/ Sustainability

Why getting labelling right makes it easier to recycle

The On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRL) is calling for clear and consistent mandatory labelling on packaging. Our guest explains why OPRL believes correct labelling is essential.

This is a guest article by Jane Bevis. All views expressed are Jane’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

Ever puzzled over whether you can recycle something? Or wondered what happens if you recycle something which can’t be processed? Well, you’re not alone – confusion is the biggest barrier to recycling, affecting six in 10 of us. We need to #MakeItEasy by having clear and consistent mandatory labelling on packaging.

There’s quite a science to designing labels that inspire people to action. It’s something we’ve been doing for 13 years and our 2020 design is the best yet. Global bodies such as the UN Environment Programme and Consumers International have looked at what works and why, as has the Environmental Coalition on Standards.

Like us at OPRL, they think it needs to be easy to recognise, clear and understandable, and based on facts and local recycling infrastructure. In fact, they think we get it right.

We also think it needs to be universal: one label for the UK, not lots of confusing symbols.

The government disagrees. It’s proposing any business should be able to invent its own label design, leaving consumers guessing. Imagine if every council designed its own road signs or traffic light colours. We use standard symbols for all sorts of things in life where we just need an instant prompt. Recycling is no different.

Why should we worry and can labelling work?

♻ Does it matter if stuff is recycled incorrectly?

Yes, it really does. Firstly, if we don’t recycle something that is recyclable then we lose materials which either go to landfill or Energy from Waste instead of being reused. That means more ore mining, more sand dredging, more forest felling, more plastics manufacture.

Even worse, if we recycle something that isn’t recyclable it can contaminate reprocessing and lead to whole batches being ditched, adding to waste. The North London Waste Authority reckons in their area alone 18,000 tonnes of recyclable materials were wasted because of contamination last year (PDF report).

All of which adds to climate change, despite packaging being a tiny part (less than 3%) of a product’s carbon footprint.

♻ Doesn’t each council recycle different things so how can you label accurately?

Actually, no, not really. Although there are lots of variations on how councils collect recycling – different colour bins; some all mixed in together, others separated; some lots from home, others relying on bring sites – nearly all councils collect pretty much the same stuff. The main exceptions are some types of plastic, but plastic bottles, for instance, are some of the most recyclable packaging in the UK.

Our voluntary labelling scheme, OPRL, researches council collections as well as how these are sorted and processed before deciding which kinds of packaging can be marked as ‘Recycle’ and which can’t. Where the main way of collecting is at bring sites we offer special labels making that clear.

In future the government intends making labelling mandatory and setting the rules on what’s recyclable as part of the Extended Producer Responsibility rules under the Environment Bill, when it passes into law. That could really help as every piece of packaging will have a label on it. But which one?

So what should we do?

We’re asking government to make sure the mandatory label does what they’ve said they want – give clear and consistent signals to consumers. That means a single design, no matter what the brand.

We’ve tried getting an amendment to the Environment Bill but the government has refused. So now we’re asking the public to ask too, via our petition.

Do you agree that we need clear and consistent mandatory labelling on packaging? Would you find it easier to recycle if there weren’t so many different symbols?

This was a guest article by Jane Bevis. All views expressed were Jane’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

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Good to see that a lively Conversation moderated by Jane Bevis has now collected over 140 sensible comments (apart from mine, maybe) in one week. It just proves the value of active participation by the Convo author.

I don’t buy that some people are too busy and have full time jobs to attend to – presumably that paid job involves researching and writing the Convos in the first place. If a Conversation is worth posting, make sure you have the time to respond to comments, both positive and negative, before engaging with the membership.

We’ve seen so many that are dead in the water and we’ve no idea if member’s comments are taken on board. If it’s just puffery for some Which? campaign, please ensure comments are disabled, so that the rest of us don’t waste our time either.

Quite right Em. This has been the response in the past. Which? are “too busy”. And, presumably too busy to take note of constructive comments that might help them.

I agree with Em’s comments.

I would guess that most of the people who comment in Which? Conversation do it in their own free time. While I accept that Which? staffers cannot be required to respond to comments on their own Conversations in their own time I am surprised that so few of the known writers appear out of hours on subjects that might be of interest to them as citizens as well as being consumer affairs experts. It used to happen; it would be invidious to name names but they would often enlighten us with their additional insights.

Recycling, energy conservation, and consumer safety have always been some of the most popular topics in Which? Conversation.

I would have thought that contributing information, comment, responding to questions from consumers, many of them members, would be as much a part of the day job of Which? employees (who are paid for by the Members) as any other function they have. Convo no exception; it is Which? media.

I have lost count of then number of questions I have asked of Which? in Convos, that have never been responded to, let alone those of other contributors. But that is over a long period – these questions are not frequent and would in no way take a great deal of time to answer. I suspect either no system exists to direct questions to the right person, or (and I hope this is not the case) Which? prefer not to respond.

I have had direct experience of face to face meetings and email exchanges with Which? where I found a reluctance to answer directly, a defensive attitude, a feeling they do not like what they say challenged.

Tesco has apparently run trials to explore whether recycling points would be, and these are to be rolled out in other areas, mainly in the south of England: https://www.tescoplc.com/news/2021/tesco-to-launch-uk-s-biggest-network-of-recycling-points-for-soft-plastic/

I presume these are outdoors because used pet food pouches and other plastics contaminated with food could be smelly.

We need national and consistent waste treatment strategy available to all councils. The Tesco initiative is fine, but not the answer. As recycling does exist we should be able to segregate so-called soft plastics at home (but I wonder how many would) for the council to despatch to the appropriate recycler.

Frankly, I rarely use Tesco and am unlikely to store soft plastic in my car to take on my next visit.

I only reported this because the Tesco initiative is relevant and new.

I accept the benefits of good clear labelling and recent advances but when are we going to see councils adopting a consistent strategy. Government must act to make sure this happens.

I see this as a significant interim development on the way to the abolition of plastics in food packaging which should remain the overall objective.

I would also like to see it go from drinks containers but if transparency is necessary the light weight of plastic gives it an advantage over glass.

