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, according to a new Which? Investigation.
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.
Around four in 10 (41%) items had no labelling to show if they could be recycled.
Consumers are crying out for brands that take sustainability seriously and products that are easy to recycle
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.
Which? was also helped by experts from Wrap, the Recycling Association and the On Pack Recycling Label scheme (OPRL).
The recyclability of different types of groceries varied hugely. The worst category by some distance was crisps, with only 3% 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’, according to Which?, 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 residual waste.
Pringles, which is owned by Kellogg’s, responded to the report, saying: ‘’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 – Kellogg’s
“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.’’
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.
Cathedral City responded to the report, saying: “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.
All Cathedral City packaging has recently been updated to include the Terracycle information and clearer recycling information in general – Cathedral City
“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.
“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.”
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% recyclable packaging, but due to a lack of labelling risked being thrown out in the same way as its less eco-friendly counterparts.
Kit Kat, owned by Nestle, responded to the report, saying, “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.
Nestlé has committed to making all its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025, including the elimination of non-recyclable plastics – Nestle
“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.”
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% 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.
Capri Sun responded to the report, saying: “At Capri-Sun, we recognise the important role we need to play in reducing the impact of packaging waste on the environment.
Our iconic pouches use 80% less material than an equivalent volume PET bottle and as such has a lower CO2 footprint compared to other products – Capri Sun
“Our iconic pouches use 80% 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.”
‘Simple’, clear and mandatory’
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.
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 – Which?
But Which? says 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, it says. In order to tackle unnecessary waste, products also need to be correctly labelled with clear instructions of how packaging should be disposed of.
Which? Says the recurring inconsistencies it 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.”