/ 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!

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.