I thought pet food pouches were made of aluminium, or am I thinking of a different product? The Cesar pouches look as though they are made of aluminium and have the round symbol on them for “producer contributes to a packaging recovery scheme”. I [and many other people] might have been misled by that symbol into thinking it means the packaging can be put in the recyclable waste stream.

Moist pet food is sold in traditional steel cans, aluminium trays (I presume with foil lids) and plastic pouches. Even dry pet food needs moisture-resistant packaging. It would be interesting to know what percentage of the various packagings are recycled. Until there is regulation of use packaging materials, guidance could help us make informed choices.

I avoid plastic bottles but they are preferred because they are lighter and safer than glass.

The round symbol that you mention, John, is the ‘green dot’. I don’t know how much the producer contributes to the cost of recovery but with WEEE waste (i.e. electronics) retailers could pay a small fee to avoid this responsibility, allowing them to direct customers to their local waste recycling centre.

I was sufficiently interested in the problems created by plastic waste to do research on novel biodegradable materials back in 1986, but soon came to the conclusion that we must reduce the amount of all plastics that we use. At the time the problems of landfill waste were well understood but other problems such as damage to our oceans were not recognised.

Many beer and cider bottles are glass, as are bottles for wine and spirits. Quite what decides the choice of material? We transport far too much unnecessary liquid around, particularly soft drinks and water. We can get water from the tap. We could make soft drinks companies provide the syrup so we use our own water and CO2 rather than shift olympic swimming pools full of, largely, water around the country.

Given the relatively fast turnover of crisp [and similar] packets at home I see no reason why they cannot be made of non-metalised material, preferably paper- or starch-based. A lot of the desire for fancy packaging is for marketing and cosmetic reasons — and to appeal to children, of course.

Foil/plastic laminate packaging is used to exclude moisture and oxygen and air can if necessary be replaced by a gas mixture, as in packaged meats. This packaging extends the shelf life of products and reduces waste. I am not arguing for retention of these difficult materials, simply acknowledging their benefits.

I remain to be convinced that expecting us to take waste packaging to the supermarket is likely to be very successful and I would not be sure what to collect. With clear labelling I would be prepared to do my bit.

Smiths crisps were in treated paper bags once – remember the twist of blue paper containing salt? I don’t know how recyclable they were but they were discarded for better-sealed packaging to give longer shelf life. I suggest we need to look had at the trade-off between shelf life and packaging; we may need to adjust shops stocking arrangements if this avoids the need to use non- recyclable packaging. Most people will consume crisps fairly soon after they are bought, so it is all for the conenience of the manufacturer and retailer.

With other perishable products, we may need to change our purchasing habits to avoid perpetuating the accumulation of anti-planet waste.

I don’t share your confidence in people collecting “special” waste packaging and taking it back to the retailer. It is a sticking plaster solution, not dealing with using inappropriate materials that should be, perhaps, banned as packaging.

I have explained that I don’t think these supermarket collections will be very effective but if it can reduce waste I am prepared to do my bit.

But it doesn’t reduce waste, it just returns it. Reducing waste should be the objective in my view.

Morning Jane, good to see you here again 🙂 If you’ve got the full URL of the image then pasting it into the comment should make it appear in full.

Good to see Jane here again, and presenting a balanced and pragmatic view to the problems of reducing waste and recycling more.

Why do I find myself agreeing with everything you say? Could you not superglue your hands to the M25 so we could have something to fight about?

Walkers still produce Salt & Shake crisps [marked “formerly Smith’s”] but I don’t know whether the bag contains a separate salt portion or the consumer is expected to supply their own.

It is only the staff who can embed images on the site, Jane. We have been advised to upload images to a photo sharing site and then pasting the image link, as I have done below.

I have some Ariel pods as shown in the top photo. The box is polypropylene and weighs 93g. Perhaps Ariel pods could be packaged in cardboard boxes, which I have seen used for similar products. There is a risk of the box becoming wet, which would result in a sticky mess, but packaging the pods in a lightweight plastic bag inside the cardboard box would avoid this risk and save use of a lot of plastic. It’s a good job that Procter & Gamble don’t make breakfast cereals, otherwise we might find cornflakes sold in polypropylene tubs. 🙁

In my area, council tax is increasing year on year and we are expected to take more and more responsibility for sorting our own rubbish. The annual fee for my garden waste was increased to £51 this year, up from last year, to have my garden refuse collected every two weeks. For the past 2 months, this has not happened due to driver shortages.

A letter of apology letter was received yesterday stating:

“We appreciate this is still not the service you expect from us so we will be extending your subscription this year by three months to make up for the collections that you have missed while the service has been suspended. We will delay the collection of your next Direct Debit payment by three months – if we have recently informed you that your payment is due to be taken Imminently but the payment has not yet come out of your account, the payment will be cancelled, and you will be notified of the revised payment date in due course once your subscription has been amended.”

“The temporary arrangement is that fortnightly collections will change to take place every four weeks, but you will be able to leave twice as much garden waste out as normal.”

“Remember, when you put your garden waste bin out while this temporary timetable is in place, you can leave an extra bin’s worth of garden waste out next to your brown bin. The extra garden waste can be put out in cardboard boxes, old compost bags or bin bags, (not the very large trade waste bags please).”

A Binzone app is now available on your Smartphone and you can carry your bins around in your pocket (not literally). It’s available on IOS and Android – which tells you all you need to know about yout bin collection, ie: tell us what do you want to throw away, and we’ll tell you where to put it.

Life is certainly complicated at the moment, and it is becoming more obviously clear to me that we are being taken for a long ride on a roundabout that never stops recycling…………sorry recirculating.

That seems like well-organised arrangements by your local council, Beryl.

We needed to get rid of a large [kingsize] mattress recently. It was too big for us to take to the tip so we requested a collection by the local authority. The charge was £50 for three items, so we found some other stuff we could dispose of as two extra items. We put the mattress out the night before collection day but by the time the council lorry came to take it away the local scavengers had removed the two other items. I hope some needy local people had the benefit of some free pieces of furniture because the council would not have recycled or upcycled them.

I think it was more an organised response to pacify quite a number of irate people John, who were left to form their own assumptions and theories as to why their increased subscriptions were not being executed.

