Not so super market – Around half of food packaging not widely recyclable

Almost half of packaging used by major UK supermarket chains cannot be easily recycled, a Which? investigation has found.

The consumer champion analysed the packaging of a typical household shop of 46 of the most popular items from Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Iceland, Lidl, M&S, Morrisons, Ocado, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose.

Researchers broke down each item’s packaging into its component parts and assessed whether each piece could be easily recycled.

The average percentage of packaging – including cardboard, glass and plastics – that could be easily put in household recycling bins was just 52 per cent.

Equally concerning was that 42 per cent of the total supermarket packaging was labelled either incorrectly or not at all, making it difficult for well-intentioned consumers to dispose of correctly and increasing the chances of it ending up in landfill.

Which? is calling on the government to make recycling labelling simple, clear and mandatory and ensure the necessary infrastructure is in place to make it easy for everyone to recycle, regardless of where they live.

Morrisons was the worst offender for the amount of packaging that could not easily be put in household recycling. Many of its items came with non-recyclable plastic film, which is generally designed to prevent food from going off and can reduce food waste.

But this meant that 61 per cent of the Morrisons packaging Which? looked at was not easily recyclable.

Over half (58%) of the packaging materials used by Co-op were also not widely recyclable. Examples included an orange juice carton which was made of a combination of materials, whereas seven out of the 11 supermarkets used clear plastic bottles, which are easier to recycle.

Around half (48% on average) of the packaging in most supermarkets including Asda (50%), Lidl (50%), Ocado (49%), Iceland (48%), Aldi (47%), Sainsbury’s (45%) and M&S (47%) was not recyclable.

The best supermarkets for recyclable packaging were Tesco and Waitrose – only 40% of their packaging could not be easily recycled.

In fact, the Tesco delivery Which? ordered came with the potatoes and bananas completely loose.

As supermarkets often point out, they face a delicate balancing act. Organic waste, including leftover food, has a bigger carbon footprint than plastic and, according to food retailers, plastic plays an important role in preventing food waste.

But Which?’s investigators were surprised at how little consistency there was across the sector in terms of the materials used in packaging, with some products included in the study packaged very differently depending on which supermarket they had been purchased from.

For example, M&S British Wiltshire Unsmoked Back Bacon rashers used two pieces of packaging including a tray and plastic film and correctly labelled that only the tray was recyclable. Lidl unsmoked back bacon was almost identical and was also labelled but used non-recyclable plastic.

There were also big differences in the quality of recycling labelling. The worst offender for poor labelling was Iceland, which only had two in five (38%) pieces of packaging correctly labelled. In the research, Which? found evidence of this with Iceland’s easy peeler oranges, which were not labelled at all. These used a type of plastic netting that cannot be recycled.

Of the other supermarkets, M&S (43%), Ocado (44%), Waitrose (47%) all had less than half of their products correctly labelled.

The supermarkets that performed better when it came to labelling were Tesco (57%), Morrisons (60%), Lidl (64%), Co-op (67%), Aldi (69%), and Sainsbury’s (71%).

Asda led the way, demonstrating that recycling labelling can be done well, with eight in 10 (78%) items of packaging that Which? experts looked at correctly labelled.

Which? believes all supermarkets should commit to ensuring a much greater proportion of their packaging is recyclable, rather than continuing to use environmentally unfriendly single-use, throwaway materials. It is also imperative that items are labelled with the correct information so that the materials can be disposed of correctly at home.

Natalie Hitchins, Which? Head of Home Products and Services, said:

“Our research shows there is a lot more supermarkets and manufacturers can do to banish single-use plastics and make sure any packaging they do use is minimal, recyclable and correctly labelled, so that shoppers know exactly how they can recycle it.

“To reduce the waste that goes to landfill, the government must make labelling mandatory, simple and clear as well as invest in better infrastructure to ensure that recycling is easy for everyone, regardless of where they live.”


Notes to editors:


  • Which? bought up to 46 of the most popular own-brand items from 11 major UK supermarkets in April 2019, from their online shops. All shops were online deliveries with the exceptions of M&S, Aldi, Lidl and Co-op, which were carried out in store.
  • The items were chosen from each supermarket’s own-brand range, specified by weight and/or size.
  • Where it wasn’t possible to select an exact weight or size match, the closest weight available was chosen to the one specified.
  • If an item wasn’t available in the standard range, it was substituted with the equivalent item in the premium range.
  • If an equivalent item wasn’t available in one supermarket, it was not removed but did not count towards the supermarket’s overall percentage.
  • The packaging was taken apart and separated into easily recyclable and difficult or non-recyclable.

Full ratio of non-recyclable packaging (same as table)

Morrisons had 45 out of 75 of the items of difficult to recycle packaging, Co-op had 39 out of 67, Asda had 47 of 95 items, Lidl 45 of 91 items, Ocado had 48 out of 99 items of packaging, Iceland had 30 out of 63 items, Aldi had 46 out of 98 items, Sainsbury’s had 41 out of 91 items, M&S had 48 out of 102 items of packaging and Tesco and Waitrose both had 41 out of 102 items

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