/ Food & Drink, Sustainability

Grocery packaging: do you know what can and can’t be recycled?

We all want to do more to help reduce the impact of plastic and other packaging in our environment – do you factor recycling in to your grocery shop?

We recently ordered 27 of the most popular own-brand groceries from 10 of the UK’s biggest supermarkets. We unwrapped them, weighed them and brought in an expert to help sort and analyse it all.

We found big differences in how much packaging is recyclable at different supermarkets. Between 71% and 81% of the total packaging (by weight) was widely recyclable at kerbside – with Morrisons the best on this measure and Lidl the worst.

Worst offenders

But there’s still so much to be done. Our investigation also uncovered key differences in the recyclability of some of the packaging used.

Seedless grapes, apples, beef, lamb and salmon to name just a few. These all had predominantly recyclable packaging in some supermarkets and not in others. The message to those supermarkets who want to try harder? You don’t need to look far.

Black plastic came out as a serial offender. While often technically recyclable, the pigments in it mean it’s often not detected by the infrared technology in recycling sorting machines which mistakenly send it to landfill.

There are trials starting to try to fix this, but in the meantime clear plastic does the job just as well. This seems like it should be a fairly straightforward fix.

And here’s another issue: citrus nets. All the packaged easy peelers in our investigation came in orange nets with plastic labels. These are not just unrecyclable – they can also cause huge issues by risking getting caught in the machinery and causing a breakdown.

Unlike some packaging, there’s no compelling argument these nets serve any purpose in preventing food waste or damage. To find an alternative packaging solution for these should surely not be too hard.

Inconsistent labelling

Finally, we were also surprised to find huge inconsistencies in the labelling of recycling information. Different systems of labelling were used, and some items weren’t labelled at all.

Others were incorrectly labelled and still more had labels which were only visible once the food was unwrapped – not helpful to those trying to make a considered choice in the supermarket aisle.

That’s why we’re calling on the government and manufacturers to simplify and clarify current recycling labels, and make recycling labelling compulsory on all plastic packaging, so that consumers know what can and can’t be recycled, and how.

To help, we’ve published a list of tips to help anyone who’d like to recycle more often.

Do you feel there’s more supermarkets can do? Do you have enough information to make informed decisions in the supermarket aisles? We want to hear your experiences.


Wood is not durable outdoors unless it has been treated with chemicals to resist fungal decay and these are environmentally harmful. That’s why creosote has been removed from sale.

Glass is good but recycled glass is inferior and the best option is to reuse it where possible, just as we used to do.

Milk and “pop” bottles as well as beer bottles were washed and reused, the latter two with a refundable deposit. We never had that with wine a spirit bottles though. We don’t have a big enough home grown wine industry, yet, but much wine is imported in bulk and bottled in the UK I believe. Scope there? But spirits we do make a lot of, so why not recover the bottles?

Milk bottles and some beer bottles were standard designs, allowing for bulk washing and refilling. Would manufacturers agree on using standard designs of bottles?

Belgian bottle beers continued to be sold in reused bottles long after we stopped in the UK, but I believe that reuse has stopped there too. I’m sure that many people would be happy with reused bottles if given the chance to buy them.

This can be dealt with by regulation (done sensibly by consultation).

We Brits are not noted for taking direct action, are we? However, if we were stirred up enough with a good cause we might think of forcing an issue.

We have far too much single-use plastic packaging and, indeed, far too much packaging generally but particularly from supermarkets. They are in a position to change this by dictating to their suppliers how goods are packed and using what materials, and whether goods need packing at all – as trialled by Waitrose (and Partners) in Oxford.

As we generally return to the same supermarket(s) each week for our regular shop suppose that, instead of putting all the packaging waste in our own bins for the local council to deal with, we took it back to the supermarket and left it on their doorstep? That might wake them up to make changes.

But are we brave enough? Who would initiate such a mass “protest”. I admit to being too chicken to doing it on my own. But perhaps we should have a regular “return your rubbish day” when everyone is incited to take mass action. Could Which? contemplate organising this, or should we wait for things to take their natural course – and wait for 2050?

Consumers I assume, will be paying supermarkets more for their packaged food and then paying their local councils again through increased council tax to dispose and/or recycle it. A lose lose situation which indirectly adds to their weekly food shop.

Pre-packaged food is not necessarily cheaper as the packaging can keep food fresher so it has a longer sell-by date, and it protects from damage so reduces wastage. Packaging makes sense if it is used appropriately. This is where “appropriately” includes materials that are totally and usefully recyclable. It is also an area where the customers own “packaging” can be brought to protect the food they take home. So containers to protect vulnerable products or those that have to be contained.

We might have to alter our habits, to shop maybe twice a week for loose fresh goods with shorter dates for example, and the stores may have to alter their stocking regime accordingly.

Changing packaging will not happen without an accompanying change as consumers but surely, if we want to reduce waste, we need to be prepared to play our part.

I wonder if David Attenborough is a Which? Member? Perhaps, whether he is or not, he could be enrolled to lead a plastic waste campaign?