I had a similar experience when two items were left outside the garage for collection by the local council and both had disappeared by the next day. I hope they went to people who really needed them. There are people who make a living out of driving around searching for surplus stuff left out for council collection.

I usually try to see the better side of human nature, Beryl. The local authority, led by its councillors on behalf of the people, could just have been trying to do the decent thing. The collection of garden waste is not a statutory service and is not funded by the council tax so I would hope it would be operated on a more customer-friendly basis than the usual public service mentality.

I hadn’t realised that it was worth scavenging people’s waste for a living. I’ve been in the wrong job. But there is a TV programme where some odd types hang around the waste tips looking for articles they can upcycle and flog. The things people will watch!

Ours goes through an Open Windows process and then sold onto local farmers John so it’s a win win for the local council. Some people are able to take it to their local waste disposal unit. Those who can’t have to pay for it to be collected which can vary in subscription depending on your post code.

I think the people who go around scavenging peoples waste are probably from the travelling communities who are pretty adept at DIY projects. It’s the local Councils who are missing out if you leave your stuff out before you report it to them, as you will be charged before collection.

The better side of human nature is always a preferable choice to look for John, but there’s always another side to everyone, something I have endeavoured to help people with and overcome over many years spent studying and working with the mentally ill, and I have learned quite a lot during that time about what some people are capable of, but it’s very rewarding and enlightening to be able to view the whole human picture.

“It’s easy to look at things, the hard part is seeing them.”

The food industry now produce a huge range of products. I remember as a child, going to the local grocers in the village and coming back with a cardboard box of things to last the week. Flour came in fabric bags that Mum turned into handkerchiefs and pretty much everything else came in a tin or in a paper bag. Most dry goods were sold loose from a container in the shop and greaseproof paper went round cooked meat, sliced as required. Fruit, in season, came loose and vegetables, often grown locally came in paper bags or tipped directly into a shopping basket. Packaging was simple because the food was simple. Now, ready meals have to be packaged so that they cook simply. Some meat dishes come in strong plastic pouches so that they can finish cooking at home. Soft drinks come in plastic bottles. Bread, paper wrapped in the past, now has plastic to protect it. Milk bottles are a thing of the past. The above is just a small example of the way the food industry has developed to make food user friendly, last longer and be more attractive to look at on the shop shelf. This was the main aim and no one worried about the consequence to the land fill, ocean or atmosphere.
The population has spread and become more sophisticated, and now it has outgrown its planet and doesn’t know what to do about it. Initiatives pop up here and there, but these are insufficient . One solution would be to return to a simpler world where one worked harder domestically and consumed less, especially of those things that have been developed for convenience. This would lead to mass unemployment and swathes of industry going out of business. The supermarket is full of conveniences and its huge stock and choice is one of the drivers of consumption in the developed world. One of its essential uses is to provide food for the nation. In my childhood, one took a basket down the High Street and called at the Grocer, Greengrocer, Baker, Chemist and came home, only to go out the next day on a similar errand. This model would no longer work. There are too many of us, we are too busy and have much more to do in a day. No one has come up with anything that could replace the current system, but we could exist quite well ( though grumpy) if the supermarkets offered less range and more basics.

I am not entirely convinced that we are more wasteful, or are less environmentally conscious that earlier generations. I dig up the occasional glass or stoneware ginger beer bottle, discarded by a thirsty Victorian gardener in what is now the curtilage of my property. The reason I don’t find many more is that every working man in those days would take themselves off to the brewery and drink on site – it’s called a pub.

I’ve also found the remains of a lawn mower in a mound of earth and one patch of ground where nothing would grow, until I dug up an old zinc carbon battery array, used to power a valved radio.

What is certainly true is that we have a larger population and more disposable income, plus a lot more time and ways to dispose of it. However, I am slightly cheered by the notion that we are “destroying the planet”. That is just one more sign of human arrogance. The planet will destroy us, when it has finally had enough.

I ventured in to the local Tesco and found that in addition to the collection point for used carrier bags there is now one for soft plastics:

How many will bring their used packaging to the store AND make sure that it is clean?

“Once collected by Tesco, the old soft plastic is sent for recycling where it is washed, sorted and as much of the material as possible is recycled into new products and packaging. Tesco directs the collected material between recyclers, packaging producers and suppliers, and says that it keeps the collected material out of landfill.

In a recent sample, Tesco claims that it was able to recover over 80% of the soft plastic returned by customers. It is now working with recyclers to explore what can be done with the remaining 20%, which is currently sent for energy recovery. ”

Packaging Europe – Soft plastic packaging recycling scheme announced by Tesco – 24 AUGUST 2021

I presume the remaining 20% is dog food and pizza toppings.

I share your reservations, Em. I don’t want to put anyone off doing their best to recycle but we are often told about contaminated waste going to landfill or incineration. At least Tesco have been honest about it.

I don’t understand why people don’t take bags to supermarkets either, Jane, but I have since before charging was introduced. It has not prevented me accumulating many thanks to ‘helpful’ checkout assistants. Using click & collect I have had many bags forced on me and Morrisons used to charge for this. I have two gardening bags full of unwanted bags supplied by supermarkets and other retailers and will take them to Tesco.

Even though I am very keen on reduction in use of plastic packaging and recycling, whether I will go as far as washing, drying and collecting plastic wrapping I do not know. If it was collected from home I would.

If Tesco can find a processor of soft plastics I don’t understand why local authorities cannot do so, either independently or acting in a consortium.

It is practically impossible to avoid buying products, not just food, without soft plastic packaging, the more so now that people are increasingly buying clothing on-line.

A council collection once a month would be a manageable way to organise it. It would not be too much trouble to store it over that sort of timescale because it does compress.

We don’t have a large Tesco store within sensible driving distance and our nearest supermarket [Sainsbury’s; ten minute walk] doesn’t have a recycling facility for soft plastic but I am hoping it will jump on the bandwagon in due course. Their delivery drivers used to take back any single-use carrier bags but since they no longer pack the groceries in carrier bags they won’t do that.

I feel strongly that standardising council collections must be the first priority, John. I would be happy to collect soft plastics for a monthly collection. This might be more difficult for those who live in small flats.

