All for show? Why we need better leadership on recycling

Its time for businesses and government to be honest with consumers about the environmental impact of packaging, writes Viridor’s Tim Rotheray

While the UK government’s food strategy for England, published this week, has come in for a lot of criticism, it put a vital spotlight on food waste. In the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, it is an obvious area to tackle to help stretched family budgets. The average home wastes £800 a year on food that gets thrown away.

But beyond the purely financial, food waste has a significant environmental footprint. Firstly, the waste of food necessitates over-production, bringing with it land use impacts, additional fertiliser and pesticide use leaving less space for wild areas and generating wholly unnecessary carbon emissions. Secondly, that food waste, when thrown away, can itself generate greenhouse gases. Some food waste still makes its way into the landfill system, where it rots producing methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

A key tool in tackling food waste is packaging. The pots, tubs, trays and films that are wrapped around our food, admittedly sometimes almost comically unnecessarily – anyone wraps a grapefruit in film why escapes me – are critical to extending their shelf life. And a longer shelf life increases the chances of perishable food being eaten before it goes off.

Much of that packaging is plastic. Plastics are used because they are light, sterile and airtight. Airtightness not only keeps the bugs out, it also allows for protective atmospheres (inert gasses) to surround food keeping it fresh for longer.

But, as noted in the food strategy, it’s not just food waste that’s a problem, it’s waste of the packaging as well. In the UK just half of the plastic placed on the market is put out for recycling. And of that only 40 per cent is turned back into raw materials in the UK, with the rest being shipped abroad. The strategy notes government reforms seeking to drive recycling rates up as part of another Government strategy – the Resources and Waste Strategy, targeting 65 per cent recycling by 2035, up from about 50 per cent today.

In recycling, milk bottles are a huge success story. The bottles do a fantastic job of keeping milk from spoiling but, because they are all basically the same and made from the same plastic, over 80 per cent get recycled. And, given that recycled plastic has emissions six times lower than new plastic, it not only saves food waste, it also helps cut carbon. Milk bottles enjoy the highest recycling rate for all plastics and way above the global recycling rate at a paltry 12 per cent. So it is surprising that in the alternative milk market, a plastic bottle is never to be seen. Take a walk down any supermarket dairy alternative aisle. And you’ll see box after box of milk cartons. Angular containers made mainly from cardboard. These are hard to recycle because they are composite boxes, with an inner plastic film layer, a metal film layer, a card layer and an external coating. Finally, they have a plastic lid. Recycling these bottles is difficult and, with so many layers, much of the material is too damaged by the process to be reused.

So why are these bottles used? With plastic bottles having a well-established recycling process and being collected everywhere – sure that would be an option worth pursuing? Certainly, plastic bottles, milk and drinks, have higher recycling rates. And one key appeal of alternative milks is reduced environmental footprint. So why is a less sustainable solution being used? It appears that the manufacturers are responding to a conventional belief that plastics are intrinsically bad and so making use of cartons instead. The legitimate public concern over plastic pollution seems to be driving the use of less sustainable materials to make consumers feel they are doing the right thing.

The world of packaging and recycling is complex and, as all of us will know, it is not easy to be sure what can and cannot be recycled. But with the impact on the planet of modern lifestyles becoming all too significant, surely it’s time for us to be honest with consumers about the real impact of packaging, and show real leadership in helping people make good environmental decisions rather than just going along with a misplaced sense of what is best.

Tim Rotheray is director of external affairs at Viridor

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