Let's talk about confectionery wrappings - Denis the Dustcart Blog
Published: 15 December 2021
In his regular feature, Denis the Dustcart talks about confectionery wrappings and how to tell if you can recycle them or not.
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You know it’s mid-December when you’ve eaten all the chocolates you bought for your Christmas tree.
Today I want to talk about confectionery wrappings.
Before I start, though, I’d like to say that I’m not looking to encourage anyone to eat less chocolate over the festive period. I’ll be doing quite a bit of it myself.
But, you know – wow, do we eat a lot of chocolates.
It’s what the packaging contains that usually has the greater impact on our planet – and the animals that inhabit it. Not much of the choccie available to us in pretty festive wrappings is of the ethical, non-palm-oil-containing kind.
A friend of mine gifts homemade liqueur chocolates each year, crafted from ethical chocolate. They have to be eaten quickly, though, because they aren’t individually wrapped. Not that I mind about that, of course.
I’d be interested to hear what you do for eco festive treats. Write your ideas in the comments.
In this piece, however, I’m going to focus on packaging. At this time of year, especially, it would seem more appropriate to call certain confectionery boxes ‘an assortment of wrappers containing chocolate’.
There are three types of wrappings that most commercial chocolate producers use: laminated plastic foil, cellophane and aluminium foil. Some producers now wrap individual chocolates in home-compostable cellulose, though how many of these wrappers actually get composted is another matter.
When it comes to recycling plastic wrappers, there is one basic rule to remember: if it fails the scrunch test – i.e. if it springs open after being scrunched up – it can’t be recycled. So that’s all the millions of little torn open plastic wrappings, many of which get left in the box to inflict upon us, in our hour of chocolate need, the disappointment of realising all our favourites are in fact just ‘empties’.
I’ve often wondered why companies never turned away from foil towards plastic for their seasonal ‘character’ confectionery, like they did for many of the chocolate bars you can buy all year round. I can only assume it’s for the sake of their customers’ sense of magic and tradition: a sparkly, foil-wrapped Father Christmas looks a lot more Christmassy than one encased in plastic.
We all know that plastic is used so much because it’s lighter, cheaper and keeps food fresh on the shelves for longer. It has revolutionised how we consume for that very reason – for the worse, as far as the planet is concerned. More can be shipped further, stored for longer and sold everywhere more cheaply and for greater profits.
But the plastic that wraps chocolate is not recyclable. So foil is better, right?
We are told by retailers and producers that we can recycle the attractive ‘traditional’ foil from our chocolate snowmen and Father Christmases, and of course we should do that. It’s highly valuable. To be recycled, however, it needs first to be picked off the recycling line, and for that to happen it needs to be balled up to about the size of a tennis ball.
And does being recyclable make packaging ‘green’?
Aluminium is endlessly recyclable, but the production of the virgin material comes at enormous planetary cost. Were it to be produced in the same quantities as plastic then the environmental and ecological harm caused would be… significant.
Turning raw bauxite into aluminium through the processes of mining, refining and smelting uses incredible amounts of fuel, electricity, water and other ‘resources’, resulting in, among other harmful things, copious greenhouse gas emissions. The biodiversity loss, as a consequence of swathes of land being given over to the mining of bauxite, is pretty intense.
Even the most ardent recycler will find the small amounts of foil infuriatingly difficult to scrunch together into a ball big enough to not fall through recycling machinery and to be picked off a conveyor by people wearing heavy-duty gloves. You need to encase them in larger pieces of foil.
And is the foil even made from recycled material in the first place? Sometimes it is. But the less we recycle, the more we have to make from scratch.
Isn’t it the wrong way around to put all the emphasis on whether something is recyclable? Shouldn’t we be asking why we produce waste rather than focusing mainly on how we can deal with that waste?
Waste is an inevitable consequence of consumption. The more our demand for confectionery is encouraged, the more we demand. The more we buy, the more is made.
Some may point towards food waste as a reason for using single-use air-tight packaging, but this isn’t really a valid argument for something like confectionary, which is mass-produced for the sake of maximum profit. Foil or cheap, thin, highly efficient plastic allows more to be sold, and feeding the consumerist habit only results in the greater production of waste overall.
While demand for the goods exists and is encouraged, there will be no backing away from single-use packaging.
It will be interesting to see how producers move to solve the equation:
Product Freshness + Continued Profitability + Sustainability = ?.