If supermarket collection of soft plastic has to be the way forward then Tesco, Sainsbury’s, etc. should be instructed to provide collection facilities rather than leaving the decision to individual companies.

In my view we need our government to issue instructions to councils and supermarkets, based on best practice.

Standardised collections are the answer. We have a Local Government Association that I presume looks after LA interests so why can it not get them to organise this? We should not have to expect central government to do everything.

One problem I foresee is the local recycling facilities and what they can deal with. We don’t want to be carrying waste long distances to better-equipped facilities. Investing in recycling centres that can handle all our domestic waste properly seems to me to be essential if we want consistency.

Perhaps Local Authorities should be prepared to be partial investors in such facilities; some managed to find the money to run ill-fated energy supply companies. This would be a much better cause. But where would the money come from? I would suggest from the waste creators – those who supply us with packaged products. A tax on their packaging would both help fund recycling and be an incentive to minimise the waste they create.

The forthcoming Plastic Packaging Tax will provide an incentive to manufacturers to stop using virgin plastic: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/introduction-of-plastic-packaging-tax/plastic-packaging-tax

Obviously more can be done, but taxation could prove a useful step in the right direction. We need to remember that packaging does reduce wasted food. I was impressed when Marks & Spencer stopped packaging clothing in plastic but I wonder if this resulted in soiled clothing that could not be sold, at least at normal price.

In-store clothing that people try on and handle is not normally packaged. On-line clothing that is returned soiled should not be refunded.

Taxation is persuasive but we need to use the proceeds to fund the proper recycling of the, hopefully, reduced materials. Our aims should surely be to minimise packaging and ensure what is left can be usefully recovered and reused. Plastic is limited in that respect and we don’t want it getting into the environment where it will damage life and persist for decades; so we should replace it. We can replace spoiled food or, better perhaps, adjust our shopping habits so we use food better. It is no excuse for perpetuating damaging packaging.

I suspect the problem with home collection of soft plastic for recycling is the difficulty of separating it from the other co-mingled waste.

The difference with the Tesco scheme is that the consumer does the separation. Still, there is no excuse for councils not to accept soft plastics at household recycling centres.

I do not think we should be arguing over what is the first priority in the reform of the council collection of recyclable material. The government needs to publish a standard that informs all waste disposal authorities [mainly the county councils, the metropolitan waste authorities and some unitary authorities] (a) what they should recycle, and (b) by when the entire package should be implemented [say, by 2024]. They will each be at a different stage so what they do next to achieve the target will vary around the country. The important thing is to get the whole country recycling the statutory list by the approved date. The waste disposal authorities are big enough to arrange for satisfactory comprehensive facilities to be introduced within their own territories in order to minimise excess transportation. Waterways and canals should be used as well as roads and railways. The combination of counties into consortia should only involve two or three authorities in each case at most.

The government also needs to mandate the waste collection authorities [the district councils, and the London borough and metropolitan councils] to collect all the items on the statutory list by the state date in whatever order of priority suits their present position and the availability of resources. More partnering with adjacent councils might be appropriate for this function, including in respect of particular waste streams.

A monthly collection of soft plastic will be incompatible with the fortnightly collection of other recyclables so co-mingling is not likely to be appropriate. Soft plastic is light and compresses easily so one large soft plastic bag in a distinctive colour [?pink] per household per month might suffice in most cases. This can be left kerbside, possibly for mechanical pick-up.

Over time, as suppliers reduce the amount of soft plastic packaging, the collection frequency could be extended.

Em is right in suggesting that the waste disposal authorities should accept soft plastics at household recycling centres, and this should start as soon as practically possible.

Whether the government should also dictate the colours of the bins and whether councils should collect weekly or fortnightly, whether or not there should be interruptions at bank holiday times, and whether the whole country starts with recyclable waste in Week 1 or Week 2 each year — all ripe for standardisation in some people’s minds — is secondary in my view.

John wrote: “If Tesco can find a processor of soft plastics I don’t understand why local authorities cannot do so, either independently or acting in a consortium.” Jane has mentioned pilot schemes by supermarkets and that seems a good way to judge whether it is worth rolling out these facilities throughout the UK. With luck the recycling centres will handle these plastics in future.

It would be interesting to know what happens to the soft plastics that are collected. Maybe Jane will know.

Among my collection of plastic bags are some once familiar names including BHS, Comet and Maplin. 🙁

Wavechange — Would you like a Woolworth and a Safeway bag for your collection? I could send them to you in a Freeman, Hardy & Willis shoe box. I could include some Shredded Wheat blotting paper and some Green Shield stamps. A Focus branded paintbrush turned up today while I was reviewing the contents of my trunk full of decorating materials.

Thanks for the offer, John, but I plan to deposit my plastic bags in the Tesco collection point. They are mainly smaller ones that have not found a use. Maybe your Shredded Wheat blotting paper could feature if we have a Conversation about everyday ephemera.

I bet Tesco welcomed you back with open arms after such a long absence Wavechange 🙂

Out shopping today I was surprised to see so few elderly people wearing masks, when there are still so many reported cases daily.

Recent research now believes the later you receive a flu vaccination the better, as it’s effect only lasts about 3 months. I am still waiting to be called for both flu and booster Covid vaccination.

I still use Tesco for click & collect, and a couple of other supermarkets. Whether they will welcome me when I fill turn up with hundreds of old bags remains to be seen.

Thank you, Jane.

We are nearly at the end of 2021, so 1 January 2026 would be acceptable for the start of the new consistent recycling collections regime. That will give councils four full years to organise and equip, let contracts for the new waste streams, inform householders, and get on with it.

I collected some stuff from the dry cleaners yesterday. Miles of polythene, cardboard, coat hangers and — entirely legal — no charge for the carrier bags.

I have been looking at the unwanted plastic bags that I have accumulated, over 20 years or more. Some of them (certainly the red bags) have been used for meat. It’s important to protect other foods from juices from raw meat – particularly chicken.

Jane has said that the use of soft plastics will continue and could increase. I’m all in favour of using less plastic and can understand why its use should continue in some cases. I believe that it’s the pointless use of plastic that we must tackle and Christmas will provide plenty of examples.

