/ 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

The first priority is obviously to minimise the use of plastics in packaging and particularly composite materials such as plastic combined with aluminium or cardboard.

Having plastic packaging that is recyclable is no good if it goes into the non-recyclable material bin. There are numerous possible reasons such as limitations in what councils will recycle, poor understanding of what can be recycled, and what people do with plastics that are contaminated with food.

PROMINENT labelling of all plastics with the Resin Identification Code (e.g. 1 for PET, 2 for HDPE, etc.) and corresponding labels on recycling bins so that mistakes are not made. If the wrong materials are put in recycling bin this causes problems and reduces the value of material for recycling.

Thanks for a useful Conversation, Ellie.

Member

Thanks Wavechange! I think it would also help if all local authorities collected the same materials for recycling but that’s something that seems a long way off at the moment. Glad you’ve found the Convo useful 🙂

Member

Disagree with use of Resin -ALL packaging should be clearly labeled to indicate if recyclable and suppliers / retailers charged a premium for using non recyclable material – if we can impose a sugar tax then we can also do this for non recyclable material with the proceeds used to improve collection. Make non recyclable items more expensive to purchase than items with recyclable packaging.

Member

Be careful what you ask for, Bob. If we went through our kitchens and bathrooms on a utilitarian basis and stopped buying anything that was not in appropriate packaging there wouldn’t be much left. The toiletries cabinet would be rather bare to start with. For many products the packaging is part of the brand image and is what consumers want.

Member

The problem with charging is the consumer will just pay more; we need regulation to stop using unnecessary and inappropriate materials.

If you have the money, you can take a high emissions vehicle into London. How does that help the environment? It lets people off the hook who have the means to pay.

I think we have to decide that when something is sufficiently important we deal with it head-on.

Member

YEAHHHH!!

Member

If we are to address plastics and supermarket packaging we, I believe, need to begin at the beginning and aim to:

eliminate all unnecessary packaging. Sell appropriate goods loose to go straight into your (reusable) shopping bag or into permanent containers you take with you.
reduce essential packaging to a minimum

This implies there will then be waste packaging to deal with so, onto:
simplify packaging so materials can be easily identified for processing (avoid composites for example)
minimise types of plastic and ensure they are all easily recyclable into useful and necessary products – like more necessary plastic packaging
recycle all waste.

I’d also put most ideas of “compostable plastics” a little aside and concentrate on elimination and recycling, not more landfill of dubious products.

This will require energy, including recycling aluminium containers where they are appropriate. We can, through tidal power for example, provide this energy without damaging the environment, unlike discarded packaging.

Plastics waste has gone right up my scale of priorities over the last 12 months as we see the damage it causes, its profligate use, lack of control and uncoordinated collection and recycling (so it seems). Many very constructive suggestions have been made in various Convos that could be started very quickly. And that is my main concern at the moment; plans to tackle plastic packaging have a far far-too lengthy timescale, most particularly the Government’s. Eradicate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042 (in 24 years!!). Ridiculous in view of the crisis; it needs action starting now.

I hope Which? really get hold of this problem and don’t let it go. I also hope they will collaborate with the consumers’ associations throughout Europe to get this moving on a grand scale.

@esimmonds, good Convo Ellie. Please do all you can to see this is relentlessly pursued. Which? can use the many suggestions, proposals and information provided in previous Convos on this topic to help build a comprehensive action plan. Speed is of the essence 🙂 .

Member

There are good reasons for using compostable plastics for certain uses. At present a checkout operator will usually put prepackaged meat in a polythene bag, especially in humid weather when condensation forms on the cold packet. Some councils ask householders not to put these bags into the recycling bin. These bags and old single-use plastic bags can be returned for recycling by the supermarket but they are more likely to be put in the non-recyclables bin. The same applies with plastic bags supplied for loose produce in the greengrocery department. A better solution is to use compostable bags and these can be reused for food waste and put in with green waste or better still in your home composting bin. These are just a couple of examples of how compostable bags can be used sensibly.

Member

So called “compostable” plastic bags at present will still leave plastic residues to pollute the environment. We need to be more ambitious and convert plastics that we must use into useful forms, and not just put them in holes in the ground, our waterways and the oceans.

It is time we stopped our mindset of wasting resources; they are not only polluting, but not infinite.We need to think of the other life on earth, and our own future generations.

Member

That’s not necessarily true. There are genuine compostable plastic bags made from natural materials such as corn starch. You can buy these to line food caddies and some councils like mine provide them free. They can be put in the green waste bins or composted at home. They are not nearly strong enough to make a shopping bag but can be used for the purposes I mentioned above.

