If it can’t be recycled easily, don’t sell it to me

If there is one maxim I would like sustainability professionals within food and home product brands to live by it is this: if the packaging can’t be recycled easily, don’t sell it.

By “recycled easily” I mean from the doorstep or by the consumer, if really needed, being able to take it back to the store for them or the industry to reuse.

There are seven basic types of plastic, but it seems many dozens of derivatives when it comes to the recycling process.

PVC, for example, can be used in lots of different ways, from toys to bubble wrap. The mix of plastic in cheap toys given out at fast food outlets was deemed by one official as “unrecycable” at council waste depots, on Hugh’s War on Waste, the BBC series a couple of years ago.

A waste official told the cook and environmentalist Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall that the toys were made up of too many different types of plastic, moulded together. Bubble wrap goes straight in the bin, according to the Reigate and Banstead Borough Council website (although we will come to a solution).

While most councils collect a variation of cardboard, tins, food waste and certain types of plastic, some – only 7% – also collect those flopping plastic packets sometimes known as “pet food pouches”, which can be recycled if you are local to a TerraCycle collection point. And depending on the brand.

“Pet food pouches” is a mis-description because many other items come in them. Sweets. Cleaning products. According to Recycle Now, these types of plastic cannot be recycled. Yet Recycle Now seems to be based on what councils can recycle or what can be taken back to supermarkets. They do not mention TerraCycle, via which crisp packets and much else can be saved from being sent to landfill or incinerators, via black bin bag collections.

Tetley tea bags come in something else, looking similar to “pet pouches”. The best way to not infuse the environment with tea bags – which contain plastic – of course is not to buy them but use loose leaf tea. But looking at a supermarket shelf (main picture), I could not help but note that Tetley’s packaging was different. All the others come in cardboard boxes. Wrapped in needless polythene, of course, which naturally you can’t recycle, but the box part is recyclable.

Tetley, like many tea brewers, portray themselves as having “ethical tea partnerships”, to help their growers, but that seems about it on their sustainability front. Nothing about their packaging is mentioned on their website. When challenged on Twitter they replied: “Although the packaging is predominantly paper, the lamination on the pack means that it’s not currently recyclable. However, our Softpack packaging has many different benefits which minimise its environmental impact.”

Puzzled? Intrigued? So, it WILL harm the planet then? Just minimally? In what way exactly?

Is there any intention to change the packaging, to ensure there is no environmental impact? There was no link provided to further explanatory pages on the company’s website, while some companies say they are striving to eliminate plastic or working towards being carbon neutral.

And that word lamination…. referring to a type of plastic that is not currently recycled….?

There are many different symbols found on packaging. One of them is a double swirl. But does this mean you could recycle the packaging? You might think so, but no. Right next to the symbol on one packet, are these words: “sachet, mixed material, not currently recycled.”

According to Recycle Now, the actual meaning of this double swirl, used in some European countries, is that the producer has made a financial contribution towards the recovery and recycling of packaging. So that’s all right then. Conscience appeased. Problem solved. Or washed hands of, at any rate.

Would your average consumer know what this symbol meant? was your first thought that it could be recycled? It ought to be spelled out on the packaging, rather than left for people to investigate – if they can be bothered.

Some packages have an array of triangular variations. There is the Mobius Loop, with variations in the meaning. It means that it is possible to recycle the item, but it doesn’t immediately say how. Nor does it guarantee that your area’s recycling system will collect it.

A number can also be placed inside, to show what percentage of the packet has been made by recycled material – that’s the variation. It’s nice to know that a brand is using previously used plastic, but it won’t help me know where to recycle it now. We need more information.

The thinner lined triangles: if we assume these must be Mobius Loops, what does that number in the middle mean? It isn’t a percentage. It’s a plastic resin code! It tells you what it is made of. If you hunt around on the Recycle Now website, you can find out what to do with this “plastic film” and it tells you what you can recycle with plastic bags and bread bags at supermarkets.

The list for taking back to supermarkets is quite an insight: breakfast cereal liners, shrink wrap and ring binders, frozen food bags, dry cleaning covers, magazine and fruit and vegetable bags, bubble wrap and….”Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) – resin ID code 4.”

Excellent news. But we had to hunt for it, learn it, remember it. The whole thing feels low key and that we have to investigate. Confusingly also, many fruit and veg wrappings that feel as if they could be recycled are marked “not currently recycled”, because the manufacturer is aiming the message towards local council recycling. Some are marked “recycle at larger stores”, but not all. And yet they fit the description of the cling wrap. On cereal boxes, it will tell you “Cardboard box, commonly recycled. Inner wrapper, not currently recycled”. Yet Recycle Now says it is.

How many of us have argued on bin day about what can be recycled, where and how? And been frustrated by the message “check local recycling”? That is clearly aimed at local council collections, but could equally apply to whether you have a “large” enough superstore that takes the product.

Many lids on items are made from “cling film” or the equivalent, rather than like the sturdier sides of the packets. For example, on grape packets. The lid can often be ripped off. It cannot be recycled. Not even at supermarkets or via TerraCycle.

Only about 9%, it is estimated, of plastic ever made has been recycled. Statistics suggest that in more recent years we have recycled 25% per year. There are plenty of reasons behind both statistics. Much of that 9% is still in use, for example the hardier Tupperware or parts of vehicles. Meanwhile, we cannot recycle many forms of plastic – particularly single use.

So, what we need is a combination of factors: a consistent, national system, in which all councils must recycle the same items. More items must be recycled in this way, too. Then we need legislation for clearer messaging on the packets, so we are not left to guess, discard or have to hunt for answers.

We shouldn’t have to rely on taking packaging back to a supermarket, not quite knowing if it will “spoil” the load by being the wrong type of plastic. Then the message needs to be to the brands: not only must you reduce the amount of packaging, but you MUST only make packaging out of what you know can be recycled via councils.