I buy most of my (modest consumption) of wine from The Wine Society, delivered. And I am very happy with their offerings and service. However, the wine arrives in substantial cardboard boxes with integral dividers so the empty boxes are no use for storage; more important they could be collected for re-use, particularly when they use their own vans, but they are not. So they go to waste.

I visited Tescos yesterday and saw 3 containers where you could leave plastic packaging. They were not very full but clearly some are using them. I’d still rather see this form of packaging avoided.

Another example of poor packaging, in my opinion, is the use of polystyrene foam for packaging larger items. Some companies have moved to use of cardboard, which can readily be recycled. Polystyrene can end up in rivers and on beaches and I wonder why it has not been phased out for most purposes.

Why do some supermarkets put bunches of bananas in polythene bags? Nature has provided bananas with a biodegradable wrapping that can be peeled away without touching the contents. The bags might be deposited at collection points in stores but most will find their way into the non-recyclable waste.

Jane wrote: “As more of us buy online (John Lewis have just reported that 70% of their sales are now online, hence the closure of a number of stores) we need to re-think delivery packaging to reduce the huge single use of cardboard. One solution is the shift to PE envelopes for certain articles needing less protection in transit. And that means we need easy recycling routes for those envelopes.”

I agree that the use of cardboard should be reduced and in other Conversations we have discussed over packaging. I presume that businesses use excessive packaging so that products are likely to survive rough handling by couriers who expect their employees to work to a very tight schedule. Nevertheless, cardboard is recyclable and cardboard that escapes into the environment is unlikely to do much harm, I presume. On the other hand, PE and other plastics are an environmental nightmare. I would like to see scientific evidence (independent of businesses) that your suggested approach is the best way forward.

One solution is the shift to PE envelopes”. Jane, when we want to drastically reduce the use of plastics, why is this a solution? Paper or card with perhaps shredded paper for protection would surely be more appropriate? We have plenty of paper products in waste that could be recycled as packaging?

Online purchasing does bring challenges, particularly if goods are delivered when the recipient is out and they have to be left outside. Best if the recipient leaves suitable protection than having to wrap them in plastic.

Business will want to minimise the costs of packaging. Unacceptable materials should therefore be avoided by regulation so businesses operates on a level playing field and find the most economic alternatives. Packaging specialists will no doubt provide solutions from their own expertise and research.

Why do some supermarkets put bunches of bananas in polythene bags? ”. According to what I read, it delays ripening by excluding/limiting oxygen.

I’m not sure about this explanation. Bananas (and some other fruit) produce ethene (ethylene) gas which also accelerates their ripening. It is used commercially to promote ripening of fruit.

There seems to be conflicting advice:
”Take out the bananas from the plastic bag as soon as you reach home. Bananas covered in bags (green bags, paper bags) would ripen faster. Bananas exposed to room temperature ripen slower and evenly. See to it that they are not exposed to direct heat or sunlight.

Option 1:

Keep your green bananas in a sealed plastic bag if you want to eat them in one week. Sealed plastic bags act as a barrier to keep out oxygen and delay ripening. Ripening fruit draws in oxygen and gives off ethylene, a gas produced by ripening that also serves to enhance the ripening process. Without the oxygen, the chemical process of ripening cannot occur. This is why bananas are usually kept in plastic bags at the grocery store.

Interested commenters could buy a buy a bunch of green bananas and leave one in the kitchen inwrapped, one in a paper bag, one in a polythene bag and one in the fridge. Report the order in which they ripen.

Yes, web searches provide plenty of conflicting information, not always based on science. Here our focus is on packaging and since supermarkets often sell loose bananas, why waste plastic for packaging others?

Well, because if they delay ripening that is a reason. Next time I shop I will get some green bananas and conduct a scientific experiment.

Cardboard is a product of recycling and generally gets recycled two or three times over. Amazon seems to use the poorest grade of cardboard for its packaging and it gets badly damaged in transit with torn sides, broken corners, and open ‘closures’; it is fit for nothing but I still put it in the recycling bin in the hope that, after washing and mashing, it can be used to form some other kind of material such as egg boxes, or shredded to be turned into protective packing.

The damage to contents is not so much caused by the delivery staff but by the mechanical handling processes at the various hubs and depots through which packages go in transit. I sometimes look at the tracking information and am surprised at the number of intermediate points at which a parcel is tracked, meaning that it has been unloaded from one vehicle, sent on a conveyor belt ride around a concentration hub, on the way being sent down chutes and tipped into cages, before being loaded onto another vehicle, and ultimately sent to the delivery depot where it will be manually loaded into a van for the final journey [possibly being re-sorted en route according to the delivery schedule].

The cardboard packaging industry was complaining earlier this year that, as a consequence of the lockdowns with shops and offices being closed and more goods being delivered to homes, used cardboard was not being returned to the carton manufacturers quickly and they were having to use a higher content of virgin material. Apparently, unlike shops which dispose of their waste quickly via the trade waste collections, householders tend to hang on to their boxes and use them for domestic storage or for other purposes — like playthings or pet’s places — which when finally discarded are in a worse condition.

Jacquelyne Hyde says:
21 October 2021

Nice one, John; especially the bit about local authorities as a consortium.
It’s interesting that Tesco seems to find it impossible to sell veg unless it’s plastic bagged; their entire line is thus treated. I bought some carrots recently, ripping them from the bag before taking them and the bag to the checkout and the soft-bag collection point. I said to the operator, “That’s one pound fifty-seven pence.”
“Would you like me to weigh them?”, he offered, obviously testing my honesty.
“Can if you like.”
“One thirty-three,” he informed me.
“Bargain!” said I, noting that Tesco’d charged me twenty-four pence for the doubtful privilege of having my carrots plastic-wrapped!

According to an item on the BBC News website today, “each UK council collects its plastic recycling differently. A BBC analysis in 2018 showed there were 39 different sets of rules for what can be put in plastic recycling collections.” See — https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-59039155

On 12 October 2021, Wavechange reported the government’s proposals for the Plastic Packaging Tax coming into force in April 2022: See comment ref — https://conversation.which.co.uk/sustainability/oprl-recycle-labelling-packaging-jane-bevis/#comment-1638257.