There are supposedly compostable plastics that are no such thing or take too long to degrade. Starch-filled polythene is useless because the starch degrades and the plastic does not. Recently in another Convo we discussed oxo-degradable plastics, which will start to break down into shreds and pieces. These are types that pose a real environmental threat. Polylactic acid (PLA) is genuinely compostable but it takes time and needs commercial rather than home composting. There are better biodegradable plastics than PLA but they are not currently commercially viable.

It would be great if we could stop using single-use plastics for packaging but there are plenty of challenges. Plastics are used to package meat in a modified atmosphere to extend storage life and avoid waste. Plastics are used to protect goods from damage in transit and storage. There is still plenty of opportunity to reduce the amount used and choose alternatives. I find it encouraging that in non-food applications, expanded polystyrene has been replaced by cardboard.

“It is time we stopped our mindset of wasting resources; they are not only polluting, but not infinite. We need to think of the other life on earth, and our own future generations.” That’s what I have been promoting in Convos for years. Cut down energy and water use, remove unnecessary chemicals from products used in the home and in the garden and as far as practicable eliminate waste. In 1986 I secured funding for research in novel biodegradable plastics and carried on working with industry for years. That’s why I’m particularly interested in the subject.

Member

The claim in respect of oxo-degradable plastic film is that it decomposes and disintegrates entirely – like a leaf fallen from a tree – and leaves no trace behind. I am not sure the evidence is strong enough to support that claim at the moment but it’s a good starting point if we have to use plastic. I was brought up in an almost plastic-free environment and don’t see why such a state is impossible. Of course, the prepacking of meat was unheard of. I am trying to recall how sliced bread was sold – if it was – before polythene wrappers became available; in a paper bag perhaps.

Having moved from one local authority area to another I continue to get confused over how waste is dealt with. The general waste bin is now black instead of green, the recycling bin is now blue instead of black, there is a food caddy that can be put out every week, and there is a fortnightly collection of textile waste and small electrical appliances if put out with the recycling bin. Only the brown garden waste bin stays the same. Not being used to having a food caddy the temptation is to continue putting food waste in the kitchen waste bin; without food waste that bin is now almost exclusively filled with non-recyclable metallised plastic wrappers that will sit in the ground for hundreds of years or potentially cause atmospheric pollution if incinerated. I also have to remember that glass bottles and jars can now be put in the recycling bin instead of the rubbish bin.

Member

I only remember sliced bread coming in plastic bags, although one supermarket I used to go to sliced whole loaves in the thickness you required and put them into a paper bag. Then I transferred the loaf into a plastic bag to put in the freezer – doh!!!

I have greatly reduced the number of freezer bags I use these days though. The purchase of small glass containers with reusable plastic lids has cut down on their use tremendously.

Member

I think many people bought sliced bread so they could re-use the bread-packet in their lunch tin or for coach trips and picnics, and this still occurs. Why buy freezer bags when you can re-use an existing wrapper? We have been on a few coach trips and there is a point around eleven o’clock when someone opens their bread-packet and shortly the whole crowd are in their nosebags. They then have no desire to spend any money in the places of interest they are visiting so they while away the time queuing for the toilets. I am sorry; I have digressed.

Member

We will definitely be doing more on this and keeping the pressure on for more action. Glad you liked the Convo 🙂

Member

When I see figures, I want to know what they refer to………

Highlighted in red is 27 of the most popular own-brand groceries so I clicked on it expecting to see what the 27 items are.

But only 5 products are given as examples and no list of the 10 supermarkets.

Where is a table of the 27 products and 10 supermarkets?

I want to see claimed results backed up by the facts.

Member

Perhaps when Ellie wrote this Conversation piece she thought it was going to link to the article in Which? Magazine.

Member

I haven’t got my copy yet, it seems to be later than everyone else these days.

But Which? does have a habit of producing end result figures with nothing to substantiate them.

Member

Perhaps you are going to be one of the 8,000 subscribers who will get theirs in a new fully-bio-degradable wrapper. Maybe it’s already happened.

Member

Hi Alfa – great you are so interested in the research! 🙂

The full list of supermarkets and results is here:
https://www.which.co.uk/reviews/recycling/article/what-are-supermarkets-doing-about-plastic

And the 27 products included: shepherds / cottage / Cumberland pie, fresh minced beef, 5% fat, skinless chicken breast fillets uncooked, pre-packed mature cheddar cheese, white potatoes, fresh salmon fillet (or fillets), sausage rolls, unsmoked back bacon, salad / classic round tomatoes, chocolate cake – or a variation of eg chocolate fudge cake, white / green seedless grapes, whole red or green eating apples, carton of pure orange juice,low fat natural or Greek-style yoghurt, bunch of bananas, pork sausages (chilled), pack of fresh strawberries, standard toilet roll, fresh pork ribs (chilled), bagged salad of mixed leaves, chilled lamb chops, fresh clementines – easy peelers, fresh blueberries, white whole mushrooms, still bottled water, mixed peppers any colour, standard size avocados.

