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11 Nov 2021

COP26: Five packaging villains you really need to avoid

How to spot the packaging that will almost certainly end up in landfill - and find a recyclable alternative instead

Do you know the heroes and villains of the packaging world?

While the ultimate aim should always be to reduce the amount of packaging we use, sometimes it's unavoidable. And that's OK - there are some types of food that just can't be delivered without packaging to keep it safe and secure.

But there are huge differences between different types of seemingly similar-looking packaging. Some innocuous-looking packaging can be completely unrecyclable in household collections, while other very similar alternatives are much better for the environment. When there's a perfectly recyclable alternative that can do the same job, it seems even more frustrating to see non-recyclable plastic on our shelves.

As COP26 continues in Glasgow, attention is on the ways that governments should be creating more sustainable societies, and that includes figuring out how to reduce single-use plastics and packaging.

Here we expose five of the worst packaging offenders and reveal the much more sustainable alternatives, so you know what to look out for next time you're at the supermarket.

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Five packaging villains to avoid

1. Citrus fruit nets

a citrus fruit net

Nets such as the ones you get for citrus fruits are not recyclable in household collections.

Definitely avoid these if at all possible as they have little use full stop - they don't even really protect the food or prolong its life. Worst of all: they can actually clog up recycling machines if disposed of incorrectly, and be harmful to wildlife if they end up in the wild. Try to buy citrus fruits loose, or in cardboard boxes instead.

These nets are also sometimes used for mini cheeses such as Cathedral City or Babybel.

2. Black plastic

Pure black plastic items are a definite no if you want to be environmentally friendly. It's the type of plastic that, certainly until recently, you would see used for products like beef mince or lamb steaks. Historically, manufacturers have often used it for raw meat - probably because it makes it appear more appealing by hiding any bloody juices.

While technically recyclable, pure black plastic is not picked up by the infrared sorting machines at UK recycling facilities and is rejected. Mixed-coloured packaging or off-black colours are OK. Trials are in place to try to fix this issue.

Over the past few years, many manufacturers and retailers have switched to an off-black colour or clear plastic as a more recyclable alternative. That's why you may have noticed meat products and ready meals in grey or opaque colours instead. But if you do see pure black plastic, buy an alternative if you can.

3. Polystyrene

foam packaging

When most people hear the word 'polystyrene' they tend to think of polystyrene foam, the type that's commonly used for takeaway food trays or packing large items into cardboard boxes. This isn't recyclable in household collections and should go in your waste bin, unless your local recycling centre collects it.

But polystyrene in another form is also often used in food packaging, particularly yoghurts. It's a cheap material to use and very 'snappable', which makes it tempting for manufacturers to use despite its lack of recyclability.

When we investigated the recyclability of branded grocery packaging in October 2020, we found the pots of Muller Corner Banana Yogurt Chocolate Flakes (130g), Muller Light Banana Custard Yogurt (160g) and Cadbury Dairy Milk Chunks Chocolate Dessert (85g) were all made of polystyrene. Muller told us it was working hard to make all its product packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025.

However, while polystyrene is a real villain, there are alternatives. We found several similar-looking yoghurt pots which were much more recyclable. The Onken Cherry Yogurt (450g) pot was made of polypropylene which is widely recyclable.

Spot polystyrene by looking for the plastic resin code (three arrows looped into a triangle) with a number 6 in the middle. More recyclable option PET will have the number 1 or 2 inside the triangle, while recyclable polypropelene is number 5.

Find out more: the different types of plastic and how to recycle them in the UK

4. Mixed plastic/foil wrappers

These are often found on chocolate bars or other confectionery. When we combed through dozens of pieces of packaging for our October 2020 investigation, we found these wrappers used on a Cadbury Dairy Milk bar (200g), Kit Kat four finger (x4) pack, M&M's Peanut Pouch (125g), Cadbury Twirl Bites Chocolate bag (109g) and the Bitsa Wispa chocolate bag (110g).

Due to the mix of plastic and foil, these wrappers are not recyclable in household collections, although they are technically recyclable using TerraCycle, a privately run recycling scheme with drop-off points.

Manufacturer Nestle told us it's committed to making all its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025.

But if you're a chocaholic, don't lose hope - there are some far better alternatives available. Scrunchable foil and paper wrappers are widely recyclable in household collections. We found the two finger (x16) Kit Kat pack and the Galaxy Smooth bar (100g) had these more easily recyclable wrappers.

Read more: Which supermarkets have packaging-free products?

5. Crisp tubes

A crisp tube

Crisp packaging overall is pretty troublesome and isn't generally recyclable at home. The need to keep crisps airtight so they stay fresh and crunchy without squashing them limits options for packaging material.

Crisp packets aren't recyclable, but at least they are light. Crisp tubes such as Pringles are far heavier, so they take far more energy to transport from the factory to the supermarket shelf and to you.

Manufacturer Kellogg's told us last year it was working to ensure the Pringles tube was more widely collected, sorted and recycled, adding that it wanted to make sure any alternative options don't increase food waste through broken or stale crisps.

It's also worth noting that crisp packets and Pringles tubes can be recycled privately through TerraCycle. But the scheme isn't always widespread.

Other things you should know about recycling

Overall, recycling in the UK is managed by local authorities, which means it can be a bit confusing to work out what you can and can't do at home. It's worth checking your local council's website to see how much information they give. The waste and recycling organisation Wrap also has some good recycling advice about what you can do in your postcode area.

It's also worth remembering that the recyclability of packaging is only one aspect of a product's overall environmental impact. To get a full picture of each type of material's environmental impact you would need to do a comprehensive life-cycle analysis, looking at how it is manufactured and transported as well.

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. That's why Which? is calling for recycling labelling to be made compulsory on all UK grocery packaging - branded or otherwise - so that consumers know what can and can't be recycled, and how. The Environment Act 2021, which was passed on 9 November, is one step on the journey to making this happen.