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Which? Magazine switches to a potato-starch wrapper

You told us you didn’t like our plastic magazine wrappers – we listened and agreed. After research and testing, we’ve decided a compostable potato-based wrapper is the one for us. What do you think?

Last year we reported that each UK household creates 55kg of plastic waste a year, before taking the supermarkets to task and offering advice on how to reduce your plastic footprint.

At the time, however, we also knew that there was something we could do to reduce ours.

The plastic wrapper that our magazines were delivered in was recyclable, but usually only if you took it to a supermarket and disposed of it along with carrier bags.

Reducing our own plastic footprint

Some councils take magazine wrappers as part of their kerbside collections, but many don’t.

While we acknowledged this problem in our article, and announced that we’d be testing a more environmentally friendly wrapper, some of you pointed out the irony of plastic preaching wrapped in problematic packaging.

Introducing our new potato-starch wrapper

I’m thrilled to let you know that our testing was successful and we’ve now rolled out a new potato-starch wrapper that’s fully compostable and can be put in food or garden bins.

It breaks down into CO2, water and biomass within 12 to 18 weeks and complies with European standards on composting and biodegradability.

Some of you have already got it as part of our tests – thanks for your feedback, which gave us confidence that it’s up to the job.

We still had a surplus of the old wrappers, so we used them in April, and for about half of our May mailings, but from our June issue onwards everyone will receive the new wrapper.

I’m confident our new wrapper is the cream of the crop, but I’d like to hear from you. Have you got any feedback on the new wrapper? Do you have ideas for other ways we can be more sustainable?

Let me know in the comments below.

Comments
Dave Over says:
1 August 2019

I tried to put your starch wrapper in the green recycle bin, with the word COMPOSTABLE clearly visible on top. When the bin was emptied I asked the collector if this was OK and was told no, it might stop it being emtied in future. I have since contacted Rotherham council and been told the same thing. So despite your best efforts this is still going into general waste.

Once again it’s a terminology problem, Dave. “Compostable” is not the same as “recyclable” so ideally the Which? wrapper should not be put in your green recycling bin. The best place for it is the food waste bin if you have one. In theory, it should be possible for it to be taken away with garden waste if you have a separate collection for that, but councils might not like that either as it might not suit the composting process which is intended for natural vegetation rather than processed material.

I am fed up with local authorities telling us that certain things that are technically recyclable should not be put in the recycling bin. Black food trays are an example; the only problem there is that the optical sorting machinery cannot detect them and direct them to the proper waste stream but otherwise they are as recyclable as other plastic of a similar type. Retailers are progressively changing to other materials or different coloured plastic in order to overcome that problem but until then councils should accept it and put in place a sorting system that will not reject it, using human labour if necessary. Councils keep saying that just a few non-conforming items can lead to a whole lorry load of green waste being rejected and sent for landfill or incineration; I don’t believe that for one minute and think they need to find a way of coping with it. No wonder householders get confused and why the recycling rate is lower than it needs to be.

We must not hide behind “recycling” as a justification for the continued use of plastics when other packaging – or unpackaged – options are available. In my view, recycling these days is only sensible if the material can be reused without degradation – such as aluminium, for example. Most, if not all, plastics are degraded in the recycling process and will become waste sooner or later, with permanent damage to the environment.

I’d like to see a whole new approach to product packaging that minimises the material used, minimises plastic, and is not wasteful.

I agree Malcolm, but there are conflicting issues and we need to consider them all carefully. One of the environmental benefits of plastic is its lightness [compared with glass, for example] which reduces the environmental impact of transport. Aluminium might be the best substitute in many instances but producing it and reprocessing it have environmental consequences. Plastic seems to be more harmful as a result of recycling if ultimate disposal is not managed carefully so the less produced the better. I have noticed that a number of products that used to come in plastic bottles now have metal containers but there is still a long way to go.

As we look to the future transport could be electric, and electrical energy in the UK should be largely renewable minimising impact – tidal power is an immense resource. Many liquids are already supplied in recyclable glass bottles so plastic is not a necessary material. I agree there are conflicting issues, and plastics has many useful attributes but, if disposal is so harmful to the planet, we must work to minimise its wasteful use.

Aluminium can, as far as I know, be endlessly recycled and uses only 10% of the energy of producing it from scratch.

“Unpackaged” or using permanent customer containers would surely be a major step forward?

Carrying on as we are cannot be an option.

I was speaking to someone who has a senior position in a company that makes plastic bottles for numerous manufacturers. I raised my concerns about plastic and he said that it was not his concern because it makes money. When I asked if was aware of the environmental issues he said he was, but his interest was making money.