Member

I regard “plastics” as synthetic materials. Bags made totally from natural materials like corn starch would be acceptable, particularly if the compost relatively quickly.

PET seems to be particularly suitable for recycling. It is available in film form – BoPET (biaxially-oriented PET). If this were a better candidate then polythene for bags and wrapper, and Mothers Pride, on recycling grounds then perhaps something to consider. Where we must use packaging, if there is no natural material available we need to minimise the number of types of synthetic ones.

We could do a lot more to use our own “permanent” containers when we shop and to store our food. I remember Tupperware parties………… 🙂

Member

Hi John. Glad you saw our announcement about the new wrapper!

If anyone else is interested, here’s our statement, which I believe Alex also posted in the lobby recently:

“You will have noticed that this magazine arrived in a plastic wrapper. While it is recyclable, we want to move to an even more environmentally friendly alternative. We have identified a fully biodegradable wrapper, made of renewable material that breaks down to water, carbon dioxide and biomass in compost or in a food waste bin. We’re going to trial this new wrapper with around 8,000 readers over the next few months to ensure it works. So if you notice a change in the packaging, look out for the information and response leaflet that will come with the magazine. Your feedback is crucial. Meanwhile, you can recycle our existing polywrap along with carrier bags at most major supermarkets. Many councils will also take it in kerbside recycling – check if yours takes magazine delivery wrappers. We are also doing more to be environmentally responsible in our business. All staff at Which? have been given free reusable water bottles and in our London office we have started the roll-out of free reusable hot drinks cups made out of recycled plastic. Since 2015 we’ve reduced waste from our London building by 60 tonnes per year to 37 tonnes – 53% of this waste is recycled and the rest goes to producing biofuel. We’re now looking at ensuring we recycle all our food waste and coffee grounds.”

Member

Hi Ellie – Thanks for coming back and joining in the Conversation. I’m glad that Which? is one of the organisations that is now fighting the war on waste. Discussion of grocery packaging and recycling are consumer issues that we can all get involved with.

I would be interested to know which plastic is being trialled for wrapping Which? magazines. Is the material readily compostable and could be composted at home with the potato peelings and grass clippings? Some biodegradable plastics such as PLA require commercial composting to break them down in a reasonable time.

Member

The August 2018 issue of Which? magazine has a useful article on plastic packaging and waste.

There are many mixed messages about the subjects of packaging and recycling. For example, sometimes we are told to remove the caps of bottles before putting them in the recycling bin and elsewhere we are advised to leave them on. It would be good to have standard advice and a brief explanation where this conflicts with what the public has been told in the past.

Member

We need country-wide standards with recycling plants spread across the country.

Kerbside sorting seems to achieve the best results in recycling, so maybe all councils should adopt this approach. It might be more difficult in towns and cities, but we have to improve our habits.

Instead of collecting all recycling once a fortnight, maybe collect specific types more often making it quicker to sort. A paper notice left with any wrong items would be a way of educating householders.

Member

Since I was first told off by a member of my family for putting something in the wrong bin I have felt strongly that we need to standardise what is accepted for recycling and what colour bins are used.

I am not keen on boxes because the contents can blow away in strong winds. When I visit family and friends in the highlands of Scotland, glass is not collected from homes and it has to be taken to collection points. That is not uncommon and may be for safety reasons.

I’ve only once had a notice – a very polite one – about putting the wrong material in the recycling bin and it did not give any clue. I assume I just make a careless mistake. It might not even have been me because my neighbours know they are welcome to use the spare space in my bins.

I wonder if the councils have made any attempt to persuade recycling plants to standardise what can be recycled.

Member

From the intro above:
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.

Don’t nets serve a useful purpose? They can hold items together to stop them rolling around and getting bruised, stop condensation that can occur with plastic wrapping so less premature food waste. A downside to using them is being forced to buy more than you need that can also lead to food waste.

It is what the nets are made from that is the real problem. At the moment I have onions wrapped in a plastic net that will end up in landfill. Other times the nets appear to be made out of cotton.

Nets could all be made of cotton or wool that can be recycled. They could also be secured/tied with cotton/wool instead of a metal clip. Add a cardboard label and the whole of the packaging is recyclable.

Cotton/wool nets could also be the outer wrapping of a recyclable plastic punnet of strawberries or grapes for example.

