Cast your eye across any supermarket shelf and you’ll be met with an array of bold packaging jostling for your attention.
But those bright, shiny wrappers cover up a far less attractive truth – most of them are not easily recyclable in the UK.
We analysed 89 of the UK’s bestselling branded groceries and found little more than a third had packaging that was fully recyclable in household collections. And almost four in 10 items had no labelling to show whether or not they could be recycled.
We know the recyclability of grocery packaging is important to Which? members – 79% of the 1,369 of you we surveyed in July told us so. But the lack of clear labelling makes it very tricky for shoppers wanting to do the right thing.
One common argument is that some products necessitate packaging that can’t be recycled. But that didn’t always hold up in our study – we found big differences in the packaging used for very similar products.
Some brands use easily recyclable packaging for certain products, while others offer almost-identical items in packaging that’s very hard to recycle. It’s clear that brands need to do more to improve how much waste is generated by their wares.
Find out more: what are supermarkets doing about plastic?
Plastic packaging: how do big grocery brands compare?
We’ve analysed 89 of the UK’s best-selling branded groceries for their packaging. Here’s how they stacked up:
What we found: Shredded Wheat (30 pack) was the best cereal we found for packaging. Its cardboard box and 15 paper inner wrappers are all easily recyclable, and also clearly labelled.
Most cereal packaging we looked at consisted of widely recyclable cardboard boxes and inner plastic bags. These bags can’t be recycled at kerbside but can sometimes be taken to plastic bag collection points at large supermarkets.
Change needed: Weetabix (12 pack) has a widely recyclable box, but its inner wrapper is a hard-to-recycle mixed material. The company said: ‘Food waste is a big contributor to carbon emissions and our concern is always to balance packaging innovation against that risk.’ It said its packaging would become fully recyclable in early 2021.
Quaker Oat So Simple Apple and Blueberry (10x36g) comes in a widely recyclable cardboard box that was labelled, but its individual sachets aren’t labelled with recycling information. Our packaging experts thought they were unlikely to be recyclable. Manufacturer Pepsico said new packaging coming this autumn will clarify its recyclability.
Yoghurts and potted desserts
What we found: There are real heroes and villains in the world of yoghurt pots. They often look virtually identical, but what the pot is made of is very important for recyclability. Onken Cherry Yogurt (450g) is a good example. Its pot is made of polypropylene and its lid is polyethylene terephthalate (PET), so both are widely recyclable. Its inner peel-off lid is made of easily recyclable foil.
Change needed: Polystyrene is not easily recyclable, and is often used for yoghurts and other dairy items. We found that the pots of Muller Corner Banana Yogurt Chocolate Flakes (130g), Muller Light Banana Custard Yogurt (160g) and Cadbury Dairy Milk Chunks Chocolate Dessert (85g) are all made of polystyrene. The lids of the Muller Corner and the Cadbury dessert aren’t recyclable either; nor are they labelled to say as much.
A Muller spokesperson said: ‘We’re working hard to realise our ambition that all our products will use packaging which is recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025.’
Simon Ellin, CEO of The Recycling Association, told us: ‘There’s no excuse not to redesign polystyrene pots. It’s a simple change.’
What we found: There is a big variation in packaging for popular brands. We looked at chocolate bars, nibbles and gift boxes. All the packaging (a paper wrapper and a foil wrapper) of the Galaxy Smooth bar (100g) we looked at is recyclable at kerbside, but unfortunately it isn’t labelled as such.
Change needed: Plenty of the chocolate packaging we assessed isn’t easily recyclable, including: Cadbury Dairy Milk bar (200g), Kit Kat four-finger (x4) pack, M&Ms Peanut pouch (125g), Cadbury Twirl Bites Chocolate bag (109g) and Bitsa Wispa chocolate bag (110g).
Kit Kat’s four finger (x4) pack has hard-to-recycle mixed plastic wrappers; but the two finger (x16) pack uses paper and foil wrappers that are easy to recycle. Manufacturer Nestlé told us it’s committed to making all its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025. In the meantime, it suggests recycling its plastic packaging through recycling company TerraCycle.
Meanwhile a spokesperson for Mars Wrigley UK, which makes M&Ms, said: ‘We have a global commitment for 100% of our plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, as well as to have 30% recycled content in our plastic packaging and 10 reuse programmes in market. We’re working to provide more guidance to consumers and we will be announcing new packaging initiatives over the coming months.’
Juice drinks and smoothies
What we found: Most packaging in this area is easily recycled, and many bottles are made from PET plastic which is collected by most kerbside recycling schemes.
Ribena blackcurrant squash (850ml) packaging is fully recyclable and labelled, and states it is made from 100% recycled plastic – one of only three items in our study with details of its recycled content.
Change needed: Capri-Sun No Added Sugar Orange (8x200ml) pouches aren’t recyclable. Capri Sun said the pouches use 80% less material than an equivalent volume PET bottle and so have a lower CO² footprint. It said it’s committed to making them fully recyclable before 2025.
Ocean Spray Cranberry Classic (1,000ml) has a carton that’s not widely collected for recycling but can go to certain collection points. Tropicana Essentials Juice Berry Boost Raspberry (750ml) is widely recyclable but not labelled to say so. New packaging this autumn will clarify its recyclability, according to its manufacturer, Pepsico.
