Why Brits Are Tossing Empty Potato Chip Bags in the Mail, Not the Trash

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Potato chip bags are, not surprisingly, a common form of litter in Britain. A recent campaign is urging a top U.K. crisp company to speed up its introduction of recyclable, compostable and biodegradable packaging. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

From drinking straw crackdowns to microbead bans to expanded fees for single-use shopping bags, the United Kingdom has been on a tear when it comes to curtailing the use of disposable plastic products and packaging.

Several months ago, activists turned their attention to the staggering amount of plastic waste generated by a specific British dietary staple: bagged potato chips — or, as they're better known across the pond, crisps.

Beloved as it may be, Walkers, the 70-year-old snack food company that dominates the British crisps market, has come under particular scrutiny for its sizable contribution to the scourge of landfill-clogging, waterway-polluting plastic waste. Based in the English city of Leicester, the iconic brand sells its crisps in non-recyclable plastic packets — and it sells a lot of them.

Per nonprofit political activist organization 38 Degrees, the company's crisp production plant — the largest in the world — churns out 7,000 non-recyclable packets of salty, crunchy goodness every minute. That's roughly 11 million plastic bags of crisps produced per day in popular — and inscrutable to American taste buds, no doubt — varieties such as Pickled Onion, Roast Chicken and Prawn Cocktail.

To its credit, Walkers, which has been owned by PepsiCo subsidiary Frito-Lay since 1989, has pledged to transition to 100-percent recycled, compostable or biodegradable packaging by 2025. For activists, however, this just isn't soon enough given that at the current production rate, 28 billion additional non-recyclable crisp packets will have been produced. After their contents are consumed, a large bulk of these bags will inevitably end up sullying beaches and other natural areas.

In April, the issue of crisp-related waste was amplified when a young boy retrieved a bag of cheese and onion-flavored Walkers crisps dating back to the 1980s on a beach in Cornwall during a litter pick-up event.

"Research proves that big companies like Walkers are not taking responsibility for the astounding amount of environmentally damaging plastic waste they are making," Lorna Greenwood, a campaign manager at 38 Degrees, told The Guardian in August. "There's huge public concern about the amount of plastic being produced and that means it's crunch time for Walkers to decide if they will listen to their customers."

Going postal

In addition to a 331,000-signature-strong petition sponsored by 38 Degrees that urges Walkers to pick up the pace in its move away from non-recyclable plastic packaging, some crisp-munching Britons are applying further pressure by mailing empty packets to the company's Leicester headquarters once they're done with them.

Dubbed #PacketInWalkers, the social media-driven campaign encourages consumers to snap photos of themselves depositing Walkers crisps packets into mailboxes. To prevent generating further waste, most have eschewed envelopes and affixed mailing labels directly to the packets. (Paid postage isn't required to send the crisp bags because Walkers' customer service department participates in freepost, which is the U.K. equivalent of business reply mail in the U.S.)

Per a flurry of recent news reports this has, not surprisingly, resulted in a logistical headache for the Royal Post. While the courier is obligated by law to accept and process the packets as mail, the fact that they're being sent sans envelopes means they have to be hand-sorted so they don't damage machinery at Royal Post facilities.

"We strongly encourage customers not to post anything into the postal system which is not properly packaged," a spokesperson for Royal Post says in a statement shared by the BBC. "Crisp packets can't go through the machines, they are not normal mail items therefore my hardworking colleagues need to manually sort them, which adds to time."

Per Royal Post, roughly 30 crisp packets had been handled and processed as of late September.

In response to pleas from Royal Post, organizers at 38 Degrees have encouraged consumers to keep at it and continue to mail empty crisp packets to the company — but enclosed within proper envelopes for the sanity of Royal Post workers.

"Royal Mail have asked people to use envelopes when posting crisp packets and we will update the thousands of Walkers's customers who are taking part," explains 38 Degrees campaigner Cathy Warren. "Up and down the country, people are telling Walkers to step up when it comes to plastic waste."

'The situation isn't getting any better'

The 38 Degrees-backed online petition was launched by Geraint Ashcroft, a retired assembly line engineer and potato chip aficionado from Pontypridd, Wales, who had become all too painfully aware of the toll his plastic-intensive snacking habits were having on the environment. And so, he began to implore Walkers to ditch plastic packaging posthaste.

"It takes so long for them to degrade, there are packets being picked up on beaches that are 30 or 40 years old," Ashcroft recently lamented to the BBC, noting that the "situation isn't getting any better."

While Ashcroft originated the petition and was subsequently invited over the summer to meet with representatives from Walkers and discuss the urgency of the issue, it was not his idea to mail empty crisp packets back to the company. That well-intentioned but ultimately problematic move was hatched by 38 Degrees.

"Recycling isn't enough. It won't sort the ones already on the beaches," says Ashcroft, who for years dutifully tossed his spent crisp packets in with his recycling until learning that, in fact, they were non-recyclable. "We need biodegradable, we need compostable bags."

He tells the Leicestershire Mercury: "People don't want this stuff going into landfill and they keep talking about making them compostable, but nothing is happening. As a nation, the U.K. alone consumes approximately six billion packets a year. That's an awful lot of landfill and poison for the environment."

A compromise and a recycling solution

It appears that the push on social media for Walkers to change its ways has been successful.

The company announced in December that it has partnered with a company that recycles items that are difficult to process (i.e. crisps packets that are contaminated with food). Consumers are encouraged to mail their empty crisp packets to TerraCycle or drop them off at a participating location, and the company will turn the packets into plastic pellets that can be used to build new products. Walkers claims it's the first nationwide crisp packet recycling program, one the company hopes can fill the gap until it switches over to compostable packaging by 2025.

It appears the government supports Walkers' commitment to recycling as well.

"As the custodians of our planet, we must take action now to protect our oceans and wildlife from single-use plastic pollution," Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Michael Gove told The Guardian. "Walkers are setting a fine example with this new scheme, and I want to see other companies step up, follow suit and reduce their environmental impact."