Member

The nets also provide free circulation of air and removal of moisture, which reduces the risk of the fruit going mouldy. In general it is better to go for natural materials such as cotton or wool but I suspect that nets made of these materials could still jam machinery. It would be interesting to have an expert view.

Member

I thought the main idea of the nets around oranges was to make them look better. It is so disappointing when opening the net to find that your satsumas are various shades of yellow!

We need to be careful of things highlighted in red.

Member

Thanks for this Alfa, you are right, the nets do serve some purpose, but surely there must be a better solution in terms of what they are made of and how they can tangle in the machinery?

Member

Why have nets at all? I often buy oranges loose – they then sit in a fruit bowl at home, but not for long.

I think rather than looking at alternative materials we could start by asking – do we need this packaging at all?

alfa – I agree about local recycling. We need a national strategy that all councils must adopt. There was a row in our council a few years ago about allowing a neighbouring county access to one of “our” recycling faciliites. Remember “That’s Life” and “Jobsworth”. Same attitude. 🙁

Member

When it comes to recycling, most of us have no idea what happens to it after it is collected.

If the government wants to achieve ‘zero avoidable waste’, the first step is education.

We need a series of TV programmes permanently available on demand and online with links from sites such as Which? showing the lifecycles of all the different types of packaging and other products sent for recycling. Where does it go? How is it processed? What is it made into?

They could also be included in the school curriculum as it is their future at stake. Getting children involved at any early age, getting them into the right mind-set for disposal of their rubbish and motivating their parents would be a big step towards achieving that aim.

Member

Maybe this topic could lead to a “packaging group” of interested contributors helping Which? formulate an agreed policy for change?

Member

Create a separate forum for those interested to work on a new policy? Sounds a good idea to me.

Member

I’m very interested in the topic and it’s good the we have a group that is keen to see action.

Member

🎆 🎇 🎆 YIPPEE 🎆 🎇 🎆

Not entirely off topic, but I took my broken fan blade to the tip this morning and came back with a new one (well an old one off a broken fan). The guys and gals there could not have been more helpful.

It is cleaned, fitted and working – quietly. I saw a new fan in a shop last week, but it was so noisy didn’t buy it.

So a piece of plastic has been recycled, and piece of electrical equipment has been saved.
🙂🙂🙂

Member

FAN-tas-tic!

Member

Yep, I fancy fantasizing I could acquire a new one wasn’t such a fantasy after all.

Big grin of the day goes to ME 😇

Member

Your decision to visit the tip (or Household Recycling Centre as we call it here) was an epifany. (At least, that may be right).

Let’s hope the hot weather continues so you can feel smugger for longer. 🙂

Member

I took some other stuff that needed disposing of and it all went for recycling with the shop accepting one item so hopefully someone else will find a use for it.

Now it is time to try out my new toy and fill up the garden recycling bins. Just bought an electric pole pruner……..

Member

Well done with the fan, Alfa. Maybe we could have a Convo about how we can extend the life of our products if we try.. I’ve fixed many faulty products in my time but it has never occurred to me to go to a recycling centre to source parts.

Member
Member

Wow, that is disgusting.

Member

It has been going on for years. It is quite wrong to use the rest of the world as our dustbin. We have the opportunity, now if the EU permits, and in the future when we leave, to lead the way on sealing with waste in a responsible way.

Member

To be fair, Malcolm, a lot of the waste material we exported to the far east came from there in the first place . . . only joking!

Member

And I doubt we’d have ever introduced the recycling schemes we have – flawed as they are – were it not for the EU.

Member

The earliest organised recycling schemes took place during the Second World War when we were also engaged in Europe. It was fairly primitive but local councils set up reception points for clothing and other rags, pots and pans, paper and cardboard, and sundry other materials. I think the word was ‘salvage’, not fancy names like ‘recycling’.

Member

We are running out of landfill sites in the UK: https://www.theguardian.com/suez-circular-economy-zone/2017/sep/20/were-running-out-of-landfill-and-brexit-could-make-it-worse-says-new-report

Use of landfill sites is taxed and the revenue funds a variety of grants for community, environmental and heritage projects under the WREN scheme, one of the requirements being that the project must be within ten miles of an active landfill site.

Now that China has stopped importing waste it would be worth planning for other countries to do the same. As with food and energy it makes sense for all countries to be self-sufficient.

Member
Sandra says:
25 July 2018

My local council doesn’t recycle plastic lids, we have to remove them beforehand. But Lush recycles them, so I take a bag full there every few weeks.

Member

I hope this does not include milk bottle caps, Sandra. As far as I am aware they are make of the same plastic as the bottles.

