/ 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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Comments

Thanks for your Conversation, Jane.

I absolutely agree on the need for uniform labels across the UK, rather than leaving it to manufacturers producing their own label, which would be likely to continue the present confusion.

My priority would be for standardisation of what can be recycled, which varies according to where you live. When staying with friends I have to find out what goes in the relevant bins and boxes. Where my family lives, glass bottles and jars are not even collected and must be taken to bottle banks.

Thanks Jane. I did not appreciate that much progress had being make apart from phasing out of black plastic trays that are difficult for automatic equipment to identify.

One problem I am aware of is the increased use compostable wrapping – for example the potato starch wrapping used for Which? magazines. These could go in with green waste for industrial composting but our council does not allow them and there is a possibility of the the batch being treated as contaminated waste and ending in landfill.

It’s a fascinating subject, Jane. We have to exclude compostable magazine wrappings from green waste in case non-degradable plastics are accidentally added, yet many councils including mine provide compostable bags for food waste and we are instructed to put these in the bin with green waste! The fact that the food bags are green helps confirm that they are not contaminating waste and perhaps all genuinely compostable wrappers etc. should be green too, to help us avoid making mistakes. That’s not too different to the advantages of clear labelling.

I receive some magazines in paper envelopes and that helps them survive the postal system. All the local free magazines that are hand-delivered are ‘naked’ and that works well too.

Thanks for the link about the Green Claims Code.

I agree with all this and think consistency in labelling is essential. Hopefully, in the absence of mandatory symbols and legends, manufacturers and retailers will use common sense and adopt more or less uniform designs for recycling information on the same or similar products.

In an ideal world all the small waste consumer products that come out of the house should be recyclable unless marked otherwise and should all go in one bin. The council should sort it and make the decision on what they can reprocess and what they can’t. Those that can’t should take it to one that can. I don’t accept that we have to put up with crisp packets and other metallised plastic packaging being unrecyclable. Do crisp packets really have to be hermetically sealed for a two year life? Do we need crisps even?

Councils should also replace the 120 litre general refuse bins with much smaller receptacles to discourage thoughtless disposal.

I try to follow all the recycling tips in the linked guidance document but admit to not crushing our plastic bottles. I regard that as the function of the refuse vehicle which is fitted with a powerful compactor. I would add two more tips: (a) keep all clean aluminium foil, including lids, caps and tops, until collection time and roll it into a ball so that it can be recognised by the sorting machinery; loose small elements clog up or miss the mechanism, and — for the same reason — (b) save beer bottle caps until there are enough to make a bundle before disposing of them [it would be easier if the breweries magnetised them].

Thanks Jane

I never screw the bottle caps back on tight so the compactor on the refuse vehicle can easily crush them.

I doubt if many refuse trucks have to go back to the MRF before the end of their round. Dubious arguments like that and the exaggerated claims of cross contamination from a bit of marmalade on the newspaper are what really irk me about the attitude of local authorities. Too much “can’t do” and not enough “can do”. I would have thought ‘contaminated’ recyclable waste could be dealt with manually rather than just be consigned by the bin load to landfill or incineration. [There are many people who are ideally suited to such work but are left unemployed by the over-complication of many basic operations.]

Metal bottle caps and small elements are easily separated magnetically. I don’t see why creams, ointments and toothpaste have to be in plastic tubes rather than metal as they used to be. They would be easier to use anyway as you can roll them up to get the last drop out.

I wonder just how many people remember what even standardised symbols mean – I doubt many would recognise all 10 symbols in the example in the intro. We should, I believe, look at banning as far as possible anything that is not recyclable, ensuring all packaging is as plastic free as possible, and work towards automatic recognition ( printed coding for example)of material types so the onus is taken off the unreliable consumer.

I suggest that where possible, symbols are accompanied by explanatory text.

For years we have had resin codes for plastics, with a number inside a triangle of arrows. Few remember what these numbers mean and it is easier to relate to PP, PET, HDPE etc. It is also helpful if the symbols are large and conspicuous.

How many know what these mean? Many people just chuck “plastic” in the bin. I suggest we need technology by the recycling industry to identify and segregate materials.

Perhaps councils could provide stickers to attach to the bin (under the lid for example) showing which materials can be put in that bin.

Would we expect most people to take any notice? Would they bother to check each item?

Malcolm – We can but try. If plastic waste is ‘contaminated’ by including the wrong type of plastic, this will result in poor quality recycled plastics or plastic waste ending up in landfill. I see it as a matter of personal responsibility to keep aware of advice.

Changing advice can cause confusion. I learned to remove caps from milk bottles and then the advice changed to replacing them (they are now made of the same plastic) after crushing the bottle. Like John I have not been crushing my bottles but as a result of this discussion I will do so in future – for the reason given by Jane.

