/ Food & Drink

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.

Comments
Member

If progress is to be made then it is important to ensure that practical alternatives are available and that ‘greenwash’ (making solutions appear more environmentally satisfactory than the are) is exposed. Information and advice from the organisations mentioned by Malcolm is vital but expertise is needed to assess this, and find pragmatic and effective solutions to problems.

One of the reasons for not adopting better solutions to packaging is cost. Companies are unwilling to spend more unless this can be offset by other benefits.

Member

“Cost” is something regulation should deal with. We must be prepared for some packaging to be more expensive and to pay for it. For example using aluminium trays rather than PET, glass bottles rather than plastic. The environmental damage otherwise is something money will not put right.

I’d like to know just how many times PET and HDPE can be recycled before they become unusable waste (I don’t want them just being turned into products we don’t need). I’d like to know what clear film can be used instead of LDPE. Is Cellophane a preferable material for clear non-permeable film. And many other relevant questions.

Some foods require single-use packaging to preserve their shelf life – salads for example. The reduced food waste probably offsets the packaging issue. But what is an environmentally acceptable packaging material?

We do, I believe, need all parties involved in the packaging world to contribute so we end up with realistic proposals.

Member

I fully support regulation, Malcolm. It means a level playing field.

The extent to which plastics can be recycled will depend on both the plastic and the extent of contamination. If you take clean PET bottles you can make slightly inferior PET bottles but if they are contaminated with other plastics, dirt, cat food, etc. the chance of making more bottles that are strong and crystal-clear is more limited. This has been covered by documentaries and just looking in recycling bins may demonstrate the problem of contamination.

Plastic films differ in strength and oxygen permeability. Although cellophane is biodegradable it has been largely replaced by non-biodegradable plastics for various reasons. For example, cellophane film is readily punctured.

Improved shelf life is very important for various reasons. Like salads, pre-packed meat would not last very long without replacing the air in the package with other gases.

Our topic is food packaging but I think it’s important to look at how lifestyle affects the amount of plastic waste we produce. Many now regard bottled water as unnecessary, but most are happy to buy and drink it. I am not convinced for the need for aluminium containers. Drinks cans are safer than glass bottles out of the home but why not use reusable bottles? Why do we need ready to buy mashed potato and prepared vegetables when it’s so easy to make our own?

I am not sure what we as a small group of interested people can do that will have any effect on packaging. We can certainly encourage Which? to pursue the issue and help raise awareness, capitalising on the impact of Blue Planet.

Member
Seadog says:
28 July 2018

We really try hard, here, with recycling – trying to minimise both acquisition of unnecessary materials and the amount we put in the black bin. But frankly why should we bother any longer:
– The messages and information about recyclables is confused and confusing. I have almost given up!
– We see ‘black bin’ material being put into the same lorries as bottles and other recyclables
– There is no national scheme or standard which everyone, everywhere can follow (eg what do we do when we travel to another place in UK?)
– The labelling of recyclable plastics is next to useless
– Government needs to get a grip on this whole problem and take some much needed leadership
– What’s happening to all the 1000s tons waste which we were exporting to China and others, and they are now refusing to take? Is it going into landfill? Is it being dumped quietly at sea? Again, some much needed information and leadership is urgently needed.
– I’ve complained to our supermarket (Waitrose) about the use of unnecessary plastic packaging. The answer given? “We plan to do it in two years!” ’nuff said.

Member

This kind of serious Convo is, I believe, a good example of where Which? need to provide expert help if it is to have a better constructive outcome. When proposals, theories and questions are asked we need them answered by people with expertise, usually from within the appropriate sector.

Just as examples, I would like to know
– how many times clear PET can be recycled to make the same products it started life as;
– same with HDPE for milk bottles and other containers.
– What are the absolute minimum types of plastics that would suffice for packaging
– Is there a natural (not synthetic) impermeable clear film that can be used for products that require a protective atmosphere (e.g. Cellophane).

I’d like to see Which? find people to answer questions we ask from, for example, the plastics and recycling industries, retailers and food industry, WRAP and give this topic direction. What, exactly, do we want it to achieve?

Member

RUBBISH AT RECYCLING How two thirds of the plastics we put out for recycling still end up in the landfill because they cannot be treated
525,000 tons of throwaway pots, tubs and trays are used by households a year but just 169,145 tons are recycled”

From the Sun; just one of many reports of the Local Government Association’s comment on recycling.

Like us, they want fewer materials used, ones that are identifiable and can be recycled effectively.

But how long are we just going to talk about this? We could start now – we don’t need an all-encompassing strategy that takes 25 years.

For example, start by working with supermarkets to eliminate unnecessary packaging – used our own permanent bags and containers where sensible. Which? – what will you do to campaign for this?

Then move to requiring all packaging to be recyclable in the minimum of material types, and require local authorities to have a single policy on waste collection and treatment across the UK.

Member

Two problems: the current system is left entirely to local councils – a certain recipe for disaster. The second is simply that you’re expecting the government to think ahead.

Member

They seem capable of thinking ahead 25 years and writing it all down. A pity they cannot seem to take equivalent action.