Member

There are a number of organisations anxious to find ways of eliminating, reducing, dealing with, and other interests in supermarket packaging waste. For example WRAP, Zero Waste Europe, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, together with the supermarkets, packaging manufacturers, recyclers and food producers.

I hope we will not all work in isolation and speak with a multitude of different voices. This is an opportunity for some organisation to pull at least some of these together to work on a solution and to speak in a coordinated way.

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.

Member
Lessismore says:
23 August 2018

YES it is a problem that waste is left up to local councils to deal with with little or no responsibility appearing to be taken by manufacturers and retailers to reduce the amount and take responsibility for it all until there is a huge outcry. The system is back to front. We need fewer materials allowed to be used and those to be approved as working within the circular economy.

As consumers we can walk away from plastics such as polystyrene bases for pizzas (once we know where they are) and meat packaged in polystyrene but unless we complain loudly to the manufacturers and retailers they gaily consider that we are happy with what we are getting when we aren’t. Why not use expanded polystyrene if it has to be used where it can easily be collected by the companies selling items protected by it eg when protecting fridges and washing machines where the items are unwrapped and installed and the packaging returned ?

Let’s allow plastic to be used more for items such as catheter bags so that they can be single use and incinerated for energy rather than being reused in our failing care system by ungloved, overworked and untrained carers.

Some plastic trays such as meat packaging is very obviously made of more than one layer of different plastic. Why? Recently I picked up a pack of two chops in an enormous plastic tray. What has happened regarding overpackaging? It is good that supermarkets are experimenting but they need leadership and we need to hold them to account and be more discerning in our choices.

Let’s make a point of using our own tubs where we can to collect from shops and supermarkets. Let’s just try and make the effort to make the point. If you have a local delicatessen that cuts your ham for you so that you can avoid that unrecyclable packaging then buy from there! Find a good slicer for that cheese and avoid the single slices of cheese in an unrecyclable pack.

Member

Here is a recent press release from Which?

“Which? response to LGA anaysis that finds a third of packaging pots and trays are unrecyclable
4 August 2018
Nikki Stopford, director of research and publishing at Which?, said:

“Most people want to be able to recycle their plastic waste and reduce the amount that ends up in landfill but are often left confused by the many different materials used in everyday packaging and the cryptic labelling on how it can be recycled.

“It’s now vital that the Government, manufacturers and supermarkets do the best they can to stamp out single-use plastics and materials that cannot easily be recycled and actively encourage the use of less harmful packaging”

Unless effective action is taken I don’t see much progress being made in the near future. I support the comments made by Nikki but wonder what Which? can do to help encourage change other than raising awareness of the problems.

Member

This was reported widely, as I said above. Many are aware of the problem. But what is needed is action, not press releases. I suggested some first steps above.

Perhaps Which? will act as well as speak? It seems quite good at campaigning on some matters. Can it do so with this important one?

Member

I am amazed that it has taken so long for the facts to emerge that a significant proportion of household plastic waste sent for recycling cannot be recognised and separated so goes to landfill. This relates mainly to the meat and other trays that are made of black plastic material that the photo-scanning recognition system [used at recycling plants for diverting products to different waste processing streams] fails to recognise as an acceptable recyclable material. Is it a cover-up or simple ignorance? Was there no feedback from the waste processing plants to the local authorities that consigned waste to them? If this was reported, was it just put in the ‘too difficult’ box? And now that we know this what is being done about it? I haven’t noticed any change in the packaging yet.

Member

I’d favour aluminium trays rather than plastic, black or otherwise. It is almost indefinitely recyclable.

Member

“VOTE IN OUR POLL
Are you happy to pay more for plastic bottles and be refunded when you return them?

Unless they can be recycled many times I’d rather use glass bottles or aluminium cans that are sensibly recyclable.

Member

Walkers have announced a crisp packets recycling scheme with public collection points across the country.

Full story:
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leicestershire-45759712

Member

This is a good move, but why does my purchase of 138g of crisps require seven bags? – Six small ones and one outer bag.

Member

An alternative would be 150g crisps in a single bag.

Modern metalised-plastic crisp bags are not recyclable. They do help protect the crisps from oxygen, which can cause rancidity of the fat, but I wonder how we got on before this packaging was introduced. Presumably the shelf-life was shorter.

Member

Roughly every fortnight we put out for the refuse collection a large pedal-bin bag almost full of metallised plastic from biscuit packets, snack packets of various kinds, and other miscellaneous packaging. This probably all goes to landfill. Perhaps with young children need individual bags for portion control reasons but the rest of us don’t. We are quite capable of eating only what we want and storing the remainder in an airtight container.

Member

I absolutely agree, John. The only alternative to landfill is likely to be incineration.

