Product packaging less recyclable in the UK than other countries, Which? reveals

The packaging of popular branded products is less recyclable in the UK compared with other countries, Which? has found, as research from international consumer groups reveals consumers around the world face barriers to recycling.

Which?, along with eight international consumer groups representing 1.8 billion people, analysed the packaging of 11 global household products, such as Coca-Cola, Nutella hazelnut spread and Whiskas cat food, to reveal if the packaging was recyclable in practice – which means there is an existing collection, sorting and recycling system to allow consumers to actually recycle the packaging. The consumer groups also examined the quality of labelling information on packaging.

The snapshot investigation revealed across all nine countries, which also included Australia, Brazil France and Hong Kong, consumers were unable to recycle all the product packaging in practice. On average, a third (35%) of the packaging weight across all countries could not be recycled easily.

The recyclability of the 11 products analysed varied across all nine countries, with the UK finishing fifth in rankings.

On average, a third (32%) of the packaging weight Which? analysed could not be easily recycled in practice. Five out of 11 products analysed could not be fully recycled in practice, including Heinz Tomato Ketchup, Kit Kat, Peanut M&Ms, Pringles and Whiskas cat food.

The UK lagged behind Hong Kong (7%) and Portugal (10%), which were the best countries for recycling. Australia (14%) and India (23%) also did better than the UK as they had a lower proportion of product packaging weight that could not be recycled.

Different recycling infrastructure and product manufacturing would have a significant impact on the recyclability of product packaging in each country – however more can be done to improve the recyclability of grocery packaging in the UK.

The worst countries for recycling in the snapshot investigation were Brazil, where an average of 92 per cent of the packaging weight could not be easily recycled in practice, and New Zealand, where the figure was 57 per cent.

The investigation also found no product had clear recycling labelling across all nine countries, and in some cases, it was misleading, unclear and confusing.

While most of the products Which? analysed were clearly labelled with recycling information, a third (four) did not have any recycling information on the packaging.

The least recyclable products across all nine countries were Pringles (84%), M&M’s peanut chocolate (67%) and Kit Kat (64%), which had the highest average percentage of packaging weight that could not be recycled.

The most recyclable products were Coca-Cola’s can pack (2%), Nescafé Original Jar (12%) and Nutella Hazelnut Spread with Cocoa (16%), which had the lowest average percentage of packaging weight that could not be easily recycled.

Michael Briggs, Head of Sustainability at Which?, said:

“We know UK consumers want packaging that is easy to recycle, and while many types of packaging can be recycled in household collections, the UK is lagging behind some other countries when it comes to packaging recyclability.

“Manufacturers must do more to ensure their packaging can be easily recycled, but as a first step the government should make recycling labels on grocery packaging mandatory, simple and clear – enabling shoppers to know exactly how to dispose of packaging on the products they use.”


Notes to editor

Which?, along with eight international consumer groups analysed the plastic packaging of 11 popular households products between February and March 2021. They analysed the recyclability of packaging in practice and the effectiveness of labelling for 11 branded products, widely available in all nine countries. ‘In practice’ can be defined as an existing collection, sorting and recycling system in place that actually recycles the packaging i.e. it is not just a theoretical possibility.

Nine Consumers International members took part in the investigation including CHOICE (Australia) Consumer NZ (New Zealand) Hong Kong Consumer Council (Hong Kong), Which? (UK), DECO PROTESTE (Portugal), Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group (India), Union Fédérale des Consommateurs, (France), Federation of Malaysian Consumers Association (Malaysia), PROTESTE (Brazil).

Please see a link to the full report below:

Please see the full table proportion of product easily recyclable in each country:

Please see below a table of the products analysed:

A Coca-Cola spokesperson said: “We are focused primarily on consumer packaging… but we are also in the process of extending this work to our secondary packaging, such as plastic packaging that accompanies aluminum can multipacks that you identify in your letter… These innovations support our efforts towards replacing difficult to recycle packaging with easier to recycle options. We intend to continue our work to reach our goal of making sure all of our primary consumer packaging is recyclable by 2025. We will look over your findings as we continue this important work.”

A spokesperson from the Ferraro Group (Nutella) said: “The total volumes of the Nutella jar, either glass or PET, show an average 97% global recyclability as both are valuable materials, with consolidated collection and recycling schemes in our core countries.

“Due to the limited availability of space on packaging for communication in Portugal and the UK, we have not been able to include recycling information on our packaging. However, we have included a link from the packaging to our website, which features information on packaging materials to help consumers to recycle and the amount of recycled content.”

A Kraft Heinz spokesperson commented on the results for Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia and New Zealand. (See here) However, Kraft Heinz is a signatory of the Canada Plastics Pact and the UK Plastic Pact, which are both members of Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Global Plastics Pact network. They have made similar commitments to make 100% of their packaging globally recyclable, reusable, or compostable by 2025.

A Kellogg’s spokesperson said: “As part of our commitment, we are redesigning our Pringles can in Europe and have tested both a steel and a paper can there. The Pringles paper can trial in 2020 was well received by consumers. We are also working to increase the recyclability of our current can until a new can is launched.”

A Mars spokesperson said: “In 2020, we launched a range of new packaging innovations, including: enrolling in reuse programs with Loop and Perfect Fit®; switching to a mono-material M&M®s pouch in France; piloting our Colorworks® bulk dispensing of M&M’s® in several EU markets; redesigning display cases for WHISKAS® cat treats pots in two markets; increasing recycled content in our Petfood pouches; and reducing the size of our confectionary pouches in the U.K. We plan for this momentum to continue into 2021.”

A Mondelez International spokesperson said: “[We are] On track to achieve 2025 goal for 100% of all packaging designed to be recycled; ~94% of all packaging is already designed to be recycled.”

A Nestle spokesperson said: “In the journey towards environmentally sustainable packaging materials, there is no one size fits all solution. Our vision is none of our packaging end up in landfills or as litter, and in 2020 88% of our packaging globally was recyclable or reusable.”

A Unilever spokesperson said: “When it comes to labelling around recyclability, we ensure that all instructions around recycling are made clear for people, and we are doing more in the space to help educate and inform people on packaging and recycling options.”

About Which?

Which? is the UK’s consumer champion, here to make life simpler, fairer and safer for everyone. Our research gets to the heart of consumer issues, our advice is impartial, and our rigorous product tests lead to expert recommendations. We’re the independent consumer voice that influences politicians and lawmakers, investigates, holds businesses to account and makes change happen. As an organisation we’re not for profit and all for making consumers more powerful.

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