Thanks Jane, ”…….the most up-to-date MRFs can tell not only the type of plastic, …… ”. That seems to me like the appropriate solution that needs to become universal.

It’s odd that the government are not in favour of a standard labelling scheme.

People who fly tip and discard litter are fined heavily for doing so. In the same way, it should be an offence to place any item in a recycling bin that does not carry an approved label. Simples!

I used to receive a magazine published by the Environment Agency and each issue gave details of recent fines for fly tipping. At the time, most of the fines were paltry. I hope this has changed.

As far as labelling goes, I would like to see a standard system that all businesses are required to comply with. What is really needed is international standards to cope with international trade.

As with energy labelling a standard, at least throughout Europe, would be sensible. But with technology I would have thought automatic recognition by the recycler would be an option for the future worth examining.

MRFs do use automatic recognition, but there is a limit to what you can do based on the physical properties of materials. It gets particularly complicated with some hybrid packaging (combinations of metal / glass / paper / plastics).

They are also designed (quite reasonably) with the expectation that the raw feed will only contain materials that are recyclable. Unfortunately, some obstinate people who think they know better, will risk sabotaging the machinery to “force” councils into recycling materials they currently cannot accept.

Hence, in my view, the need for clear accredited labelling and fines for non-compliance.

Where possible, standardised labels could be scanned by the MRF to determine the triage and treatment of the material(s) present.

On Sunday 17 May 2020 this camera filmed the driver of a grey Vauxhall Vectra dumping wooden draw(er)s and television in a lay-by.

The vehicle was traced to a ####. When interviewed at #### police station by ### Council investigators, Mr#### made full admissions to the officers of an offence of illegal dumping. Mr ### admitted depositing wooden draw(er)s and television – both of which could have been disposed free of charge at a household recycling centre.

Because Mr ### had no previous offences, #### Council officers took the option of issuing him with a Fixed Penalty Notice (FPN) instead of prosecution. It was explained to Mr ##### that should the FPN be paid within the first 14 days, a reduced fine of £300 would be available to him. Failing that, if paid within 28 days, he would still be afforded the opportunity to pay a £400 fine. Critically for the defendant, payment of the FPN would have avoided court proceedings and a criminal record.

Mr #### did not pay the fine. Consequently, ####Council had no alternative but to prosecute, and look to accrue additional costs reflecting the FPN process as well as the investigation and clearance of the actual illegal dumping.

The Magistrates fined ####£523, and ordered him to pay clean-up and prosecution costs of £1,201. A victim surcharge of £52 was also levied – making a total to pay of £1,776.

Em – Yes, and it’s not difficult to find examples of these problems. John has already given us the example of crisp packets which are usually composite materials and are not currently recyclable. There is no doubt that technology can help but for the foreseeable future we need to do our bit too.

It’s not uncommon for the recycling information for plastic trays to be on a film wrapping, so the tray itself needs to be labelled.

I share Beryl’s response [below].

It appals me that the media scandalise the authorities and tag them ‘jobsworths’ rather than lay into the really offensive offenders.

I inadvertently posted ‘Thought for today’ here instead of The Lobby which seemed inappropriate to the topic. I couldn’t delete it so decided to edit it out. Hope that explains 🙂

Edited out

Bruce McCartney says:
24 September 2021

Our council asks for plastic packaging to the cleaned and dry. Also tins to be rinsed.

Does the use of household hot or cold water – both requiring resources – equate to the saving by recycling, say a dirty bean can, needing washing?

And do paper labels on plastic and cans need to be removed?

Rinsing cans etc. helps reduce the smell and health risks to staff who have to deal with our waste. Not much water is needed if they are rinsed immediately.

With mixed recycling wet plastic etc. would make paper damp and promote growth of bacteria and moulds, making the paper less valuable for recycling.

I do not know about the labels. I wonder about the plastic sleeve labels on plastic milk bottles.

I suspect the way most people would rinse empty containers would waste quite a lot of water. More environmentally economical to put them through the dishwasher.However, the waste treatment facility will no doubt have far more efficient processes for treating soiled waste.

I put empty glass jars and lids in the dishwasher if there is space and keep some of them for reuse. It’s unbelievable that some people buy jars to make jam and chutney. 🙁

I have an aerator fitted on the kitchen tap with a dual action which cleans cans fast and efficiently, using a minimum amount of water. Its acts as a pressure washer for cans. It can be switched to spray mode for washing vegetables and rotates 360 degrees. All my cans are cleaned this way before put into the recycle bin.

That is the obvious solution if you have a dishwasher Jane. I don’t feel the need for a dishwasher now as the family have all long flown the nest. My few dishes are all soaked in the sink in hot water and washing up liquid for a couple of hours before washing and then rinsed separately to remove any remaining residue, along with pots and pans that dishwashers could never tackle when I used to own one.