What we found: Cheese is another area with a lot of packaging variations. Soft cheese did well for recyclability, although the labelling was often poor.
Dairylea cheese triangles (x8), Philadelphia soft white cheese (180g), Seriously Spreadable Cheese (125g) and Laughing Cow light cheese spread triangles (x16) all come in easily and fully recyclable packaging, although only the Philadelphia was labelled.
Manufacturer Bel UK told us that The Laughing Cow packaging would have a new design with recycling labelling this autumn.
Change needed: Cathedral City Mini Mature Nets (120g) and Babybel mini original (6x20g) are not easily recyclable, not labelled, and come in nets that can clog up recycling machines if they get into them. Cheestrings twisted cheese snacks (4 x80g) packaging isn’t easily recyclable either, although they are at least labelled to make this clear.
A spokesperson for Cathedral City said that its labelling is changing to include recycling information, adding that ‘cheese film packaging is notoriously difficult to recycle,’ Cathedral City has launched a partnership with Terracycle, a privately run recycling scheme with drop-off points. It’s also trialling recyclable alternatives to its nets. A Babybel spokesperson said that a scheme to recycle its packaging is also being rolled out through TerraCycle.
What we found: Crisp packaging isn’t recyclable at home. The need to keep crisps airtight so they stay fresh and crunchy considerably limits options for packaging material. Quavers (6x16g) have six individual crisp bags that aren’t easily recyclable. The outer bag is recyclable at supermarket collection points – unlike the other multipack crisp bags in our investigation – but isn’t labelled to say so.
Crisp packets and Pringles tubes can be recycled through TerraCycle, but the scheme isn’t always widespread and relies on consumers arranging drop-offs.
Change needed: Pringles are the only bagged snack we looked at to have any component that is recyclable at kerbside (its plastic lid) although the labelling doesn’t explain this. Manufacturer Kellogg’s told us it is working to ensure the Pringles tube is more widely collected, sorted and recycled, adding that it wants to make sure any alternatives don’t increase food waste through broken or stale crisps.
How we investigated
We analysed the packaging of 89 top-selling branded groceries. After unwrapping each item and weighing the packaging, we separated it into: widely recyclable at kerbside, recyclable only at supermarket collection points and not easily recyclable. Where packaging was not labelled, we enlisted the help of packaging experts Helen Bird, from the Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap), and Alice Harlock, from the On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRL) scheme.
We weighed and calculated each pile as a proportion of the total packaging weight for each category. We also counted the number of easily separable packaging pieces by recyclability. We checked any labelling, noting if there were details of how to dispose of the packaging and how much recycled content it had.
Here are our results by category:
|Weight of recyclable packaging %||Weight of packaging recyclable at bring banks %||Weight of not easily recyclable packaging||Proportion with recycling labelling|
|Chocolate||70%||0%||30%||1 out of 10|
|Fizzy drinks||100%||0%||0%||10 out of 10|
|Bagged snacks||3%||4%||93%||5 out of 10|
|Yoghurts and potted desserts||94%||0%||6%||3 out of 10|
|Sports and energy drinks||94%||0%||6%||5 out of 5|
|Sweet biscuits||83%||0%||17%||2 out of 10|
|Juice drinks and smoothies||95%||2%||3%||9 out of 10|
|Cheese||66%||0%||34%||3 out of 10|
|Bread loaves||0%||100%||0%||4 out of 4|
|Cereals||90%||7%||3%||10 out of 10|
How to recycle better at home
Watch our video for handy recycling advice, or scroll down for five top tips.
- Scrunch foil together: Foil lids and wrappers are easily recyclable but often too small to be picked up by recycling machines. Scrunch up all your foil in a big ball to give it the best chance of being recycled.
- Look for hidden codes: No recycling labelling on your plastic packaging? Look for the industry resin ID codes – usually a number in a triangle of chasing arrows. Generally one, two and five means it can be recyclable at kerbside.
- Reduce, reuse, recycle: This hierarchy can help prioritise best action to minimise impact on the environment. To recycle is a good last resort, but uses significant energy. It’s better to reduce waste to start with and reuse where possible.
- Squash bottles: When you’re done with plastic bottles, rinse them out then squash them to make them smaller – they’ll take up less room being transported and will also be less likely to roll off conveyor belts.
- Screw lids back on: Lids and bottle caps tend to be too small and get lost in the recycling process. Screw them back on to make sure they’re recycled. Metal bottle caps can also be put in an empty tin with the lid pushed down.
Find out more: How to recycle
What needs to happen now
We first looked at the recyclability of grocery packaging two years ago, when we found that up to 29% of supermarket own-label grocery packaging was not easily recyclable. In this investigation, we’ve found wide variations in the recyclability of branded grocery packaging and exposed how poorly it is labelled.
There have been some positive changes since we first investigated this issue. A UK government ban on single-use plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds is due in October 2020. And it plans a tax on plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled plastic in 2022.
But more must be done.
Clear recycling labelling would make a big difference. We know 67% of Which? members often or always look for recycling info on grocery packaging before deciding how to dispose of it. Recycling labelling must be made compulsory on all UK grocery packaging, so that consumers know what can be recycled, and how.