An update was issued on July 2021 and can be found here —

I’d prefer to see packaging generally minimised, including so called recyclable plastic, and where it is necessary, use non-plastic materials or, preferably, our own containers.

Thanks John. It would be helpful if government documents provided links to newer ones.

The question was asked earlier why retailers put bananas in plastic bags when they have perfectly good skins which protect the fruit.

The reason is to stop interference by shoppers. People seem to have a particular predilection for pulling individual bananas out of a bunch either because they don’t look nice or because they have chosen what they think is the best bunch but want fewer bananas. Another possible explanation is to identify and keep together those that are a premium grade or from a ‘fair trade’ or an organic source.

Although M&S sell bananas in plastic bags, by price per bag rather than per kilo, they also sell them loose by weight and they don’t seem to mind if shoppers pick and choose by separating the bunches and leaving some behind on the shelf [we often make our selection from these left overs]. They also provide fully recyclable paper bags with a transparent starch panel. We keep them and re-use them to store other fruits and veg in the fridge.

When I complained about Morrisons putting bananas in plastic bags I was told that others had said the same. Maybe the message that the world has a serious problem with plastic waste has yet to register.

Hi Jane – I have delivered a great deal of plastic packaging to the local Tesco store for recycling, and have found more that has been accumulated over the past 20 years while I have waited for a solution to appear.

I would be interested in your view about what I regard as unnecessary products, the most obvious being bottled water. In the UK and most developed countries we have access to safe tap water. Many water bottles are not recycled and are part of the plastic menace we face. Recycling of PET and other plastics produces an inferior product, requiring addition of virgin material to maintain acceptable standards. I would be very impressed if OPRL would join in the fight against pointless use of plastics.

A great deal more needs to be done to help consumers minimise their impact on the planet and I fully accept your arguments (e.g. glass vs plastic) that issues can be more complex than they appear, but who is going to apply pressure on manufacturers to behave more responsibly?

manufacturers to behave more responsibly?“. Just as Jane does not want materials demonised, nor should we demonise manufacturers. They operate within the existing framework; that is what needs to be changed.

Because of the persistence of plastics in the environment, with the consequent irretrievable damage they cause, I would like to see them replaced in packaging as far as possible. When we move to a fossil-fuel-free future with ample renewable energy there will be less concern about moving goods.

However, I agree with wavechange about transporting bottles of water around the country; I also believe we should we should rake the same view with fizzy drinks – a waste of bottles and transport when syrups could be sold for carbonating at home using tap water. I’m also unconvinced that we should move bottles of beer long distances, if we really are concerned about the effects of transport.

Cardboard can be moulded – egg boxes are one example but there are many more – so it need not take up excessive space. But it often seems to be used unnecessarily. Why do cereals, for example, need a bag and a box? The point about outer boxes for transport is well made – Amazon boxes stuffed with paper or plastic to take up a lot of unused space. Maybe someone should provide a machine to large users like Amazon that produces cartons of appropriate sizes on demand.

I am not demonising manufacturers, Malcolm, but they can make an impact on minimising waste and environmental damage, just as consumers can.

I am far from convinced about the strategy of taking soft plastics to the supermarket but in the absence of home collection I’m now doing my bit.

Fizzy drink makers and concentrates have been available for many years. I agree about not transporting beer large distances. Glass bottles are heavy. I’m keen on some of the local beers and CAMRA (which I’m not a member of) promotes supporting local breweries.

Here is a news article, where Boris Johnson says that recycling of plastic does not work: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-59039155 That’s debatable but I am in no doubt that excessive plastic packaging is still being used by some companies.

Yes we need proper labelling to help consumers recycle effectively but we really have to standardise how our waste is recycled: “Each UK council collects its plastic recycling differently. A BBC analysis in 2018 showed there were 39 different sets of rules for what can be put in plastic recycling collections.” I hope that having made this statement, Boris and his government will take action to standardise waste handling across the UK and not just for plastic.

Edit: I have just noticed that John has provided the same link.

We need to focus on minimising plastic packaging. Standardise recycling and only permit essential plastic packaging.

Hopefully the PM’s statement will be followed by action. The need to standardise recycling has been recognised for as long as we have had recycling bins, boxes and bags. I’m not aware of much progress though it is encouraging that more materials can be recycled.

Deciding what plastic packaging is essential and introducing legislation will obviously take time and that could have been started years ago.

I interpreted the PM’s view as we should reduce the use of plastics, followed by proper recycling of what is left. I agree with those priorities, but with no real distance between them.

Unless we stop the root cause of the problem will will make insufficient progress.

I am on holiday at the moment and our party of 9 ordered sandwiches and chips from the bar. Each came in a lidded expanded plastic container that was tbrown away afterwards.

If a bar has not got the common sense to stop using such containers then “evolution” is not working and regulations need to be produced. Simply saying they should be recycled is avoiding the real issue.

I didn’t think you would be impressed, Jane.

It’s disappointing that standard collection of waste by councils has had to wait for legislation. Thank goodness we have had more progress with dealing with coronavirus. We relied on experts advising government which to a large extent took the advice on board.

Like Malcolm, I don’t believe that the industry is doing nearly enough to reduce the use of plastics. The way that different companies choose to package the same products is very obvious. I gave the example of eggs packaged in traditional boxes, foam plastic or transparent plastic. What. is wrong with choosing the best option and telling companies to use it?

All sorts of things could have been started years ago 🙂 including mitigating climate change. And training more HGV drivers. If only……. 🙁

Plastic pollution: New meat tray ‘could save tonnes of plastic waste’

I just noticed this at — https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-59331845

It seems that meat juices are retained in wells in the meat tray be capillary action to reduce or prevent the risk of leakage. The downside is that the user will be left with a tray that will be extremely difficult to rinse, hence the recycling bin will start stinking and attract flies. I cannot imagine how the trays would be cleaned prior to recycling the plastic.

At least the padding currently used to absorb meat juices can usually be removed easily, making it easy to put a clean tray in the recycling bin.

I may have missed something.