He said that aluminium bottles were used for some products but were relatively expensive to produce and handle, and only used as a marketing feature.

Is there any viable alternative to legislation if we are going to tackle the problem that plastics are creating?

It is quite understandable that someone in the plastics industry takes that view, just as those who take foreign holidays by air, drive fossil fuelled cars, throw away food, buy products in plastic packaging, contribute to the world’s problems.

If most consumers care, then consumer pressure will drive change. If they do not, then, like climate change, I fear we will be stuck with the status quo.

Which? could harness the consumer army and use its weight to start a rebellion against excessive packaging in inappropriate materials, and it could join forces with WRAP, the greens and any other organisations that have knowledge and concern in this area. It is too important an issue to just chat about endlessly.

Sadly, many people don’t care much about environmental issues or are selective about what they are prepared to support. I doubt you would support phasing out use of glyphosate by gardeners. I have a worrying range of plastic bottles under my kitchen sink and so far I have done nothing to find out if I can buy loose produce locally.

Legislation is very effective. It enabled us to reduce and then remove lead from petrol. I suggest that the best options for packaging are worked out and that all manufacturers are obliged to use them.

This is the kind of approach government is taking – effectively placing a tax on certain plastics packaging. It presumes the increased use of recycled plastics will result. It does not seem to consider what happens to degraded plastics that will end up as waste, nor to reducing or eliminating plastics from most packaging which surely should be the objective.
https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/752091/Plastics_factsheet_web.pdf

I am not convinced that a “pay to pollute” solution is the right one.

Any tax on packaging will just be passed on to the consumer. That is why I’m keen on legislation that requires companies to use what is considered to be the least environmentally damaging solution.

I was illustrating the government’s approach, they who legislate. My point was, of course, that permitting a bad practice to continue by making a payment is not a solution to the problem.

Legislation can take for ever and I don’t think we have the time; we need to start now

We need pressure put on the supermarkets, for example, to reduce packaging and use non-harmful and re-usable materials where they are necessary. Consumer action could start that, if we had a lead organisation.

Malcolm and Wavechange – I go along with what you are saying. I agree we must not waste any more time but tackle the problem of consumer waste generally and urgently.

I think legislation will be needed to underwrite [or be a backstop for] whatever can be achieved voluntarily and through consumer pressure, but we should not wait for legislation. I don’t support taxation of harmful materials; they have to be banned.

We reached the present position of plastic dominance in packaging by following a producer-led path and we need to retrace the same steps. Prior to the ready availability of plastic packaging for foodstuffs and household products we managed with fewer of them and, with few exceptions that I can think of, they came in reusable or recyclable or biodegradable materials.

More careful waste disposal is another approach to preventing some of the harm caused by the throw-away society. It is appalling that our rivers and beaches are dumping grounds for volumes of plastic and other harmful waste. This is primarily an education problem – getting people to take their waste away with them or put it one of the many bins that are provided. It is often said that the young generation are more aware and will behave better but I am not yet convinced, and their influence is not yet improving sufficiently the behaviour of the generations above them.

While electric vehicles using predominantly renewable energy might assist with reducing the environmental impact of transport, I cannot see a time when this will include heavy haulage – which is the general justification for using plastic packaging instead of glass or metal.

I am guilty of having an ‘under the kitchen sink’ problem. There are few too many plastic containers, some unnecessary because there are other products that could do the same job. There must be scope for refilling non-plastic containers. Not so convenient perhaps, but nothing will be convenient if we don’t get a grip on the problem; things are going to have to change and consumers will have to change with them.

The bathroom is another area that has been plasticised during my lifetime. We shall have to rewind, which possibly means less choice. A tablet of soap in a paper wrapper, or an oily liquid in a fancy plastic bottle with a complex dispensing mechanism?

Consumerism got us here and post-consumerism will have to get us out. I suppose, as from today, we are in the Christmas season which is the worst example imaginable of irresponsible packaging. We probably can’t do much about the approaching yuletide, since it’s already on the road, but we could perhaps promote a national ambition to have a waste-free Christmas 2020.

I think we have to pursue all possible solutions, John, but I doubt that much will be achieved voluntarily. We have adopted plastic packaging because it is seen commercially as the best product for the job. I don’t doubt that, but only if you ignore the unquantifiable damage to the environment.

I’ve been thinking about going back to using soap after decades of using bottles of hand-wash. The problem is that if you live in a hard water area, the hand-wash does a much better job, so I have continued to use it in as small quantities as possible. Another problem with hand-wash is that unless you are careful you are likely to buy an anti-bacterial version that offers no benefit whatsoever but contributes to the damage to the environment. We have discussed plastic pollution and poor air quality at some length on Convo, but these are just two of the issues that deserve urgent action.