Member

It is possible to buy large single-bag packets of crisps but they tend to be types or flavours we either don’t like or don’t want – too thick, too oily, too ‘hot’, or not a hint of the taste of potato! They are also unnecessarily expensive. Perhaps the cultivation of a craving for a rancid variety is the way forward – after all, it’s already been proved possible to get the UK consumer to eat any old rubbish.

Member

You must have missed the backlash John , not long back Walkers took the decision to come out with exotic flavours for its crisps –they bombed. Not content to accept this they came up with a poll as to whether to keep them or revert to big packets containing crisps of the standard type–guess which came out on top ? –the standard issue . I also signed a petition against their plastic packaging which garnered several 100,000 names read https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/walkers-crisps-recycling-packaging-plastic-environment-petition-a8570606.html issued 18 hours ago.

Member

I don’t think many would be happy with rancidity in potato crisps. Modern packaging excludes oxygen, UV light and moisture, all of which contribute to deterioration, and the air in the bags helps prevent breakage. An environmental disaster and a very expensive way of buying potato and vegetable oil.

Member

Yes, Duncan, I saw some of what I took to be ‘clever’ [otherwise known as ‘pathetic’] marketing hype. Even the ‘standard’ flavours like C&O and S&V are not very nice in my opinion.

I agree with Wavechange’s comments on the packaging, which I suspect costs more than the potatoes. For a product that does you absolutely no good whatsoever, but actually makes you fat and spoils the environment, how have we become so hooked on it? There’s a sugar tax – why not a crisp tax to pay for the proper disposal of the waste: it won’t bio-degrade, it won’t decompose in landfill, and it is difficult and polluting to incinerate.

Member

When many are happy to pay several pounds each day for a cup of coffee or a sandwich, I’m not convinced that taxation will help.

Member

No, but at least it takes that money out of competition with your spending and mine, Wavechange, thus helping to keep down the cost of living for the careful types. That is why I am in favour of high betting, tobacco and liquor duties!

A touch of the rancid might enhance the flavour of the chorizo and chilli flavour crisps and certain other nauseous varieties.

Would not a container like the one used for Pringles achieve the same protective qualities as the metallised plastic crisp packet? Every part of the Pringles tube is recyclable although they have to be taken apart to release the metal base and the closure ring. That process could be made consumer-easy I am sure.

Member

Pringles packaging is usually seen as an example of poor design: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-39953209. I would not like to guess whether it is better or worse than bags of crisps in a bag. In fact it is difficult for members of the public to make good decisions on the basis of information we are given.

I have never tasted chorizo crisps, but they don’t half smell horrible.

Member

Yes, Pringles packaging could be much easier to process but at least the materials used are all recyclable. We rarely have any but whenever we do I take the tube to pieces and separate the components for recycling.

As we go further in our efforts at recycling it won’t get any easier because we have cherry-picked the easy processes and attempted to avoid much manual input or ‘difficult’ articles, but we cannot expect it to be like that in the future and there will have to be more investment in product and packaging design, in processing technology, and also in people’s skills to raise the recycling percentage to a respectable level.

I can’t believe it would be difficult to make a machine that would punch out the base of a Pringles container and separate the closure ring at the top from the cardboard tube. Even better would be for the manufacturer to redesign the tube all in cardboard so no further work on it was required. I cannot see any particular virtue in having a metal base other than a possible worry that without one they might deform in transit or on the shelf. Other products seem to survive without a metal base so I think they should give it a try; start with a Smarties tube and scale it up.

Member

I assume that the main problem is the foil-lined cardboard tube, one of many composite materials that creates problems for recycling. One possibility would be to make the tube, base and cap of cardboard and put the contents in an aluminium foil liner that is not bonded to the cardboard. The cardboard strips that are rapidly replacing expanded polystyrene provide an illustration of how strong the material can be made.

Just think what Blue Peter could have done with Pringles tubes if they had been around in the 1950s.

Member

Back to crisp packaging. It seems Smiths were selling 200m packets of crisps a year by 1934, and acquired 8000 acres of Lincolnshire to grow potatoes – giving them 10% of their requirement. Seems like an awful waste of productive land to me.

”1967 also saw Smith’s replace translucent paper (glassine) with cellophane film bags which increased shelf life from a few days to over six weeks.” As cellophane seems to be 100% biodegradable I wonder why they don’t abandon the plastic/aluminium composite and “return to nature”. I don’t really want a garden bench made out of recycled crisp packets; wood is fine for me.

Member

why not a crisp tax to pay for the proper disposal of the waste:“. I don’t personally want taxes that allow you to pay to pollute with waste. It’s the pollution we want to stop, not raising money to allow it to continue.