I’d prefer to see meat packaged in aluminium trays that are easily recycled. I would also like to see disposable nappies deprecated and do back to the Terry Towel nappies of earlier days with absorbs t liners. More trouble to sanitise and wash, admittedly, but saving the planet will require effort.

In theory aluminium can be recycled but there are problems, particularly if the container is put in the oven. From one packaging website:

“While aluminum is recyclable, it is often difficult to do so with used aluminum foil pans due to grease, food bits, and other leftover food items that are often hard to remove from the inside of the container. Scrubbing does not always result in a clean container, even with much effort. Because of this, aluminum foil pans often end up in landfills.”

On the other hand, aluminium cans are fine for drinks etc.

There is a movement for using reusable nappies and Which? has looked into them.

I must admit that the thought of meat juices being trapped in the waste packaging is a concern, given that dealing with recyclable waste is not generally a time-critical operation. With bin emptying taking place in most areas at fortnightly intervals, and sometimes further extended due to holidays, this should be examined further before we get too excited about it

I had assumed that the heat required to reprocess aluminium trays would destroy any slight food residues. Parts of the recycling industry seem to be continuously complaining about the purity of the contents of our recycling bin. I would hope that most households would be conscientious in cleaning, so far as they are able to, the stuff they dispose of in this way but there is a limit to how far this can go in the domestic context without being wasteful in a different direction.

When I was a child meat from the local butcher came wrapped up in a sheet of paper which would be put in the kitchen stove or range after use. We have come along way since then but some of the solutions have given rise to other problems.

Although heat will destroy food residues when recycling aluminium I understand that ash contamination can cause problems that affect quality, for example leaving pinholes in foil. The lower recycling rate than for cans means more new material and making new aluminium uses a great deal of energy. Sadly there are no ideal solutions.

Where plastic trays are used, for protecting raw meat but not for cooking, simply substituting aluminium would not cause that problem.

Very often, supermarkets have fresh meat counters where you can choose your joint, chops or sausages from loose products on display. They do not then package those in plastic trays when your selection is given to you.

We will have to wait and see what happens. My view is that the manufacturers should be directed to use appropriate packaging for particular applications by experts who understand recycling and environmental issues, but at present the tail is wagging the dog.

Thank you for your update, Jane.

In regard to lightly metallised polypropylene wraps and bags, we — and millions of other households now — have our food and provisions delivered so we don’t have any waste carrier bags or go to a supermarket. However, we do seem to accumulate a lot of this sort of packaging waste and have been frustrated at having to dispose of it as general refuse. It would be very useful if there were a take-back system alongside grocery deliveries. Would that be a possibility worth developing within the trade, do you think?

I think the approach suggested (unless I have misunderstood) ” Packaging is primarily about protecting and containing the product, so that’s what drives materials and format choices. Inevitably other sustainability issues, including recyclability, are secondary decisions.” is wrong and, as Wavechange put it for another comment, “the tail wagging the dog”.

We have a plastics crisis created by the huge demands on its disposal, its longevity in the environment and the damage it causes to life. Sustainability should come first, by a long way, and the packaging industry should be required to work to that principle.

We should look at products to decide whether packaging protection is essential, to encourage customers to use their own storage containers where possible and manufacturers to supply loose products, to minimise any packaging, to use materials that are usefully recyclable, and minimise the use of plastics.

We should also establish a national standard for recycling that ensures all waste collection can be treated properly and uniformly, wherever in the country you are. But minimising packaging would reduce the extent of such facilities.

I understand the need to balance, in the case of food, longevity of the product with its protection. However, since we, apparently, throw away one third of food produced and purchased (according to a news report yesterday) I am not sure that argument is all there is to it, and that it holds too much water. We need to change our food purchasing and food use habits first, perhaps. Maybe price will, regrettably, force us to be more prudent.

I think it is not just about carbon footprint. The problem with plastic waste is its durability in the environment and the irretrievable damage that will cause to life for centuries to come. That is why I want to see short-lived (as in function, not durability) plastic products, packaging or otherwise, either removed or substituted by materials that do not cause such damage.

If we play our cards right and build adequate renewable electricity generation for all our future needs, we will have sufficient electricity to produce and reuse planet-friendly materials. I believe that should be our priority.

Jane wrote: “…I see awful packaging choices nearly every day.”

How do we deal with this long standing problem? I have given the example of eggs, where different companies use traditional egg boxes, foam plastic or transparent plastic. It seems obvious that the traditional boxes are satisfactory and avoid plastic. Maybe I have missed something. In other cases there might be two or more good alternatives.

Likewise with retailers, we could instruct retailers to use paper bags for bananas and not plastic if they must use packaging.

Would you support manufacturers being instructed to use particular types of packaging and avoid using more environmentally damaging options, Jane?

This seems to suggest the Waitrose trial on selling loose goods went really well. https://hallandpartners.com/thinking/sustain/what-happened-when-waitrose-trialled-a-packaging-free-store/

It is disappointing to hear from Jane that ”supermarkets trialling packaging-free fresh produce options have found their wastage rates increase.”. It would be useful to have a link to the source of this to see in what products that happened and the extent of the additional waste.

I have just bought some Activia yogurts in a 4 pack. The pots are PET so no problem recycling with what appears to be a bonded paper outer layer.
The pack is cardboard
But the pot lids are a plastic film with no labelling.
The cardboard outer says that I can recycle the film by putting it in the pot.

I think this is very unlikely in most council areas as films and bags clog up the sorting mechanisms, so it is probably greenwashing.

“New Environment Act brings recycling labels one step closer”

Read more: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2021/11/new-environment-act-brings-recycling-labels-one-step-closer/ – Which?

One step closer but I wonder how long it will take to adopt best practice.

I’m now confused that we now have labels indicating what can and cannot be recycled in our home bins yet it seems that we can deposit any soft plastics at recycling points in supermarkets.

Lessismore says:
24 December 2021

As a long-time avid recycler I now find the whole business completely exasperating and am left wondering cynically if it isn’t to some extent designed to be that to suit manufacturers not interested in making any packaging changes.

I’m now much more selective in what I buy. When I can I will buy without packaging. Every so often I will complain about excessive packaging or unrecyclable packaging and will return it to manufacturers asking them to think again.

