic trays. Do the same for fish and bakery items.
Ban the use of excess packaging ie Easter egg packaging. Chocolate boxes.
Then force the use of only recyclable packaging were needed.
Love back to glass bottles from plastics and use only recycled glass.
There are so many things that we could force manufacturers to do at source that will get a bigger impact more quickly on wastage than just asking public to recycle.
One major item to ban immediately is the tetra pack, so hard to recycle easily and not allowed in our recycling bins.

I’m lucky and can put Tetra-Paks in my recycling bin. In some areas they have to be taken to recycling centres. Here is a searchable site to find out which applies in your area: http://www.tetrapakrecycling.co.uk/where-can-i-recycle.asp

I do wish that councils would standardise what can be put in recycling bins.

…and while we’re at it, let’s ban private cars from supermarkets, and make people get there by public transport, or by walking or cycling.

I’m sure we’d cut CO2 emissions and get a healthier population.

My council also collect “Tretra-Paks”. I don’t suppose very many get recycled in areas where doorstep collection is not provided.

Tetrapak themselves suggest it’s possible. They even provide a handy map.: http://www.tetrapakrecycling.co.uk/locator.asp

As a heavy user of Tetra Paks who dutifully takes them to the ‘recycling’ bank, I wonder what could be used in their place.

We buy milk alternatives in litre containers, so get through rather a lot.

Glass bottles would be one solution.

Would something similar to wine boxes work? The external cardboard would all be recyclable. I am unsure about the inner pouch although one company claims it is full recyclable:

When I was younger and staying with my grandparents in the school holidays, one of my chores was to return the pop bottles (Corona Cherryade) to the shop they were bought from and get 5p back. Looks like there will soon be a similar scheme for cans and bottles.


What does everyone think? Do you think it will work?

It is a good idea in principal.

The downside could be more casualties in A&E as people hurt themselves rummaging through waste bins.

Not an example of plastic, but in The Netherlands crates of beer are sold in a plastic crate. Once consumed, there are machines in the stores that you take the empty crate and glass bottles to that refund you. It’s a good system that provides an incentive to recycle, it would be good to see something similar for all types of plastic.

I wonder if I can embed a video from the BBC website.

Hmmm. That did not work, but have a look at the first video on this page: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-43563164

I expect that many would take their bottles and cans back to supermarkets. Some might even collect ones dropped in the streets and make a little money from them. Fewer might be dropped in the first place if we had a deposit scheme.

We’ll have armies of litter pickers now you’ve suggested that…


Three charities that I’m involved with do an annual litter pick at the far end of town. Being a member of all three of them I end up getting involved, but it does not take long. Some of the waste is beside angling platforms. On the other hand, I have spoken to anglers who clear up waste left by others.

As an angler myself, it’s disappointing to hear that anglers are leaving waste behind. Care for the environment and the fisheries we use is supposed to be one of our top priorities.

One of our charities has made a substantial income from scrap metals, not only cans but heavier items that must be dismantled to separate individual metals. The commercial recycler I use will take a minimum of 2kg of any metal. You could do the same, Malcolm, and donate the proceeds to a charity of your choice.

WillCoultas – Many anglers do care about litter and the environment, which is why I mentioned this. It’s like cycling, where most cyclists are responsible but others don’t care about pedestrians.

When I visited KRAKOW earlier this year It was hard to find any litter anywhere British ? do the really care about the disposable of anything at all They don’t want it so if they cannot make money by selling it the will get rid of it by the easiest method quite often leaving it any where they find convenient on the ground no matter where they are Is Britain the worst country for dumping unwanted things anywhere in Europe I know there are worse elsewhere in the world

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I once stayed for a week In Davos in Switzerland. There were no plastic bottles or other discarded waste in the streets.

Have a look at N.Korea on google maps. You can’t google walk, but there are plenty of photo spots with 360° vision. Everywhere you look, it is pristine, not a scrap of rubbish in sight.

Shift the responsibility and costs to the manufacturers. They are responsible for the type of packaging they use for their products. The general public have no say in the matter.
There are plenty of completely bio-degradable plastics out there. The manufacturers choose not to use them because nobody is really holding their feet to the fire. The 5p bag charge is tokenism. You just have to look at all the plastic wrapping on the products we put in those bags.
It’s is all about cost, complacency and lack of accountability on the part of the waste producers.
Government/Councils should require supermarkets, etc to provide annual statement of what percentage of their products come in packaging that requires recycling and the annual sales levels. The recycling or disposal costs could then be calculated and the rates increased accordingly for that business to cover those costs. I understand that these charges would be passed on to the consumer in the form of higher prices, but they are already paying these costs. These charges should be increased each year for only non-recyclable packaging etc until it becomes competitively disadvantageous for each individual company to pass these costs on to their consumers. The legislation would cost the council nothing. The costs and responsibility would land on the appropriate parties, and if the costs are punitive enough, the companies will be incentivised to look for bio-degradable and environmentally friendly packaging. They might even be encouraged to commission R+D into solutions for their packaging issues.
The fact that any company today still feels free to use polystyrene is scandalous. Virtually every ounce of polystyrene ever produced is still out there undegraded and undegradable.
The general public should no longer be used as worker ants to do the sorting free of charge for these companies, then also have to pay for the privilege through through council tax charges for recycling and disposal.

Are you sure that there are plenty of completely biodegradable plastics, Ted? Biodegradable plastics that degrade rapidly do exist but are expensive, and some supposedly biodegradable plastics break down rather slowly. Try them in your compost bin.

I would support legislation that specifies what can be used for packaging.