We need to tackle waste by eliminating unnecessary packaging, and making the essential packaging from usefully recyclable materials, or materials that can be disposed of in an environmentally-friendly way. Not burned, dumped in the ground, sent out to sea. That might cost a little more, but a better use of money than paying for bad materials to be “disposed of”. They cannot be disposed of – they just appear somewhere else.

Member

It really is time we campaigned to eliminate unnecessary packaging, and use usefully recyclable materials for what is essential. Incineration and landfill should largely cease. Using our own permanent containers for refills should not be too difficult, but someone needs to take the lead, or we need regulation. Have Which? any intention of pursuing this? We’ve already had a number of Convos on this topic.

Member

I agree with you, Malcolm.

There was a fascinating TV programme on BBC4 a few weeks ago in which a group of archaeologists and environmental scientists opened landfill sites from previous periods to see what had survived disposal. The Victorian tip, unsurprisingly, contained lots of ceramic storage jars and the glass from bottles, some metal and other solid materials but no paper, textiles, or other packaging waste.

The inter-war tip had a greater variety of materials including rubber, strong fabrics and some synthetics but was similar to the Victorian tip in terms of the decomposition of nearly everything else.

Then they opened a modern tip, about thirty years old I seem to recall. Absolutely everything was just as it was when it was tipped. Plastic bags were still intact and capable of being used for carrying things. Newspapers were still readable. Nothing but some organic material had decomposed.

The reason for this was that the two early tips were simple holes in the ground into which refuse was tipped and then covered with soil. There was no attempt at containment in order to avoid leachate so in that respect they were potentially environmentally unsatisfactory but in practice hardly at all because almost everything that could be burnt was put in the boiler or on the fire in those days so there was very little [apart from ash] to go in the dustcart. There was little food waste and any leftovers were used to feed pets or chickens. Household goods were not thrown away so readily as happens today and were adapted or reused for other purposes or they were given away or sold within the community.

By contrast, the modern tip was a completely sealed space with a metre of heavy clay on the bottom, top and all round the perimeter. It was organically inert as due to compression, compaction and solid covering of the contents there was no oxygen so no decomposition was able to take place and the contents are preserved for posterity, and probably for ever. This is the legacy we are leaving future generations.

Perhaps more recent tips might be better because more recyclable and compostable material has been taken out of the waste stream, but on the other hand the residual concentrations of plastic, minerals, chemicals and unfragmented solids form a larger percentage of the deposits and are potentially more harmful over time. It exposes the claims of “biodegradable” and “decomposable” to be pointless if the articles are going to be tipped into a landfill site of the current official specifications. The sooner we stop filling holes in the ground with household waste the better. One day perhaps they might ‘mine’ the 1980’s and later sites to see if anything can be salvaged and then treat the residue properly to prevent future pollution and contamination.

The programme also dealt with the extraction of methane gas from landfill sites.

Member

If paper and wood can survive for decades then even the best biodegradable materials may do the same. It’s all down to the availability of water, nutrients and oxygen in that part of a landfill site or household compost heap.

Here is the worst example of over-packaging I have seen for a long time. The packaging for four lamb chops amounted to 60g, including a very tough plastic tray: https://www.marksandspencerfoodhall.co.uk/product/organic-lamb-chops–334a26c0-784f-40bc-b5ae-ae461fe17c95

Heavier plastic carriers (sold as ‘bags for life’) can be seen in hanging out of rubbish bins in city centres and sometime filled with excess rubbish and placed alongside bins in the hope that they will be collected on bin day.

Member

The example you cite is typical of the way many products are packaged. A plastic tray and film, plus paper label. I’ve suggested we should use aluminium trays, not plastic. They are continually recyclable.

Forests are full of decaying wood – a natural process. We should follow the example.

Member

In my experience the trays are generally much lighter and the plastic shrink-wrap thinner.

Aluminium is only continually recyclable if it is free from impurities. Recycling it uses much less energy than smelting did in the first place but it still requires considerable electricity. Plastics are often recycled into products such as park benches because the quality would not be sufficient for making new bottles, etc.

Member

There is a limit to how many park benches we want.

Aluminium – cans, trays and many other forms – are widely recycled. If we persist with plastics and just dump them well be stuck with the increasing problems they create for ever. How can we properly clean up the oceans? Whereas we can increase our electricity resource to recycle aluminium (and glass bottles, for example) without any harm to the planet – if we pursue green energy generation, such as, in the UK, tidal flow and storage, and probably nuclear (best if we decide how to tackle that waste as well, though).

