Snacks & lunch packaging is hard to recycle - Denis the Dustcart Blog
Published: 10 September 2021
In his regular feature, Denis the Dustcart talks about snacks, drinks & chilled lunch packaging and why they are so hard to recycle.
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I often wonder why it is people get upset about how much of the packaging used for non-essential purchases is non-recyclable or hard to recycle.
Actually, let me rephrase that.
I understand why it’s upsetting to see so much non-recyclable or hard-to-recycle packaging on supermarket shelves, but focussing on the packaging rather than on the goods themselves is the wrong way round.
The availability of so many different snacks, drinks, chilled lunches and other things is more of an issue than what these things come packaged in.
The packaging is cheap and nasty precisely because it allows producers to push so many of these conveniently-priced products into our lives.
It’s a symptom of the hectic pace of society that so many people end up just buying lunch on the go. There are, of course, those with enough time on their hands to make lunch before they head out, but who would nevertheless privilege spending five minutes in the morning on something other than saving a few quid each day. But let’s be clear: the product we are being sold here is ‘convenience’.
There seems to be this idea that recyclability is a get-out-of-jail-free card – as though the impact of consuming what is often an innately harmful product is somehow negated by recycling the packaging it came in.
It’s particularly frustrating when hard-to-recycle packaging is replaced with so-called compostable packaging and passed off as an ‘eco-friendly alternative’.
Because it’s extremely unlikely that this packaging will be composted. It’s more than likely it will end up in a litter bin or in a home kitchen bin to be taken to an Energy from Waste plant to be burned and converted into electricity – along with any non-recyclable or hard-to-recycle packaging.
Should land be given over to producing packaging? Should we be using food-crops to create bioplastic so that we can continue to consume at the high levels we do currently?
How much energy is expended in making these materials that are designed to be used once before being thrown away?
When we compare the relative benefits and detriments of bio-plastic, we are only comparing it with cheap petroleum-based plastic. We are not comparing it with the benefits of not producing so much single-use packaging in the first place.
Even if a package is recyclable, when it’s designed for single-use its ability to be turned into something else hardly makes any inroads into the ecological and environmental impact of its production, especially if what is being packaged has a significant negative footprint.
Single-use is the problem here. The inability to recycle the packaging is a secondary consideration.
In the end, it’s about money.
Independent coffee shops – let alone chains – would sell fewer cups of coffee if they didn’t offer takeaways in disposable cups. Balancing the economy of consumerism with environmental concerns is, simply put, impossible.
I’ve heard people say councils should put coffee-cup bins in high streets, but emptying them and dealing with any contamination would likely end up costing that council money – public money. It would involve sorting through the contents of the bins to not only separate other litter from the cups, but also compostable cups from standard takeaway cups.
In any case, it’s missing the vital point of producer responsibility – hence why many chains collect cups in-store.
Councils have a duty to spend public money wisely. Here in Exeter, we strive constantly to maximise the income we generate from recycling within parameters governed by our strict environmental ethics.
We want to know that what we send for recycling will actually be turned into useful and valuable products. We pursue circular options wherever possible.
We are also open about our limitations. We don’t want cheap, crinkly films, for instance, because we need to focus on films that are actually recyclable into quality, valuable items – like polythene shopping bags that we can get turned back into sacks for use around the city.
Still, people want crinkly films to be recycled. They want to be able to continue to buy what those crinkly packets contain, but they don’t want to cause more harm than necessary while doing that.
Supermarkets are now offering collections for these films, but this can still in no way be considered a free pass for shoppers to continue consuming as much as they do.
Those cheap packets will not become more cheap packets. More likely they’ll become planks for park benches.
It’s time we all began to focus less on the packaging and more on what the packaging contains – that is to say, on whether we have other options than consuming it.
We continue to be sold what we continue to consume. Changing the packet so we can feel less guilty about purchasing more plastic is not going to make much of a difference other than to arrest the potential slide in producer profits as people think more about their consumer habits.
Packaging waste is just a by-product of consumerism. After all, we wouldn’t set out to buy an empty packet.