Most Snack Packaging Is Not Easily Recycled

Brands aren't prioritizing recyclability at all.

potato chip aisle
Potato chip aisle.

@NAO via Twenty20 

Snacks are delicious and convenient, but many of them come in packaging that's difficult to recycle. According to UK-based consumer group Which?, chips, cookies, and cheese are the worst offenders when it comes to non-recyclable packaging. Not only are the packages poorly labeled, making it unclear for people to know how to dispose of them after eating, but many are not designed to be recycled at all and must go to landfill.

Which? took 89 samples of the UK's most popular branded snack foods and sorted them into groups, including chocolate, fizzy drinks (sodas), energy drinks, cereal, chips, yogurt, cheese, bread, and more. Their packaging was removed, separated, and assessed according to three categories: (1) easily recyclable at the curb, (2) recyclable only at supermarket collection points, and (3) not easily recyclable. When the answer wasn't clear, expert advice was given by representatives from the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) and the On-Pack Recycling Label scheme.

What the investigators found was that "little more than a third [of the analyzed snacks] had packaging that was fully recyclable in household collections, and almost four in 10 items had no labeling to show whether or not they could be recycled." The worst category was chips, with only 3% featuring recyclable packaging. One-third of chocolate bars had non-recyclable wrappers, and "snack packs" of individually-wrapped cheeses came in plastic net bags that are difficult to recycle and get easily tangled in machinery, making the job even harder. 

Certain items featured packaging that could only be recycled if it was delivered to a supermarket collection point – and then, presumably, shipped to a special private recycler such as TerraCycle, which has agreements with brands like Pringles and Babybel. This, however, is not a realistic solution for a broad consumer market because most people can't be bothered to return empty packaging to a specific location.

People Aren't Happy

There's clearly a disconnect between what food manufacturers are selling and what customers want. Which? said that 67% of its members "often or always look for recycling info on grocery packaging before deciding how to dispose of it," which goes to show that people want to prioritize recyclability. Natalie Hitchens, head of home products and services for Which?, told the Guardian,

"Consumers are crying out for brands that take sustainability seriously and products that are easy to recycle, but for any real difference to be made to the environment, manufacturers need to maximise their use of recyclable and recycled materials and ensure products are correctly labelled."

The solution? Governments must make simple, clear labeling mandatory, thus allowing shoppers to know exactly how to dispose of the packaging on the products they buy. But in the meantime, Which? offers some advice on how to improve recycling rates:

  • Scrunch foil lids and wrappers together into a bigger ball, making them more likely to be recycled.
  • Screw plastic lids back onto bottles to ensure they don't get lost during the recycling process.
  • Squash bottles as flat as possible to take up less room and to be less likely to roll off the conveyor belt.
  • Look for plastic recycling codes on containers when choosing what to buy. Numbers one, two, and five usually mean a bottle or container is more eligible for curbside pickup. 

Ever the Treehugger voice, I'd add: Skip the plastic! Go for glass or metal packaging, which has higher value and is more likely to be recycled. Better yet, shop zero waste whenever possible.