Crisps, chocolate and cheese are among the worst foods for packaging recyclability, with brands including Pringles, Cadbury and Babybel failing to do their bit for the environment, a new Which? investigation has revealed.
The consumer champion analysed 89 of the UK’s best-selling branded groceries and found only a third (34%) had packaging that was fully recyclable in household collections. To make matters worse, around four in 10 (41%) items had no labelling to show if they could be recycled, leaving consumers none the wiser about how to dispose of them.
Which? looked at 10 different categories of items including popular brands of chocolate, fizzy drinks, crisps, yoghurts, drinks, cheese, bread loaves and cereals. Which? experts broke down each item’s packaging into its component parts, weighed them and assessed whether each piece could be easily recycled.
The recyclability of different types of groceries varied hugely. The worst category by some distance was crisps, with only three per cent of packaging recyclable in household collections. This included Pringles and their notoriously hard to recycle combined material tube.
The tube’s plastic lid made it the only product in the category to have at least one component that was recyclable in household recycling. However it wasn’t labelled to say so and the tube design is far heavier than any other packaging in this category – so it would take more energy to transport.
The best of a bad lot in this category was a Quavers multipack. None of the individual packets of crisps were easily recyclable, but the outer bag, at least, was recyclable at supermarket collection points. However it wasn’t labelled to say so, meaning consumers could mistakenly throw it out with everyday rubbish.
While significantly better than bagged snacks, when Which? took apart and analysed cheese packaging it found that a third (34%) was not easily recyclable. Snack packs of Cathedral City and Babybel were packaged in plastic net bags, which are not only difficult to recycle but can also cause problems if they get caught up in the recycling machines accidentally.
Cheestrings were also found to be problematic, with packaging that was not recyclable in household collections.
At the other end of the spectrum, packaging for Dairylea Cheese Triangles, Seriously Spreadable Cheese and Laughing Cow triangles was all recyclable – but all had this important information missing from their labels at the time of testing. Philadelphia Soft White Cheese’s packaging is recyclable and was correctly labelled.
Among the chocolate snacks Which? looked at, almost a third of packaging was not recyclable. Favourites like four finger KitKats, Cadbury Bitsa Wispa, M&Ms, Cadbury Dairy Milk bars and Cadbury Twirl Bites were all found to not be recyclable in household recycling at all.
The Galaxy Smooth bar had 100 per cent recyclable packaging, but due to a lack of labelling risked being thrown out in the same way as its less eco-friendly counterparts.
None of the bread packaging Which? looked at was recyclable in household collections. But it was recyclable if taken to supermarket collection points alongside plastic bags. All of it was labelled.
The most recyclable category was fizzy drinks, which were found to be 100 per cent recyclable. All 10 items Which? looked at in this category were correctly labelled.
Juice drinks were mainly recyclable in household collections, with the exception of Ocean Spray and Capri-Sun. Ocean Spray cartons are like Pringles tubes in that they are made of mixed materials that make them difficult to recycle in household collections, while Capri-Sun’s foil pouches are not recyclable.
In a separate survey, Which? found that the recyclability of grocery packaging is important to eight in 10 respondents (79%), and two thirds (67%) often or always look for recycling info on grocery packaging before deciding how to dispose of it.
Some brands are trialling more environmentally sound options. Pringles is testing a new recycled paper tube at several UK Tesco stores, which if successful could be pushed out more widely.
In response to Which?’s findings, some manufacturers said that food waste had a larger carbon footprint than plastic waste and claimed that moving away from traditional packaging to recyclable alternatives could lead to compromised, stale or damaged food. Some also said that their packaging was recyclable at TerraCycle collection points.
But Which? believes that a lack of consistency and hugely varied approaches to grocery packaging shows that some manufacturers could be doing a lot more to ensure the materials used to package their products do not end up in landfill.
The responsible use of the right materials to package food is just one part of the problem. In order to tackle unnecessary waste, products also need to be correctly labelled with clear instructions of how packaging should be disposed of.
The recurring inconsistencies Which? has found on the way groceries are labelled when it comes to recyclability shows how confusing it is to navigate for even for the most environmentally conscious consumers.
Which? is calling on the government to make recycling labelling simple, clear and mandatory, so that all consumers are able to make informed decisions when buying groceries.
Natalie Hitchins, Which? Head of Home Products and Services, said:
“Consumers are crying out for brands that take sustainability seriously and products that are easy to recycle, but for any real difference to be made to the environment, manufacturers need to maximise their use of recyclable and recycled materials and ensure products are correctly labelled.
“To reduce the waste that goes to landfill, the government must make labelling mandatory, simple and clear, enabling shoppers to know exactly how to dispose of the packaging on the products they consume.”
Notes to editors:
- Which? looked at 89 popular branded groceries across 10 top-selling categories of food and drink examining and weighing the packaging to assess its recyclability and labelling. It was also helped by experts from Wrap, the Recycling Association and the On Pack Recycling Label scheme (OPRL)
- The investigation found that only 30 of the 89 groceries had fully recyclable packaging (34%)
- By weight, 88% of it was widely recyclable at kerbside BUT by the number of pieces, only 53% was recyclable at kerbside
- 41% didn’t have any form of recycling labelling and just three out of 89 groceries had info about the recycled content in its packaging
- The categories are the most popular categories for branded items by sales according to industry data. Which? then looked at the most popular brands in those categories
- Particular products and sizes from those brands were widely available across the main supermarkets
- Which? also surveyed 1,369 members in July asking how important it was that groceries were correctly labelled.