Yoghurt pots are much easier to clean than milk or cream pots Jane. A tip I learned from the surgeon who removed my tonsils was to eat yogurt products and steer clear of milk. The acid in the yoghurt cleansed my throat and speeded up the healing process avoiding secondary infection.

A Styles says:
24 September 2021

Why can’t manufacturers put the type of plastic on the recycle logo on the outer packaging. It is often difficult to tell the type of plastic from the imprint on the plastic itself. Council then can say which types of plastic they recycle. i.e. plastic types 1, 2 and 4 recycled. Sticker on bins would help.

Some products are now sold in Terracycle packaging. The manufacturers use this as a selling point. The packaging must be recycled separately but the nearest point to me is an hour’s drive and is in a school. The scheme is closed to new members. This means the heavy duty packaging has to go in the bin. Supermarkets can recycle plastics so they should have a Terracycle point too.

Perhaps we should require all packaging to be recyclable with current facilities. And maybe we should avoid wasteful packaging that simply adds to our stockpile of waste; coffee pods spring to mind.

You can set up a Terracycle free recycling point in your local community if your nearest point is more than 5 miles away. Do it!

https://www.terracycle.com/en-GB/about-terracycle/free_recycling_programs

A large number of consumers, including me, never go near a supermarket these days so we need comprehensive arrangements at home to recycle the packaging of all food and household goods and, if necessary, unrecyclable packaging must be replaced with alternative material. I have previously mentioned crisp packets toothpaste tubes. “Pringles” canisters seem to be the worst offenders because they are made of several different materials all joined together [metal base, foil-lined cardboard tube, metallised plastic top, plastic lid] all for a pointless product at an inflated price. Our dishwasher pouches come in a tough foil packet that can only be recycled by sending it off to Terracycle; I must admit I can’t be bothered but should like to know why recyclable packaging is not suitable.

I was never quite sure why paper bags were discontinued in favour of plastic (e.g. for wrapping loose vegetables). Was it on account of the production costs? As a child in the 60’s I was fascinated by the way the greengrocer would hold the bag on both sides and twirl it round and round to “close” it.

I think it’s because plastic bags are rain proof. And I too was a kid in the 60’s and I remember shop keepers and market traders twisting the bags closed, usually big brown paper ones, and I used to blow them up and pop them afterwards when they were finished with. But why not just keep a big long lasting rain proof shopping bag and carry the paper bags in that, and then recycle the paper bags afterwards?

And, if I remember rightly, meat and fish was wrapped in a “greaseproof” paper and put in a paper bag. Shopping in real butchers and markets may well find paper bags in use.

I suspect as our shopping habits have changed to weekly, whereas my Mum used to visit the shops every two or three days and we had no fridge. Now we need perishable food to last longer in storage so non-porous packing often with a protective atmosphere or evacuated.

Maybe we should change our habits? Shops would need to be careful with their stocking to ensure they do not waste too much and we would need to be prepared to find perishables have sold out if we shop too late.

Paper bags can be made rain proof to some extent using a wax coating but waxes degrade very slowly. Plain paper bags are ideal if they can be kept dry and some supermarkets provide them for customers to use for loose goods.

We have a shop where you can fill your own containers with a wide variety of dry goods or use a paper bag, and they never use plastics.

I don’t fully understand the factors that make “the environmental impact of making a paper bag much greater than a thin plastic bag”, but at least the raw material of a paper bag is renewable and paper bags can be quite durable with many further uses in them. Most are made from material that would otherwise be completely wasted. Perhaps it is the manufacturing process for paper bags that is more energy intensive and their weight and bulk is greater thus reducing transport efficiency and increasing emissions.

Plastic bags can also be recycled to make more plastic bags but when they do get disposed of they do not all decompose, and even if they do they can leave microparticles as a contaminant if they go to landfill or can pollute the atmosphere if incinerated.

Sainsbury’s used to offer large strong paper carrier bags at the checkout. I still have some that were well-used and are now over fifty years old; I use them occasionally for demonstration purposes!

I am somewhat sceptical about the water footprint with paper bag manufacture. Are we over-processing them to make them look nice? Is the water used actually wasted, and, if so, does it need to be? Could pumping energy be reduced by making paper on suitable topography where gravity-fed water is available? Many paper mills seem to be sited next to estuaries; could this not be associated with a tidal power source?

One of the problems of paper manufacture is eutrophication (pollution of water with materials that cause growth of bacteria, fungi, algae, etc. Eutrophication is very damaging to our inland waterways – everything from drainage ditches to rivers, causing loss of biodiversity. A great deal has been done by the Environment Agency and others to improve the quality of our rivers.

In the same way that plastic deteriorates when recycled, so does paper. In this case the fibres become shorter and this reduces the strength compared with paper made from new materials.

