Progress to eco-friendly packaging seems slow

Packaging. Can it be recycled? It’s a consumer’s nightmare. Why do we need so much of it? Can’t manufacturers take more responsibility?

A few weeks ago, a champagne company announced that new packaging would reduce its carbon footprint by 60 per cent. Instead of a formal cardboard gift box, a new recyclable wood-pulp skin one would be about a 10th of the weight, reducing in particular transport costs.

This week, the company which makes Pringles announced a trial of new packaging, to 90% cardboard and 10% PolyAl.

Kellogg’s, who produce the popular snack, has been urged since 2017 to make its packaging more recyclable. And now it has acted. But will it make it totally recyclable?

The Recycling Association has long since labelled Pringles packaging a huge recycling villain. Or “a bastion of bad design”, as the RA’s chief executive Simon Ellin put it. Combining metal, card and plastic, it is impossible to recycle – from kerbside via local council collections, at least.

Anyone who recycles crisp packets through TerraCycle knows that these can be returned with crisp packets. The person who collects mine says he does the “Pringle dance” to squash the boxes, to pack them down into the returns box.

One basic conundrum that packet food producers face is how to keep products edible by the time they reach the consumer.

This PolyAl-coated card will still have to be tested in recycling mills, insists Mr Ellin. What he means by that is unclear. It would seem bad planning to go to huge costs to redesign packaging to be more environmentally friendly if the end product was not so. PolyAl – a combination of polymer and aluminium – can be repurposed within the plastic industry, it appears, but that is from Tetra Pak cartons.

But what took the Pringles packet designers so long? This redesign has been 12 months in the making – and 2017, when they came under heavy fire, was three times longer ago than that.

And why are they only rolling out the new version in a trial in three Tesco stores? That’s a minimal promise, along the lines of the plastic free fruit and veg promised by one supermarket chain – in just a few stores – in the BBC Series War on Plastic, fronted by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Kellogg’s says they will gather feedback on the trial and possibly then change their product across Europe.

The BBC series has long since pointed out anomalies in packaging. Takeaway coffee cups have an inner lining. Consumers would have to rip this out for the cup to be recycled. In the latest episode a couple of weeks ago, new sandwich wrappings were exposed on the same basis.

The plastic lid on a Pringles tube is also subject to a trial, with a paper one as an alternative. But is it still needed? Mr Ellin railed against the plastic one staying, saying it was unnecessary, was easily discarded at picnics and potentially ended up adding to the plastic pollution in the sea.

It is true it could reach that far. Light litter moves until it hits water – and if that is a river it could easily end up in the ocean.

The plastic lid could also be recycled. But that doesn’t solve the problem either. Recycling is a function we have invented to deal with some waste. It is estimated that between 1950 and 2015 only 9% of the 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic created has been recycled. Reducing the packaging, then, has to be the bigger, primary aim. Pringles could ditch the plastic lid, but would claim that is provides a secure barrier in transit to the removable foil that actually protects the product.

Some cream manufacturers, however, have managed. They have removed the plastic lid and relied on the pull off plastic foil as a lid by itself.

This change by Kellogg’s is part of its pledge to make all packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable by the end 2025.

Many companies – particularly supermarkets – have pledged to reduce their packaging by certain dates. Sainsbury’s, for example, have pledged to halve the amount of plastic it uses in its stores by 2025. At the start of this year, Tesco removed packaging from multi-pack tins, to avoid excess waste, and not charge customers extra for four singles. In that instance, they had approached the manufacturer and asked for the change.

Sainsbury’s sell a four-pack of orange juice in excess plastic at a cheaper price than four single ones. How are we to make progress on waste plastic when multi-buy is still encouraged and being environmentally friendly costs you more? And their cheapest eggs still come in plastic, not the traditional egg box. If you encounter these in nature, like the one pictured to illustrate this blog, they don’t decompose. At least a cardboard one would.

It remains to be seen how the Pringles trial goes. There are two main ways in which the reuse, reduce and recycle mantra, much loved of environmentalists, can play out in supermarket shopping. The supermarkets can lead by working with their suppliers. Or the product makers themselves can take the initiative.

At any rate, progress to “fully reusable, recyclable or compostable” packaging – which seems a common theme among supplies – seems far too slow.