- Video here: https://youtu.be/xtrW-bysqWQ
|Recyclable weight %||Recyclable weight at bring banks %||Not recyclable weight %||Labelled||% labelled|
|Chocolate||70%||0%||30%||1 out of 10 labelled||10%|
|Carbonates||100%||0%||0%||10 out of 10 labelled||100%|
|Bagged snacks/crisps||3%||4%||93%||5 out of 10 labelled||50%|
|Yogurts and potted desserts||94%||0%||6%||3 out of 10 labelled||30%|
|Sports and energy drinks||94%||0%||6%||5 out of 5 labelled||100%|
|Sweet biscuits||83%||0%||17%||2 out of 10 labelled||20%|
|Juice drinks and smoothies||95%||2%||3%||9 out of 10 labelled||90%|
|Cheese||66%||0%||34%||3 out of 10 labelled||30%|
|Bread loaves||0%||100%||0%||4 out of 4 labelled||100%|
|Cereals||90%||7%||3%||10 out of 10 labelled||100%|
Pringles (owned by Kellogg)
‘’Kellogg is committed to 100% recyclable, compostable or reusable packaging by the end of 2025. At present, our Pringles can is made up from 90% recycled paper and we have a partnership with Terracycle in the UK, which allows people to recycle their Pringles cans at drop off locations across the country. We are also working with our packaging and waste management partners to ensure the Pringles can is more widely collected, sorted and recycled. It’s important the Pringles can is sturdy as this ensures the crisps stay in perfect condition. So when we look at various other alternatives, we need to make sure that they don’t result in more food waste from broken and stale crisps.
‘’Our Pringles lid is made from poly-propylene, which is a widely recycled material. As Pringles products are sold in a number of countries across Europe, the messaging on pack can be in up to six languages which can limit the amount of information we are able to include.’’
“Our Cathedral City Minis do now have recycling labelling; this important change is taking place in market now.
“It is correct that our flexible film packaging cannot be recycled through kerbside collection. Cheese film packaging is notoriously difficult to recycle. No UK manufacturer has film packaging that can be recycled through kerbside collection. That is why, whilst we work on a permanent solution, we have launched a partnership with Terracycle to recycle the film packaging of not only Cathedral City, but of all brands and supermarket own label cheese, the first scheme of its type in the cheese category. All Cathedral City packaging has recently been updated to include the Terracycle information and clearer recycling information in general. [see more details here: https://cathedralcity.co.uk/the-cheese-packaging-recycling-programme/]
“It is correct that our nets cannot be recycled through kerbside collection. We believe that to be the case for all netted cheese products in the market. We are currently trialling recyclable alternatives to the nets.”
Laughing Cow and Mini Baby Bel
“All elements of The Laughing Cow packaging are recyclable and our new pack design, which will be rolled out into stores from September 7th will carry the official On Pack Recycling Label (OPRL) to ensure clear signposting for consumers. For Mini Babybel we are in the process of rolling out a UK & Ireland partnership with TerraCycle, offering customers a simple and free solution to recycling all elements of our packaging including the plastic cello, wax and net bags. This will be communicated clearly across all packs by the end of the year. Bel UK is absolutely committed to achieving 100% recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025 and have a dedicated team of people, along with heavy investment in our infrastructure, to ensure we continue to make positive steps and achieve this goal.” Gaelle Vernet, Group Marketing Manager, Bel UK
Kit Kat (Nestle)
“Nestlé has committed to making all its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025, including the elimination of non-recyclable plastics. We are working hard to get there and have put temporary solutions in place to support recycling in the interim. Currently we have a partnership with TerraCycle that enables any plastic confectionery packaging to be collected for recycling at around 300 TerraCycle collection points in the UK and 30 sites in the Republic of Ireland. Wider measures we are taking to meet our global 2025 commitment include: investing up to £1.6 billion to lead the shift from virgin plastics to food-grade recycled plastics and to accelerate the development of innovative, sustainable packaging solutions; signing up to the European Plastics Pact, which will help us reduce the use of virgin plastics by one third by 2025; and establishing an Institute of Packaging Sciences to evaluate and develop various sustainable packaging materials and to collaborate with industrial partners to develop new packaging materials and solutions.
“At Capri-Sun, we recognize the important role we need to play in reducing the impact of packaging waste on the environment. Our iconic pouches use 80f% less material than an equivalent volume PET bottle and as such has a lower CO2 footprint compared to other products. We’ve been on a journey for a number of years already to achieve a fully recyclable product and have committed to doing this by 2025. Despite this target, we are very hopeful that a fully recyclable pouch will be accomplished sooner than 2025 and UK consumers will be able to see some new recyclable updates to our packaging in the near future.”
Rights of reply were also sent to Cadbury (Bitsa Wispa, Cadbury Dairy Milk bars and Cadbury Twirl Bites), Cheestrings, M&Ms and Ocean Spray but Which? did not receive a response.