Is it too much to ask everyone to take their own shopping bags to supermarkets? Reduce and reuse take priority over recycling for good reasons.

It looks like Waitrose are asking already:

“OUR 10p PLASTIC BAGS ARE GOING. We are phasing these out from 27 September [yesterday] to reduce plastic – so please bring your own.”

It seems the only option for those that forget will be to buy a reusable bag.

It’s not difficult to get into the habit of taking your own bags to the supermarket. I started doing this in the 1980s. There are always some bags in the car and I have neatly folded ‘bags for life’ in coat pockets.

It seems that Morrisons will be selling reusable paper bags: https://www.morrisons-corporate.com/media-centre/corporate-news/morrisons-to-introduce-paper-carrier-bags-in-all-stores/

Morrisons have said that they will not be packaging bananas in plastic bags. I am fairly sure that they have said this before.

”One of the problems of paper manufacture …….
We have to think beyond the present situation and, if something is worth pursuing such as replacing plastic, look at how to mitigate any harmful side effects. For example:
https://www.ripublication.com/ijlr19/ijlrv12n1_01.pdf

Many industries began with unrestrained pollution; that has changed.

I keep reusable bags in the car partly to avoid the continual collection of new ones, partly to save money (I’m from Yorkshire) and partly to cut down on plastic use.

I took my broken and torn Waitrose “Bag for Life” stash back on Tuesday. The store assistant was happy to exchange my well-used hoard for some new bags they had left in stock. She explained that the 10p bags are being discontinued, because many people still treat them as disposable, single use bags and they are never seen again.

The cheapest alternative will be a 50p recycled plastic bag that looks more durable.

Bags for Life have deteriorated thanks to use of recycled plastic and, in some cases, use of thinner plastic. I had one that split after a single use. Perhaps they have had their day. I’ve still got plenty from when Tesco used them for their click & collect service. They can be folded and kept in a coat pocket.

You are right about people using them as disposable bags, Em.

Thank you, Jane.

When Sainsbury’s offered large paper carrier bags [in the 1970’s] I was able to reuse them multiple times for shopping – including ten tins of cat food plus other heavy foodstuffs like sugar and butter. Before I had a car and a family, two bags would carry a weekly shop. The only occasional problem was if it was raining and I needed to stand the bags down while waiting for the bus home, but I also had a couple of bin liners with me into which I could place the paper carrier bags.

While accepting the Life Cycle Analysis results you have referenced, I still feel that we need to move away as far as possible from everyday use of plastic and stop trying to make exceptions on narrow grounds for certain articles. I feel that the world will be a better place without plastic carrier bags whatever the scientists say. The climate change impact is not the only or primary consideration in this case but nature conservation and environmental contamination.

…. and dog poo bags… Wrapping paper comes ….. wrapped in a plastic sleeve, as do greeting cards. Why? Biscuits packed in a plastic tray, just as were yesterdays fishcakes for lunch. Until we get a mindset that this is stupid we will get nowhere. Recycling is not the major issue; minimising use is.

Yes, labelling is important but surely the long term solution has to be Government legislation requiring packaging et al to be fully recyclable. The issue needs to be dealt with at source rather than placing the burden on consumers to work out what can and cannot be recycled.

@Jane Bevis – Thank you for the follow up responses to comments posted here.

It is really annoying and unprofessional when there is no further input from the OP (original poster), having solicited comments, so good job.

I endorse Em’s comment. I was thinking along similar lines and agree how refreshing it is to have some follow through. Apart from anything else we learn more this way so it gives extra value.

Getting swift and informed responses to comments and questions is not only very welcome but very informative to the Convo. Good stuff, Jane.

I hope the principle will be observed in future.

Like wavechange, I wonder about the plastic sleeves on milk bottles. I remove the sleeve and dispose of it separately in general waste. Also the cellophane-type covering of Lucozade bottles. The label recycling status can vary (even for different brands of beer, for example). I peel part of the label away to see if it can be torn – if so I leave it on the bottle. If the label can’t be torn, this will mean it’s of a non-recyclable type of plastic (I think!?) and so I finish peeling the label for disposal in general waste.

Unless you know that plastics are recyclable and these plastics are on the list accepted by your council, your approach of putting them in the general waste bin is the best solution.

As said in the introduction we need consistent mandatory labelling on packaging. It’s frustration to want to do your best and not having everything properly labelled.

I had assumed that milk bottle sleeves are now recyclable because there is no information to the contrary. At least there is usually a label to say that the seal is not recyclable.

I can’t help think that the answer to recycling plastics is to mix all themoplastics – those that melt, and add ground up thermosetting plastics – those that won’t melt. Use this mixture with a little added tar and stone chips to make plastic road surfaces. According to the Scottish firm, MacRebur, such road surfaces are longer lasting and save a significant amount of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.

