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22 Jun 2019

Almost half of supermarket packaging isn't easily recyclable, Which? finds

Are the supermarkets doing enough to cut down single-use plastic packaging? We reveal the truth behind the headlines

Only 52% of supermarket packaging can be easily recycled according to our latest recycling investigation.

We dissected packaging from a range of popular supermarket own-brand groceries and added up how many individual pieces of packaging could be easily recycled.

Depending on the supermarket, between 38.67% and 58.6% of the pieces of packaging we looked at were easy to recycle. Morrisons had the lowest number of easily recyclable elements, while Tesco and Waitrose had the most, although all supermarkets had room for improvement.

We also found that the quality of recycling labelling was very mixed - on average, 42% of packaging was incorrectly labelled or not labelled at all.

For the full results of our investigation visit our guide to supermarket packaging.

Best and worst supermarkets for plastic packaging

We ordered a basket of up to 46 popular own-brand groceries from the UK's 11 supermarkets (online where possible; in store where there was no online option). We unwrapped them, took apart the packaging and analysed how recyclable each piece of packaging was.

We sorted each supermarket's packaging into the following categories:

  • Easily recyclable in kerbside collections - this includes glass, clean cardboard, tins and certain types of plastic, such as plastic bottles and plastic punnets
  • Recyclable at collection points - this includes things such as drinks cartons and plastic bags
  • Hard to recycle - items that need to be given special treatment to recycle or must be disposed of in general waste, such as plastic films, cardboard that is soiled with grease and non-stretchy plastic such as crisp packets.

Good and bad packaging practice

Our investigation found some big differences in how supermarkets packaged the same type of food item. Some supermarkets packaged bananas in plastic bags - which we think is unnecessary - while others sold them loose.

And many used plastic netting to package easy-peeler oranges, while others sold them in easily-recyclable cardboard boxes.

Here's how the packaging piled up after we'd taken the food out of its packaging for the supermarkets with the most and least easily recyclable items.

Move the slider to the right to see the groceries in packaging, and to the left to see the packaging after we unwrapped it.

Tesco - joint-most recyclable content

Morrisons uses more non-recyclable packaging than both Waitrose and Tesco. Unlike most other supermarkets, Morrisons had significantly more items of packaging that couldn't be easily recycled than those that could be easily recycled.

The Tesco and Waitrose shops included unpackaged fruit and a higher quantity of recyclable packaging. For example, the Waitrose shop included a cake packaged entirely in cardboard and recyclable plastic.

We found that it was not possible to buy fruit and vegetables from Morrisons online without plastic packaging. We found the same to be true of some other supermarkets, including Iceland.

Find out how the UK's supermarkets compare for aspects of their service, such as value for money and quality, in our guide to the best and worst supermarkets.

Supermarket packaging compared

The chart below shows how many of the pieces of packaging were easily recyclable in each supermarket, ranked by the percentage difference in number between easy and difficult to recycle pieces.

The big difference between the top and bottom supermarkets in the proportion of non-recyclable packaging shows that some retailers appear to be making better choices about the packaging they use.

Yet even our Tesco and Waitrose shops resulted in 37% of items being non-recyclable. There is room for all supermarkets to improve.

Best and worst types of packaging

Supermarkets claim that some items are impossible to package without plastic. Yet when there is such a big difference between best and worst practice for the same types of food in some cases, this argument loses weight.

It's not just about whether supermarkets use plastic, but the type of plastic that is used.

Black plastic containers, for example - often used for ready meals - are non-recyclable because the machines used in recycling processes don't recognise them. Some supermarkets have committed to stop using black plastic, but six out of the 11 supermarkets we shopped at were selling Shepherd's Pie ready meals with black plastic trays.

Meanwhile, clear plastic bottles are more widely (and easily) recycled than drinks cartons such as Tetra Paks.

Here are some examples of good and bad practice we've found in food packaging (click on the images below to view the different examples).


A large collection of images displayed on this page are available at https://www.which.co.uk/news/article/almost-half-of-supermarket-packaging-isnt-easily-recyclable-which-finds-aPzR95F68iir

The problem with recycling labels

As well as whether items could be recycled, we also checked how good the recycling labels were on each food product we bought.

We found that, on average, only 58% of packaging was labelled with the correct recycling advice. We looked at whether the labelling explained to shoppers whether the packaging was easily recycled at kerbside and, if not, what they needed to do with each part of the packaging.

Overall, Asda performed the best on this measure, with 78% of products correctly labelled, while Iceland only correctly labelled 38% of items. For the full breakdown by supermarket, visit our guide on what supermarkets are doing about plastic.

Good recycling labelling

This packaging, used by Asda for a lasagne ready meal, is a great example of good labelling. It clearly explains which of the components can and can't be recycled, and it highlights that some things will need to be cleaned before being put in the recycling.

Poor recycling labelling

This label, used on a bag of pasta sold by Iceland, doesn't give enough explanation. There are too many symbols and none of them relate to how to recycle the item. The second symbol, a Mobius loop with 05 in the centre, is probably the most useful. It explains the packaging is made of polypropylene, but not whether it could go out in the recycling.

Other examples we found of poor practice included:

  • Incorrect statements that the plastic bags used for toilet roll and potatoes are not recyclable. This kind of stretchy plastic, known as low-density polyethylene (LDPE), can be taken to central recycling collection points.
  • A complete absence of labelling on meat trays or fruit punnets, leaving shoppers in the dark.

You can learn more about recycling and plastic packaging labels on our guide on how to recycle in the UK.

Five things supermarkets should do to improve recycling

  • Label packaging correctly and clearly. Supermarkets are sometimes getting this right, but more needs to be done.
  • Remove all unnecessary single-use plastic packaging. It's not an overnight job, but we're calling for supermarkets to review their packaging and either use recyclable options or ditch plastic entirely.
  • Remove black PET trays from ready meals. Recycling machines often can't recognise black plastic. It doesn't need to be black - we want supermarkets to use different colours that the machines can identify.
  • Provide plastic bag collection points in-store. Many big supermarkets already have plastic bag collection points. We want all supermarkets to offer them so that shoppers can easily recycle their stretchy plastic.
  • Offer the option of loose products where possible - in store and online. We'd like to see online and in-store shoppers getting the same choice of loose fruit and vegetables so they can make informed decisions.

We also want the government to invest in recycling infrastructure so that every local authority in the UK collects the same thing and people know what they can put out for collection.

Read more about what the government is doing in our guide to supermarket packaging.

Our research

We bought up to 46 of the most popular own-brand items from 11 major UK supermarkets in April 2019. Where possible we shopped online; Aldi, Co-op, Lidl and M&S shops were carried out in store as they don't have online shops. We chose items from each supermarket's own-brand range, specified by weight and/or size.

Where it wasn't possible to select an exact weight or size match, we chose the closest weight available to the one specified. If an item wasn't available in the standard range, we substituted it with the equivalent item in the premium range. If an equivalent item wasn't available in one supermarket, it didn't count towards the supermarket's overall percentage.