There was an item on the news tonight extolling the plastic carrier bag charge, and the 90% reduction on bags used. Then look at what customers were putting in their shopping bags – far more plastic packaging than ever the shopping bag saves. It will not be as easy to change as charging for a carrier, but it is something we can deal with simply by choosing to address it.

I have noticed that, in my haste, I wrote that there were “few too many plastic containers” under the sink. I meant to write “far too many”.

That’s the problem. The number grows very quickly. 🙂

Perhaps you meant “phew, too many”?

@daveover Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. When you say your green recycling bin do you mean food waste or mixed recycling for things like plastic bottles?

Today already we have thrown away [for recycling] a plastic strawberry container, a plastic grapes container, a plastic milk bottle, a plastic shower gel bottle, two plastic yoghurt pots, and a plastic plughole unblocker bottle. A lot of plastic wrappings, some bubble wrap, and some hard plastic items have also been put in the general waste. The fact that the latter will never degrade or decompose: is that a good or a bad thing? If it is sealed in a pit in the ground and then protected for ever it is possibly safe, but if it is burnt in an incineration plant it is almost certainly harmful.

It looks as though a natural movement could start without the need to wait for officialdom to act. Good for the supermarkets if they can keep this going. Let’s hope consumers have the ability to see the sense in this and take advantage of it.

Waitrose has extended its packaging-free trial to stores in Abingdon, Cheltenham and Wallingford. The trial allows customers to bring in their own, refillable containers for fruit and veg, pasta, cereals, coffee, and even wine. But is it better for the environment and also cheaper? Our analysis suggests it could tick both boxes…..

It’s hoped that the idea has the potential to save thousands of tonnes of unnecessary plastic and packaging………

But is it worth the hassle of having to bring your own containers…………..”
https://www.which.co.uk/news/2019/08/waitrose-unpacked-is-packaging-free-food-budget-friendly/

It is surely worth the hassle if it helps reduce plastic use and pollution. As with anything, change will require altered habits and a bit of effort initially maybe, but faced with the huge waste problem we must be prepared to act responsibly – make the effort.

I support the use of the new compostable wrapper and will see how it breaks down in my compost heap. However, each month my wrapper arrives with a sticky paper label attached. I have reported this to Which? but no response from them. Does this compromise the compostability of my wrappers? Am I alone in having a sticker attached?

You are probably not alone but I don’t get one on my wrapper. I suspect it is a batch identifier for the postal delivery, possibly your postcode or walk. You will discover in due course whether the paper label survives composting intact.

I raised this with Which? but had no response so maybe they have ticked the “recycling box” and moved on!

I don’t get a sticky label either. I think John could be right when he says it might be stuck on by the Post Office.

Checked into this one for you Mapleshire. The stickers aren’t coming from Which?, so my assumption is these are being added by Royal Mail. The best advice we can give is to remove the area on which the sticker is attached and compost the remainder. In theory you could compost the sticker if it is paper though? Curious to know the results of you give it a try!

Thanks Jon. I have adopted that procedure as although the label is paper the adhesive substance is unlikely to be compostable/recyclable. I just wonder whether the delivery contractors could be instructed not to add compostable/recyclable items to the packages they handle on behalf of Which?

I’ll report back on my experience!

Wouldn’t hurt to ask, but can’t promise anything on this one!

tashy41 says:
6 August 2019

I live in a flat, and a borough where a food waste bin is not available (not available for flats) – should I put this into general waste or recycling? It’s not clear when I don’t have a compost heap, garden waste or a kitchen food waste bin…

Where there is no dedicated food waste collection, such items should be put in the general waste bin and never in the recycling bin.

I believe the government intends to make a weekly food waste collection a mandatory local authority service in England. I can imagine some difficulties with that for some flats unless they are going to provide a communal bin but give each flat an individual caddy with liners to be emptied into the communal bin.

The other day some books that I had ordered were delivered and in the parcel was a leaflet saying that all the booksellers’ packaging was now 100% biodegradable and that they could all be put in the recycling bin. Green-coloured adhesive tape was used to seal the internal wrapping but I decided not to put that in the recycling bin because I could not see how it would pass properly through the sorting machinery and end up being composted. When unpeeled and rolled into a ball it didn’t add up to much, being about the size of an average conker, so I put it in the food waste caddy, the contents of which go for anaerobic digestion.