That’s interesting and I had not heard of this. It appears that MacRebur are using low grade plastics waste that cannot usefully be recycled and would otherwise be destined for landfill or incineration. Clean thermoplastics such as bottles can usually be recycled although it is usually necessary to blend the recycled plastic with virgin material to achieve the required properties.

My concern about plastic road surfaces is production of plastic microparticles through wear and particularly when roads are planed prior to resurfacing. Plastic microparticles were widely used (e.g. in cosmetics) but because they were getting into the oceans and then into food they have been banned. I hope I’m wrong.

I’m familiar with board and planks made for recycled plastic, which is very durable. Over ten years ago I used some to replace outdoor ply that had deteriorated. The recycled plastic board is as good as new and I plan to buy some more.

As well as contamination reducing the quality of plastics, reprocessing shortens the very long polymer chains that give plastics their useful properties. That means that it is necessary to include a proportion of virgin plastic during the manufacture of new bottles, etc.

I visited the local farm shop today and noticed they had done away with all plastic bags in favour of brown paper bags only. On checking out I enquired if they still welcomed cash, although I paid with a card, and was quite pleased when they said they did.

This is a really useful article @jbevis. I’ve just done an internal awareness campaign for colleagues around recycling labels. Much of the feedback was around having too many labels and not understanding them.

I think it would be really useful if the OPRL provided the information which materials (resins) their labels “widely recycled” and “check locally” actually refer to. My council says they accept plastic bits with resin codes 1, 2 and 5 (PET, HDPE and PP). How can I “check locally” if the container itself has no resin markings, as is so often the case?
I’ve tried really hard to find the info if PET, HDPE and PP, respectively, fall into the category “widely recycled” or “check locally”, but no luck. I’d be grateful if you could provide the answer here and also in a way that makes it easy to find on the OPRL and/or WRAP web sites.
My second point is about the petition. Having read the text on change.org several times, I’m still at a loss to understand what exactly you are petitioning for. There are many arguments but, as far as I can see, no precise demand.

Oops, I should have asked differently.
If a piece of plastic carries the label “widely recycled”, can I safely assume it’s PET, HDPE or PP? Or might it be made from a different resin?
And if a piece of plastic carries the label “check locally”, can I safely assume it’s PET, HDPE or PP? Or might it be made from a different resin?
Thanks.

I can only agree that for most people the binary choice is appropriate; many just cannot be bothered to do more than make that simple decision, I suspect.

However, we need to look hard at the “cannot be recycled” stuff and consider banning it from use and finding substitutes, rather than dumping or burning it. Waste (plant) food is a shame but can be recycled to feed the land; natural economic forces will encourage the producers and retailers to find better solutions.

Jane wrote: “So they will say they only want plastic bottles (PET and PP) and not pots, tubs and trays as they get fined on their contract if they send ‘non-target material’ to the sorting plant.”

When recycling bins first arrived I assumed that it was OK to put in plastic soup containers because other items made of the same plastic were allowed by the council. One of the people on the bin round explained that I should not do this, so I paid attention to the list issued by the council, which is sent to householders annually. Do what it says rather than using your initiative. 🙂

I wonder how many people read, and remember, this “list”. I think we need to work towards a uniform UK policy, equal practices at all recyclers, and let them do the proper sorting.

I would still like to see a bigger effort made to avoid the need for so much waste by examining packaging needs and materials with the objectives of minimising packaging and, where it is of course essential, only using recyclable materials.

Until this happens I hope that more people will check the list published by their council. It’s not that difficult to follow the advice and I keep the council leaflet pinned to a noticeboard in the kitchen. The time when I am caught out is when I am staying with friends and their council has different rules from our local council, so I usually let my hosts sort out the waste.

Plastic packaging can perform a valuable role in helping food stay fresh for longer as mentioned in the recent news about the shortage of carbon dioxide. I think it would help if companies were given one or more alternatives for packaging, designed to minimise waste, and these could be subject to periodic review.

Be good if people did that, wavechange, but I think many take no notice of the details. As I said earlier there is a trade off between packaging and product life that we could rebalance by buying perishables more than once a week, for example. Our habits and the need to change them are a factor in many problems we need to solve if we are to have a more sustainable and less damaging future.

At the start of the pandemic, many of us were unwilling to go into shops and slots for deliveries and click & collect were in short supply. What I did was to arrange a click & collect slot every ten days and a friend did the same, so we both had fresh produce every five days. The arrangement has continued and since both of us would have to drive to visit a supermarket the arrangement saves driving and time.

I don’t see a significant problem with single use light-weight plastic packaging film, provided it is disposed of correctly. The trade off is between burning more fossil fuel to transport heavier packaging materials and burning (in commerial incinerators – hopefully with heat recovery) the lighter weight plastics, also made from fossil fuels. The real problem is the use of fossil fuels for energy or virgin plastic manufacture, where the pollution from either of these sources is released into the environment.