We need to decide to stop polluting packaging sooner, not later and face up to the alternatives – including do we really need all the packaging that is foisted upon us? Wait for Christmas presents and Easter eggs……

Member

Since the plastic waste exists it’s probably better to use if for recycling into something useful than incinerate it. I have used recycled plastic sheet outdoors as a replacement for external grade plywood and after ten years it seems as good as new. With a steel core to add rigidity we might produce fence posts that survive for decades. I would be delighted if plastic bottles were removed from sale tomorrow, but that’s not likely to happen.

One way that we can all encourage green energy generation is to choose a supplier that buys a decent percentage of electricity from renewable energy. My supplier uses 43% renewable and 57% from gas but there are suppliers that buy all their energy from renewable sources.

Member

I am rather disappointed with Marks & Spencer’s performance on food packaging. Given their much-vaunted Plan A environmental policy I had expected them to be in the vanguard of reducing the use of plastic but they are much more interested in the presentation of their products. I am particularly surprised that they have not given up the use of black plastic trays for fresh meat, cooked meat, ready meals and some fruit. I think Sainsbury’s are beating them to it with light green and light brown trays. The black trays do not register visually in the separation machinery at recycling plants so they get rejected and go to landfill or incineration [according to the waste disposal authority’s arrangements].

Bananas are a highly bruisable fruit but are sold loose whereas in M&S hard apples are packed in cardboard trays with a plastic film around them. I realise that enclosing bananas is problematic and am not suggesting a change but there is no reason why apples cannot be sold loose for customers to bag the quantity they require or just sold in a bag instead of in a box in a bag. Other products are over-packaged with a label band over the covering film or foil although this could be to prevent tampering. M&S also use thick black plastic containers for some products in the biscuit section that could just as easily be sold in cardboard tubs – I don’t think it matters if the odd cornflake cluster gets crushed in transit.

I do try to reuse plastic trays in the garage, workshop and office departments at home and have been known to buy products because I have a use for the container. The black plastic tubs I referred to above are good for decanting paint and cleaning paint brushes, soaking or immersing things that need cleansing, mixing plaster and mortar for small repairs, and storing bird seed and other dry goods.Since they are stackable, keeping a few does not take up much space. There is not much you can do with the shallow cold meat trays, however, even if they could be thoroughly cleansed – they tend to deform in hot water.

If China, Vietnam, India and other countries are no longer going to accept returned plastic waste then we had better jump to it and find ways to reduce our prime use of the material, find new uses for the waste, and identify sensible disposal arrangements other than burning it to make toxic smoke and fumes or storing it forever in a big pit. Impermeable storage is, however, probably the best way to deal with residual plastic waste because otherwise, as it does eventually degrade, it will decompose into micro beads that are harmful to nature.

Member

I agree John. Much of the prepacked produce could be sold loose – take your own containers if necessary. And why throw every egg box away? Refill them from trays. Coffee jars?

The black plastic trays could, I believe, all be aluminium. PET bottles could be glass.

I’d also like to see an end to tins and plastic boxes used for biscuits and sweets. There is a limit to how many I can reuse and. apart from the waste, they are an extra cost that is not necessary. Oh, and why put spreads in plastic tubs when I can buy a block of butter wrapped in paper?

Member

I suppose spreads tend to spread a bit when crushed whereas butter has a firmer consistency. The spread would squelch out amongst your shopping perhaps but it could be enclosed in a sealed greaseproof paper bag strong enough to contain it if squashed and then when needed for the table decanted into a china dish and returned to the fridge afterwards.

It was with great reluctance that I had to get rid of a quantity of biscuit tins that I had saved for storage purposes. I hadn’t found a new use for them so a directive was issued and they went in the recycling bin. I favoured round ones usually because the lids fitted tighter, but most presentation packs of biscuits come in plastic tubs or rectangular tins these days.

Member

The increasing number of countries declining to import waste from the west might be what is needed to precipitate action. I would like to see some competition between retailers to bring in worthwhile environmental improvements. That might mean stocking different brands.

Member

It is better to turn waste materials into something useful, rather than dumping them, I’d agree. But it is clear from the amount of dumped waste that this is of very limited scope. And the products produced are often pretty rubbish.

We need to look the future, not continue with the plastic waste we produce now. By all means turn it into street furniture and the like but that, at some point, that will also become plastic waste. Then where does it go? It just puts off the inevitable evil day.We have to start reducing the use of plastics now. We can make fencing and bottles from other materials. Wood and glass are quite good.

The amount of green energy – wind, solar, for example – is limited by the installations. Individuals choosing to buy from a “renewables biased” supplier doesn’t make any more available. What comes down the wires is all one product, which is typically made up of around 39% gas, 29% renewables,19% nuclear, 6% coal, 7% other. The only way to get more renewables is to build more renewable generators.