Crisps, chocolate and cheese are among the worst foods for packaging recyclability, with big brands such as Pringles, KitKat and Babybel singled out for failing to do more to help the environment, a new investigation has claimed.
The consumer group Which? analysed 89 of the UK’s best-selling branded groceries and found only a third (34%) had packaging that was fully recyclable in household collections. About four in 10 (41%) of items had no relevant labelling, leaving even environmentally conscious consumers in the dark about disposal.
In the exercise, Which? looked at 10 different food categories including chocolate, fizzy drinks, crisps, yoghurts, drinks, cheese and bread. Its experts broke down packaging, weighed each element and assessed whether each could be easily recycled.
Their recyclability varied hugely, it found. The worst category by far was crisps, with only 3% of packaging recyclable in household collections. This included Pringles and its notoriously hard-to-recycle tube.
Natalie Hitchins, Which? head of home products and services, said: “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.
“To reduce the waste to landfill, the government must make labelling mandatory, simple and clear, enabling shoppers to know exactly how to dispose of the packaging on the products they consume.”
Of the chocolate analysed, almost a third of packaging was not recyclable. Nestle’s four-finger KitKats, Cadbury’s Bitsa Wispa, Dairy Milk bars and Twirl Bites, along with Mars’s M&Ms, were found not to be recyclable in household recycling at all.
From the cheese aisle, snack packs of Cathedral City and Babybel were packaged in plastic net bags, which are not only difficult to recycle but can also get tangled in machinery.
None of the bread packaging Which? looked at was recyclable in household collections, although it was recyclable if taken to supermarket collection points alongside plastic bags.
In response to the findings, some manufacturers said that food waste had a larger carbon footprint than plastic waste and claimed that moving away from traditional packaging to recyclable alternatives could lead to compromised, stale or damaged food. Some said their packaging was recyclable at TerraCycle collection points.
Kellogg’s, which owns the Pringles brand, said it was “committed to 100% recyclable, compostable or reusable packaging by the end of 2025”, with cans recyclable through TerraCycle points.
Nestle said it was “committed to making all its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025, including the elimination of non-recyclable plastics. We are working hard to get there and have put temporary solutions in place to support recycling in the interim.”
Cathedral City said: “It is correct that our nets cannot be recycled through kerbside collection. We believe that to be the case for all netted cheese products in the market. We are currently trialling recyclable alternatives to the nets.” Babybel also said it was setting up a UK and Ireland partnership with TerraCycle.
Meanwhile, a new certification scheme is being rolled out by OPRL – the organisation that oversees pack recycling labelling – to bring consistency to claims of recyclability.
Jane Bevis, chair of OPRL, said: “For some time now we’ve been concerned about the level of greenwash and over-claiming evident in the packaging market. It’s really tough for any but the most practised packaging technologist to keep up with the latest packaging developments such as coatings and colourings and their impact on recyclability.”