/ 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.

Comments
Member

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.

Member

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.

Member

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.

Member

Here’s a plastic kit for a soft boiled egg
If you have trouble boiling your egg to perfection, then help may be on the way.
Yowk, a product from the New Egg Company, promises to make a perfect, soft-dipped boiled egg every time.

(Yowk.co.uk)
The package contains one perfectly runny, pre-cooked boiled egg, pre-cut soldiers, salt and a ‘Spooth’ – a spoon that includes a tooth to help you crack the shell.

Daily Telegraph

Member

Member

Lawdy, mama!

Member

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?

Member

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

Member

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.

Member

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.

Member

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.

Member

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.

Member

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!

Member

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.

Member

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.

Member

Something supermarkets could adopt?
https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/news/raw-milk-should-be-sold-in-vending-machines-says-fsa-9619500.html
I don’t know why this recommendation applies only to raw milk.

Member

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

Member

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.

Member
Sacha says:
26 March 2018

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.

Member

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.

Member

…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.

Member

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

Member

There seems some dispute about the claims that you can recycle Tetrapaks. This is because of the composite material used – card/polythene/aluminium bonded layers that need to be separated for proper “recycling”. https://treadingmyownpath.com/2014/09/11/why-tetra-paks-arent-green-even-though-theyre-recyclable/

Should all packaging material be regulated so only easily recyclable materials and construction can be used?

Member

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

Member

​​​​​Tetra Pak cartons are fully recyclable. The paperboard (which is 75% of the carton) is recycled into paper prod​ucts and the 25% remaining fraction (consisting of the polyethylene and the aluminium) can be recycled into panel boards, roof sheets and so on.​” say Tetrapak. This is OK but not properly recycling as the aluminium and plastic are not recovered, but “downcycled” into another product – as long as there is a need for the material in roof sheets and panel boards. A lot pf plastic was (and maybe still is) used to make, for example, low-quality fencing, public furniture and litter bins – as long as people want them. Better than throwing away or burning waste but ideally recycling should recover the material to be used in its original state – in my view anyway that should be the aim.

Member

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:
http://www.packagingdigest.com/sustainable-packaging/winery-boxes-out-competition-fully-recyclable-packaging

Member

Polythene bottles, as used for milk, are easily recycled and made back into milk containers. Why could we not standardise on the materials used to contain liquids?

Member

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.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-43563164

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

Member

I’m sure it will work. It seems to work in Norway. Hopefully people will also retrieve discarded bottles. I think any scheme to reduce waste and encourage proper recycling, will be beneficial.

I would hope that major retaiIers, particularly of food, might tell us how they are proposing to deal with excessive packaging to reduce waste. It has been on the news again today so hopefully momentum will be maintained and we’ll see real progress.

Member

It is a good idea in principal.

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

Member

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.

Member

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.

Member

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

Member

🙂

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.

Member

Retrieving deposits on bottles and selling aluminium cans could make it profitable for your charities – well, eventually! – as well as the planet, wavechange.
https://www.letsrecycle.com/prices/
Aluminium cans around £1000/tonne
Clear PET bottles around £100/tonne. Better when there is a refundable deposit!

Member

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.

Member

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.

Member

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.

Member

Some information published a year ago in The Guardian:
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/mar/13/waste-plastic-food-packaging-recycling-throwaway-culture-dave-hall

8 billion aluminium drinks cans the UK gets through in a year.
The energy required to make one new can from scratch will make 20 cans from recycled ones.

100 000 trees are destroyed each year to make our disposable coffee cups. 7 million thrown away every day.

Member

https://www.recyclenow.com/news/
“PUBLICATION DATE: 17 OCT 2016
Each year the average UK household uses 480 plastic bottles , but only recycles 270 of them – meaning nearly half (44%) are NOT put in the recycling.
This means that nationally, of the over 35 million plastic bottles being used every day in the UK, nearly 16 million plastic bottles aren’t being put out for recycling.

That was 6 billion bottles a year that could be recycled.

“What’s the point of recycling plastics?
Using recycled materials in the manufacturing process uses considerably less energy than required for producing new products from scratch – 75% less in fact, meaning the impact on the environment is lowered.