Ideally, we would ship everything in bulk and take our re-usable bags and containers to the shops, but that is not feasible for easily-damaged fruits and some vegetables.

What I do find objectionable is the notion of a single-use food container made from “recyclable” materials, where the recyclate is not 100% used in the re-manufacture of more containers.

If lucky, a PET bottle will end up as a cheap polyester shirt, which will shed microplastics into the environment through wear and washing for the rest of its life, until it eventually ends up in land fill in some third-world country. In which case, better to have burnt it at the outset of its (non) sustainable journey.

To stop this rapid leakage of recyclable materials, we need a compulsory deposit scheme to encourage purchasers to return their containers from whence they came.

I’m completely in favour of clear labelling and do appreciate the role of packaging in prevention of food waste and damage to other goods.

Like gk who started this thread, I have had difficulty in finding information about what can and cannot be recycled, and ‘widely recycled’ can be of little help. That means that that recyclable materials are binned with non-recyclable materials and that non-recyclable materials contaminate recyclable waste, reducing the quality of what is recovered or resulting in it not being recycled.

Jane – Please can you give us an insight into which packaging materials fall into the ‘Check locally’ category? It would be interesting to know whether progress is being made to upgrade recycling facilities so that these materials can be recycled.

Thanks Jane. There is a lot to think about there and it’s really encouraging that progress is being made, not just with labelling. It has been encouraging that black plastic trays – presumably the ones containing carbon black – have been removed from food packaging without this taking decades.

I’m not very convinced about manufacturers’ claims about the costs of redesigning packaging because this is done so often to change pack sizes and refresh packaging to promote sales.

Perhaps consumers can help by avoiding products with ‘Don’t recycle’ packaging. On the other hand, although bottled water bottles can be recycled they are perhaps the most unnecessary product imaginable, at least in countries where tap water is safe to drink.

Isn’t the responsibility for that best placed with the manufacturer/distributor/retailer (assuming the latter is a large organisation) so they meet regulatory requirements? Governments job is to construct these.

Jane — Were you talking about 15,000 own-label lines for which the supermarkets are responsible for composing the content and designing the packaging? The major supermarkets generally carry 30,000-40,000 lines [including the various alternative formats of the same product]. What always amazes me is how many different toothpastes there are across half a dozen manufacturers plus the own-label varieties.

It is almost impossible for the householder to keep track of everything that can and cannot be recycled by the local authority. What do we do about things that can’t be labelled?

For instance, I was correctly informed not to put shredded into the domestic recycling bin. When I took a bag of shredded paper to the Recycling Centre, I was (again correctly) told to put it in the paper and card container, not the general household waste as I would at home.

The difference? The domestic recycling bin is used for commingled or single-stream recycling. The MRF sorting facilities cannot handle shreaded paper. At the Recycling Centre, the waste streams are pre-sorted, so it is OK to add shreaded paper. So I now take all my shreadings to the Recycling Centre – good to know.

I’m not sure how anyone could label paper, shredded or otherwise. What’s the solution?

Our council allows us to put shredded paper in the recycling bin as long as it is wrapped in newspaper, presumably to prevent spillage creating a mess. As you say shredding reduces the fibre length and hence the value for recycling. An alternative is to home compost shredded paper.

There are so many grades of paper product required that I feel shredded paper should still be useable. Some fruit is packaged using polystyrene foam, and polystyrene pellets are used for protecting the contents of parcels in transit. Surely low-grade paper could substitute for such uses and there are probably many more applications. We need to assume that plastic is no longer available and find practical alternatives for every situation where it is currently used.

I notice that Amazon now uses crumpled coarse brown paper — presumably recycled — for packing purposes instead of bubble wrap. A bookseller I use uses recycled compostable bubble wrap [in a nice green shade] and all recycled materials for its packaging, so things are gradually changing for the better.

One of the difficulties in considering the reuse of materials is the possibility that the reprocessing might be almost as environmentally harmful, or prohibitively expensive, as using the ‘normal’ product. I think more research needs to be done on how to resolve these difficulties in the least damaging way for ecology in the first instance and other environmental factors in order of priority; financial cost should not be the primary consideration in my view.

I doubt that the relatively small amount of shredded paper that the average householder is likely to put in the recycling bin is likely to be a problem, otherwise all councils would tell to put it in with non-recyclable materials or compost it if possible.

Do we need ‘perfectly ripe’ fruit that is so readily damaged that it has to be cocooned in two types of plastic? I will continue to buy fruit and ripen it at home.

I very much agree about the need to focus more on environmental considerations, and that is a topic that deserves plenty of discussion.