The bubble wrap enclosing the books was tinted green and the note said it could go in the recycling bin – an unexpected development, but would the council know that and not reject it? Apparently, any airbags used in the company’s packaging were also recyclable but my concern remains that local authorities might not be up to speed on these possibilities. The cardboard packet was recyclable as normal; presumably the adhesive labels get separated during the processing.

While initiatives like this are highly commendable, the attempt to make everything seem simple and straightforward could cause problems. The sooner we have a universal, consistent, recycling service the householder will be confused and companies will struggle to make their policies work effectively.

It is tempting to put as much as possible in the recycling and green waste bins but that might increase the chance of the contents being rejected and ending up in landfill. In the early days of recycling I was told off for putting in plastics that were not allowed. I pointed out that the (resin identification) code were the same as for the acceptable items but that did not matter.

We could move on to the wider topic of recycling given that it is now becoming a political imperative. This would highlight the difference between an item being technically recyclable – often by being given very specialist treatment – and the practical issues which exist. The extent to which a sticky label could compromise a whole compostable wrapper being on e of them but the policies and processes of your local authority being the main one. The local authorities given information on their websites but my view is that vert few people religiously check that before allocating an item to recycling or general waste. Tainted collected material can have the effect of consigning the whole collection to waste rather than indulge in the detailed sorting that would be required to satisfy the requirements of the recycling contractors which local authorities use. Judging by the number of recycling markings and options that consumed most of a broadsheet page in a recent article in the Daily Telegraph there is good reason for a step-back and fundamental review of exactly how recycling can really be made to work. It’s complicated!

I agree Mapleshire, recycling standards should have been implemented long ago.

Logos like the one below are misleading. It does not necessarily mean the packaging is recyclable, but signifies the producer has made a financial contribution to the recovery and recycling of packaging in Europe. If producers packaging is recyclable then put the appropriate logos but the Green Dot should be binned.

I have also questioned this logo that appears on the Which? wrapper:

Pauline Watkin says:
15 August 2019

I am very much in favour of the 100% compostable wrapper and I cannot see why it could not be used much more widely. Very impressed that you have made the effort to champion this product and hope others will follow suit. Keep up the good work.

But it’s a drop in the ocean. We need to remove as much unnecessary and non-recyclable packaging as quickly as we can. Will Which? campaign to do this – with practical proposals of course. See Convo comments.

It’s more than a drop in the ocean if every magazine and other publications that arrive through the post move to starch-based plastics. I suggest we need action.

The only mags I get through the post are Which? and Private Eye. Two drops in the ocean then. Particularly when compared to the bag full of packaging I throw away every couple of weeks. I’d suggest we need action to address that 🙂 . Waitrose have trialled a start; I hope their action spreads. We’ve suggested ways to reduce packaging and make what is necessary properly and usefully recyclable. Action to implement useful suggestions would produce immediate results.

I have three magazines in plastic wrappers, a handful of society ones in paper envelopes and a collection of local village magazines that are naked and hand-delivered. How about legislation that gives the publishers of magazines the option of using starch-based compostable wrapping (as used by Which?) or paper envelopes if wrapping is considered essential?

I’m not aware of any legislative change that prompted the initiative by Which? It’s really driven by a concern to do more than talk/write about recycling and to invest to make it happen. Therein lies the rub: recycling is not free it requires the investment of time and money. That in turn is driven by a real commitment and it appears many do not see recycling as sufficiently important to their life or business.

“As far as excess packaging is concerned what we could do, apart from ditching excess packaging when be buy stuff, is on our next visit take back all the waste packaging and leave it in a supermarket trolley for them to dispose of. That is if anyone is really that bothered about such waste. Let them pay to dispose of it. It may be they would think harder about their offering.

Well, someone else sees things the same way.

If Which? are serious about plastic waste perhaps they should team up on this topic with Greenpeace. Just talking about it will not solve then problem.

https://media.greenpeace.org/CS.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=27MZV8RXPS7JP&SMLS=1&RW=1920&RH=937
https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/challenges/plastic-pollution/

Linda Davis says:
24 August 2019

Absolutely brilliant, let’s hope others will now follow your lead!

Rhoda says:
3 September 2019

Great idea! I use compostable bags for food waste and this new wrapper is also used for this purpose.

Rhoda Draper says:
3 September 2019

Great idea! I use compostable bags for food waste and this wrapper is a useful addition.

Mapleshire says:
3 September 2019

We have a compost bin in the kitchen which we use to accumulate items for our compost heap. It is plastic but we wash it out each time and have had it for twelve years, so far, and consider that to be a suitable eco-friendly process.

Heather says:
7 September 2019

Nice one Which – I hope others follow your example.