Let’s hope the proposed deposit on plastic bottles has some impact 🙂

Member

Tesco have contributed the following:

“Tesco takes this matter seriously and we share your concerns about the impact of excessive packaging on the environment.

We also believe individual action alone won’t be enough to solve the problem – we need to work in partnership with a range of stakeholders, including our supplier and wider industry, to help establish a robust, closed loop recycling approach which can be applied to all key packaging materials. Although we agree there is more that we can do to reduce the amount of plastic we use in our packaging, we want to take a more holistic approach to the challenge and look at other packaging materials too. We believe that by taking this approach we can find solutions that will help protect the environment for the long term and ensure that our broader approach to packaging is sustainable. We have therefore developed three strategic priorities to help reduce packaging waste and boost recycling across the UK:

1. Materials and design: In collaboration with our suppliers we can reduce and simplify the types of materials we use in our packaging so that less packaging is used and packaging is easier to recycle.
2. Recovery and recycling: We need to help create an integrated collection system for packaging in the UK. A cost-effective Deposit Return System (DRS) is one initiative in a broader holistic approach that could help achieve the broader goals of reducing waste. We are working with the industry to explore all the potential solutions.
3. Changing customer behaviour: Once understood recycling infrastructure is in place, we can help customers recycle more with simple, clear and consistent information on packaging.

As part of our Little Helps Plan, we have also made the three specific commitments:
• Packaging fully recyclable or compostable by 2025
• All paper and board used will be 100% sustainable by 2025
• Halve packaging weight by 2025

Over the last few years, we have already been making changes to reduce the amount of packaging we use. For example, in the UK we have removed polystyrene from our fish packaging and replaced with a more environmentally friendly plastic, avoiding 653 tonnes of polystyrene being used. With our meat trays, we have replaced a two layer plastic tray with a single layer plastic, thereby making 84 million trays easier to recycle and removing 96 tonnes of plastic. Overall, over 78% of the packaging on all our own brand products is recyclable depending on if the local authority collect it.

Nevertheless, we know there is more we can do. I do hope the outlined targets and priorities have reassured you of our commitment. Thank you also for sharing your specific suggestions on other actions we could take. I will share these with our Packaging team for them to review as part of our work.”

and provided the following link: https://www.tescoplc.com/little-helps-plan/foundations/packaging/

Member

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

Member

Donald is upset with Xi Jinping ,in retaliation for sanctions against China he has banned the import of the world,s junk. You might think thats minor ,, its not , check it out.

Member

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

Member

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.

Member

Aldi have contributed the following:

“At Aldi, we know that our customers trust us not only to deliver high-quality products at unbeatable prices but also to contribute to improve the environment we live in. We have sent no waste to landfill since 2014, we have banned microbeads and microplastics in all of our products and last year, we replaced the plastic stems of our cotton buds with paper.

As part of our ongoing commitment to the environment, we have now agreed the 10-point plan below to reduce our use of packaging further:

1) By 2022, Aldi aims for 100% of all own label packaging to be recyclable, reusable or compostable (where it does not have a detrimental effect on product quality, safety or increase food waste).
2) By 2025, Aldi aims to achieve 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging across all products (where it does not have a detrimental effect on product quality, safety or increase food waste).
3) By 2025, Aldi aims to reduce packaging by 50% (relative to 2015 baseline).
4) By 2025, Aldi aims for 50% of its packaging to be made from recycled material.
5) Aldi will publicly report on its packaging reduction progress annually, starting in 2019.
6) Aldi will educate customers on the importance of waste reduction (reduce, reuse, recycle) through its community programmes.
7) All single-use plastic bags will be scrapped by the end of 2018.
8) Aldi will work in partnership with other retailers to reduce its dependence on plastic.
9) Aldi will establish a Packaging Task Force with its Buying Teams, Suppliers and external experts to deliver these goals.
10) In principal, Aldi supports a Deposit Return Scheme for plastic bottles and is conducting a feasibility study into how it could implement such a scheme.”

Member

It would be good to see all supermarkets stop using single-use bags by the end of the year.