John is quite right to reiterate what some have said earlier, that cost should not be a determining factor. We should think about the future cost of not taking a course of action. Apart from reducing packaging we should concentrate on the credentials of the packaging used – will it reuse otherwise waste materials, are the materials not going to damage the environment if disposed of, can we recycle the materials – aluminium and glass are good examples. Can we work on developing substitute materials for clear plastic film?

Recycling aluminium and glass uses energy, as does transporting heavier packaging. We are, however, in the UK, capable of providing the extra energy from renewable resources, including a huge amount from tidal movement. Cost is used as a negativity but, again, the cost of not doing it will be far greater. Environmental changes? Nature will adapt, as it does to other major coastal works.

We need to think more freely about remedies.

Cellophane is a transparent film that is made from inexpensive natural cellulose but manufacture requires carbon disulphide, which is a nasty chemical. Although biodegradable, cellophane should not be put in bins for green waste. One of the reasons why the use of cellophane decreased was that it tears more readily than the transparent films usually used for packaging.

Although plastic containers and trays can be labelled to indicate whether they are recyclable or not, a stick-on label is needed to label a film.

Carbon disulphide is used in the related viscose industry and Japan, for example, has improved the process to mitigate the negative effects. The point is that if we are to protect the future we need to think more broadly and not just look at what happens now; current promising materials and processes may have downsides, so they need researching to see if those disbenefits can be removed.

We also need to think about why we actually need so much, in this example, transparent film. Many greeting cards come thus protected, but many do not. Why is it necessary? Why are ready meals in plastic containers with a film covering? Use aluminium and a paper covering – I don’t really need to see the contents, nor do I need an additional box or sleeve.

We need to question and rethink what we currently take for granted.

A ready meal in a film-covered tray is likely to have a ‘modified atmosphere’ to help extend the safe life of the food and in some cases its appearance. As mentioned above, packaging can greatly reduce food waste.

Aluminium foil glued to a food container is used as an alternative to transparent film – for example a pot of yoghurt. Paper is not moisture proof.

Making your own meals produces less waste than ready meals and if you freeze the surplus you have a ready meal without packaging waste.

I believe that manufacturers should be given one or more alternatives for packaging different types of products, offering the best current compromises between producing non-recyclable waste and reducing food waste.

A great deal of research is being carried out. Innovation can be good but on the other hand it can produce undesirable products such as the notorious Pringles crisp containers. (I have not seen the new ones.)

I don’t see novel containers as necessarily “innovative”. Potato crisps used to be packed in paper bags – with salt in a twist of blue paper – and did the job but did not have the shelf life of “modern” packaging. But they seemed to last long enough. Paper can be treated to perform a variety of jobs.

Whether or not it is better to make your own ready meals is not relevant; people buy them for a variety of reasons, just as they buy cakes, bread, biscuits, pies….. that they could make at home. We simply need to face reality but adapt methods to deal with it in a more sustainable way. as I said, look not at the present but put effort into the future, or we will not progress.

Manufacturers (of all things) need to be encouraged to use the best form of environmentally appropriate packaging because it may cost a little extra, and as competitive pricing is important the playing field need to be level.

We can encourage companies to use materials that are less environmentally damaging and I very much hope that we can also encourage consumers to learn about the problems and buy wisely. As discussed elsewhere, it is important that we learn to protect ourselves against scams and perhaps it is equally important that we learn about how our lifestyle can affect our impact on the environment.

I wonder if clear labelling of packaging as ‘Don’t recycle’ could have educational value and we might learn to avoid these products and choose ones with recyclable packaging instead.

Innovation has achieved a system for recycling the plastic/aluminium composite packaging used in crisp bags but I suspect the number of bags recycled is small because they are not permitted in household recycling at present.

Soft fruit that at present is packaged in a polystyrene foam tray with a clear polythene wrap could just as effectively be presented in an egg box-type tray with a net covering. For hermetic sealing during transit a quantity of trays could be packed in a reusable outer. Some fruits obviously do not need airtight sealing because the plastic containers have ventilation holes in them. Perhaps the extensive research that is taking place might need to be re-focussed in a new direction away from suppliers’ or retailers’ convenience and better to reflect consumers’ and the environment’s concerns.

I noticed that on a net of four large oranges from Sainsbury’s there is a ‘luggage label’ giving the product information, but instead of being made of card this label is a form of plastic. Wouldn’t cardboard do the job just as satisfactorily?

John – As you say, not all products need to be sealed and most of us will open bags of carrots etc. before storing them in the fridge.

One approach is to look at what packaging is currently used and choosing the best alternatives. For example, traditional cardboard egg boxes are probably better than foam cartons and transparent plastic cartons. Assuming that this is the case, perhaps producers could be instructed to use traditional egg boxes.

Why not take a reusable egg box and buy from a tray? Why do we have to throw away any egg box every time we buy eggs, irrespective of the material? This is a major area to tackle – unnecessary packaging if we could use our own permanent storage containers.