Labelling is confusing in that I understood that the Green Dot doesn’t apply in the UK but that is never explained on packaging. The Mobius Loop still seems to be used to mean either recyclable somewhere or made out of a percentage of recyclable material. Holland & Barrett print the mobius loop so small on some of their packaging that the wording underneath can hardly be read with a magnifying glass and the plastic packaging isn’t stretchy either.

I have become used to only putting stretchy plastic bags eg bread bags and supermarket vegetable bags and magazine wrappers in with the torn carrier bags at the supermarkets OPRL marked ‘Recyclable at Larger Supermarkets (not Kerbside)’ and not crinkly cellophane or film or pouches or crisp packets.

Waitrose also has a mixed soft plastics bin (read the info on it). Finding they have at least four different plastic bags for bananas though – although one is very obviously compostable and another marked so – the other two are marked not to be recyclable. What is going on?

I suspect that some Councils include Energy from Waste in their definition of Recycling but I have never done so. It’s end of life and should be last resort. We are supposed to be heading for a Circular Economy and I would like the number of types of plastic to be limited and those truly Recyclable and those not clearly marked. Having said that the OPRL labelling is great but exasperating when it comes to Check Local Recycling and Not Recyclable Yet. Yes – we all need to check our Council first for Kerbside Recycling but nowadays Councils are not necessarily very knowledgeable/accessible themselves and manufacturers may be very tardy in updating their packaging labelling.

Unless there is conformity in labelling more people will probably just give up. When Councils complain about their recycling rates not going up you just have to wonder where they have been all these years as we stick to the Waste Hierarchy’s initial basic Reduce Reuse & Recycle! (Someone sent me a much longer one that starts with Refuse (ie saying ‘no thank you’ – as we did turning down the offer of all those carrier bags advertising the shop – which needs greater adoption!)

Lessismore says:
31 December 2021

I see others have also struggled with those plastic bags that bananas are now sold in. I too would like to know more about why this is done. Not having the choice to not buy in plastic which is first choice and then because we currently only buy once a week so often choose one bag of just ripe and one bag of green. I’ve tried not taking them out of the bag as well as taking them out of the bag but the findings were inconclusive. Also since we make so little waste to put out in a food waste bin for anaerobic digestion we don’t need so many compostable bags. Now I have to put compostable bags in the unrecyclable waste. I’d be interested to know who nowadays has waste that goes to landfill? Waitrose are now taking other particular plastics in their plastic bin such as pouches and crisp packets. Is this really recyclable? Or is it just experimental to satisfy the most outspoken of their customers? We desperately need conformity between the supermarkets – which there isn’t.

I use some unrecyclable plastic bags as bin liners in a much much narrower bin so that all the unrecyclable film can be squashed in and stays squashed rather than expanding and escaping. I also use the odd old plastic carrier bags that haven’t disintegrated to bag old shoes for the shoe recycling bank (very necessary) and clothes bank.

I see that France is banning the use of plastic packaging on most fruit and vegetables with effect from today. “Cucumbers, lemons and oranges are among the 30 varieties banned from being wrapped in plastic. Larger packs as well as chopped or processed fruit will be exempt”. See –

I can understand the ban on plastic packaging on oranges, lemons and other fruits like bananas which have adequate natural protective skins, but I am surprised at the ban on the plastic wrapping of cucumbers. I was under the impression that the plastic sleeve was effective in extending the storage life of cucumbers and thus saving waste. Without it they deteriorate quickly.

Lessismore says:
3 January 2022

In plastic I think cucumbers deteriorate faster. There’s nothing worse than trying to remove that plastic bag of green liquid gunge from the fridge! We could buy them naked at one time from Morrison’s. There was an explanation that I don’t remember. I’ve one in plastic now sitting on the worktop. It encourage me to add it to salad and sandwiches.
Perhaps it is the combination of refrigeration in plastic? Tomatoes are wrecked by being refrigerated and by being in plastic.

During this pandemic everyone has wanted to get in and out of the supermarkets as fast as possible. I wish they would point out which fruits and vegetables were in season and had travelled the shortest journeys. Of course if you use a farm delivery service you find out by what you get what’s in season. It’s good they give away so many recipes for their produce.

Thanks, Lessismore.

I believe I read somewhere that the plastic around a cucumber extends its storage life but I might be mistaken. Or perhaps that is true until it goes into the salad drawer in the fridge. We used to take the plastic off and put the remaining part of the cucumber in aluminium foil [which can at least be recycled].

UK-grown cucumbers are naturally in season in July and August but the season can be extended by modern production methods. Growers and retailers seem to favour length over circumference nowadays unfortunately.

I always start using cucumbers at the stem end as it would have been handled and slightly bruised during picking so will go yucky before the other nicer looking end.

We received strawberries in a carboard punnet a few weeks ago.

We have discussed fairly comprehensively the downstream end of ‘post consumer waste’, i.e. the stuff we end up with at home, but what about the plastic waste that is created upstream at the retailers?

A lot of products are supplied by manufacturers, wholesalers and cash-&-carry outlets to traders in soft plastic wrapping, usually tightly fitted by a vacuum, spinning or other process. This covers [literally] everything from sugar bags to bleach bottles, and bean cans to boot polish. I think we can be reasonably confident that the major supermarkets, department stores and major chain stores [e.g. W H Smith, Wilko, Savers] will do their best to recycle this waste, but I am doubtful that all the convenience stores, independent shops, and ‘symbol’ stores [usually franchises] are as diligent. I suspect a lot of it is put out each night for the trade waste collection and that a fair chunk is just landfilled or incinerated because it is mixed up with other rubbish and commercial discards.

I expect — and fervently hope — the new Plastic Packaging Tax might have some bearing on the over-use of plastic for packing and wrapping at the industrial level, but some firms are quite content to meet such dues and carry on regardless, passing a price hike down the supply chain.

I should be interested to know whether Jane and OPRL have any views on this aspect of the problem. I appreciate it is not a labelling issue for consumer attention, but it is so inextricably bound up with the discussion here and unlikely to feature in any other Conversation.

I very much support what you have said, John. Much is said about what consumers should be doing but we deserve to know what is happening with commercial waste.