Member

Asda commented as follows:
“We want our customers to trust that we’re doing the right things on the issues that matter to them. That is why we recently published our commitments to reducing our use of plastic and recycling more.
We’ve already got a strong track record when it comes to reducing our packaging. We’ve reduced out total weight of packaging by 27% since 2007 and are committed to making all our Own Brand packaging recyclable by 2025.
But, we’ve challenged ourselves to look at how we can move faster on this important issue and have identified some immediate actions we can take.
• Over the next 12 months we will be removing 10% of plastic from all our own brand products as well as continuing to work with our suppliers and other experts to explore new options and find more recyclable solutions.
• We will be phasing out 5p ‘single use’ carrier bags from our stores in 2018, with a donation from the sale of our “bags for life” going to good causes.
• We will also introduce a zero profit re-usable coffee cup to provide our customers with a great value alternative to single use cups. Alongside this, we will also be removing all single use cups and plastic cutlery from our head offices in 2018, with all our stores and in store cafes adopting the same policy by the end of 2019.
As part of our longer term work to look at new innovations in plastics and to find different solutions to plastic, we are also working in partnership with the UK’s leading experts in packaging technology at Leeds Beckett University Retail Institute as well as one of our biggest UK suppliers, ABP, on priority projects to develop new alternatives to plastics and more recyclable materials.
Thanks again for taking the time to get in touch and if you wish to read more on our pledge please follow the link below:

https://corporate.asda.com/blog/2018/02/05/plastics-unwrapped-our-pledge-to-use-less-and-recycle-more

Member
Ted says:
16 April 2018

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.

Member

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.

Member

I agree with much of what you say Ted, but it is the retailers, in my view, who should also control packaging, especially of their own brands. The comments submitted by some supermarkets above show they are doing something towards this.

We have to sort basic waste already – paper, plastic/glass/metal, food, garden waste – but I’d like to see the variety of packaging materials reduced, minimal different plastics types and colours for example, that can be recycled.

Member

Sainsburys commented as follows:
“We share your concern that sometimes plastic packaging is used unnecessarily in our industry and I welcome the opportunity to outline how we’ve been working to reduce our impact on the environment. In fact, we have a strong track record in this area.

We understand the importance of minimising the amount of packaging we use, ensuring our packaging is recyclable as it possibly can be and increasing the amount of recycled material used.

This is an approach we’ve taken with our packaging for many years. 82% of the products we sell by weight can be recycled, nearly 40% of our packaging already uses recycled content and where we can’t offer a recyclable alternative for packaging we try to use as little packaging as possible.

For example, our own-brand cleaning product spray bottles were redesigned to make them entirely recyclable – including the trigger. This equates to a saving of 100 tonnes of plastic each year.

But we don’t plan to stop there – we’ve committed to reducing our own-brand packaging by 50%.

Food waste and new ways of working

It’s also important to remember plastic packaging plays a vital role in making food safe, reducing food waste and delivering supply chain efficiencies.

For example, Sainsbury’s carrots are packed in a flexible, recyclable, low-density polyethylene (LDPE) bag, which extends their shelf-life by 3 days (although customers may also choose to purchase their carrots loose).

That said, we recognise the need for industry action and we’re participating in several collaborative initiatives. For example, while we’ve reduced the amount of black plastic we use, we’re also working with WRAP and other industry partners to move to a detectable black plastic packaging pigment which will help black plastics to be more easily detected and recycled.

Through working with WRAP we were able to demonstrate plastic bags and films could be recycled alongside carrier bags in our supermarkets too, and we continue to offer this service.

We’re also working with other businesses, Government and NGOs to reduce plastic nurdles in our manufacturing supply chain which can contaminate the marine environment, and have worked with the dairy industry, packagers and other retailers to develop a closed-loop for plastic milk bottles.

However, we know there’s still much more that can be done to increase recycling. Research shows that just over 40% of packaging produced in the UK is recycled so there’s a huge opportunity to increase recycling rates across the whole country.

We look forward to playing our part and working with Government and industry in delivering a long-term strategy to boost recycling, reduce packaging and protect the environment.

We’re very open about our commitments and so we would be happy for you to share the details of our efforts. A summary is also available here: https://www.about.sainsburys.co.uk/making-a-difference/sourcing/packaging