I usually do this, Malcolm. A couple of local farms sell eggs. The green plastic egg box dates from the 1950s. It belonged to my parents and I have continued to use it.

I believe the eggs shown came from a supermarket because the farm eggs are not always available.

I fully support that approach, Malcolm but we need to recognise that a high proportion of consumers are no longer shopping in store and and are having their food and household products delivered instead.

We would be quite happy to use returnable containers if Sainsbury’s offered that service and we would then order loose fruit and vegetables more than at present. Because of the way the shopping comes in large containers packed with a low regard for product protection that is a step too far at the moment.

The supermarkets send some drinks in a compartmented cardboard carton in return for a minimum order; they could do the same for other foodstuffs.

Visiting Lanhydrock in Cornwall (an NT property), I was most taken with the kitchen display of wooden mahogany egg cases, lined with individual felt pockets. These weren’t for egg storage from the estate farm, but to send daily supplies of fresh eggs to the town house when the owners were staying in London. Transport was by railway goods carriage in those days.

Maybe designers of today’s large fashion handbags could include internal food storage compartments to show off the purchaser’s green credentials?

Railways are no longer the “common carrier” that once was their contractual duty, so they can refuse to carry your eggs.

Let’s hope the “influencers” and designer gurus don’t get in on this act otherwise we’ll see a plethora of Faberge egg boxes and mahogany potato carriers. Maybe better to keep chickens and grow spuds inhe town house garden?

John’s point about the need for packaging created by online purchasing, whether from Sainsbury’s or Amazon, is well made. Goods need decent protection to get them to us unscathed, more than if we collect ourselves, and almost impossible to return. So perhaps we need to wean ourselves off such purchasing for items that we could pick up locally ourselves. Do we need to encourage more local shops to distribute the goods we always used to go down the road for? Perhaps the return and recovery of all packaging should be the responsibility of the seller? A bit like Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment – WEEE?

When I was growing up and living in London my relatives in Norfolk use to send us eggs from the farm once a week. They came by Royal Mail in a stout cardboard box with pockets lined with tubes made from rolled corrugated cardboard. There were no breakages so far as I recall.

We also used to receive the weekly local newspaper paper through the post in a brown paper sleeve and a brace of pheasants tied at the neck sent up on the train for collection at the station goods office. Wedges of Christmas cake were also exchanged in cardboard boxes lined with greaseproof paper and tissue.

”Packaging has an important function in that, particularly if it is being brought in from abroad.
I consider we should think hard about what foodstuff we need to bring from abroad in future. I’d like to see us weaned off the luxury of all-year supplies of fresh food transported by air from all over the globe.

In olden days my Mum used to shop at the greengrocers twice a week for fresh fruit and veg, most of it UK produced. We had pretty good supply-chains even then with the railways getting goods swiftly to markets – there were broccoli trains from Cornwall on strict schedules.

When we head to a crisis, if excess damaging packaging is such, then we have to look at a more radical change of lifestyle for the longer term, not a short term sticking plaster.

For example, assuming we get enough renewable energy to fuel our homes and transport (and we must, or we are in real trouble) then moving heavier glass rather than plastic containers is no longer a problem. What might be a remaining problem is their contents – why, for example, transport large quantities of bottled water and fizzy drinks when the first can come out of your tap and the second could be made in the home? Why transport beer over huge distances when we can have local breweries? Why move bread from central bakeries rather than using a local one? And, of course, grow more of our own food and decide to consume what is in season.

Costs will rise but saving the environment and the planet will not come without sacrifice.

Malcolm mentions moving bread from central bakeries. I suspect the most eco-friendly method is to bake it at home, as long as the heat from the oven or breadmaker isn’t wasted.

40% by weight of bread is water,
No plastic packaging required,
Less wastage, bake only what you can use before it goes stale or mouldy.

A lot of the hybrid packaging that now needs recycling is from ready meals.

Thanks for keeping the responses going to comments; a model for what Convos out to do – providing information.

You forgot parsnips, swedes, potatoes, sprouts, leeks, among your winter delicacies and, more importantly perhaps, cans and frozen produce.

Yes, treats are good, aren’t they. But when we fly in flowers and vegetables from Africa, the Middle East and South America, it is worth asking whether they are essential given the environmental consequences.

Homemade bread lacks the mould inhibitors used in most commercial bread but can be stored frozen for a week or more, so providing you have space in the freezer you can have bread without heading to the shops.

A bread-maker allow you to make a loaf on demand. No need to store in the freezer.

As a single person I could not eat a loaf before it went stale or mouldy. Freezing works well for me.

Just make a small loaf. It should not deteriorate before you have eaten it. Lasts a bit longer if stored in the fridge.

Ditto Wavechange, fresh bread straight from the freezer is to be recommended. I believe the sale of bread makers increased during the first lockdown.