Crisps (chips in the US), chocolate and cheese were among the worst foods for packaging recyclability, with brands including Pringles, Cadbury and Babybel failing to do their bit for the environment, the Which? investigation said.
The consumer watchdog analyzed 89 of the UK’s best-selling branded groceries and found only a third (34%) had packaging that was fully recyclable in household collections. To make matters worse, around four in 10 (41%) items had no labeling to show if they could be recycled, leaving consumers none the wiser about how to dispose of them.
In the yogurt and cheese categories, only three out of 10 products had recycling information.
Which? looked at 10 different categories of items including popular brands of chocolate, fizzy drinks, crisps, yogurts, drinks, cheese, bread loaves and cereals. Which? broke down each item’s packaging into its component parts, weighed them and assessed whether each piece could be easily recycled.
While significantly better than bagged snacks, when Which? took apart and analyzed cheese packaging, it found that a third (34%) was not easily recyclable. Which? said snack packs of Cathedral City (produced by Saputo Dairy UK) and Babybel (made by France’s Groupe Bel) were packaged in plastic net bags that are not only difficult to recycle but can also cause problems if they get caught up in the recycling machines accidentally.
Cheestrings, made by Kerry, was also found to be problematic, with packaging that was not recyclable in household collections.
At the other end of the spectrum, packaging for Dairylea Cheese Triangles (made by Mondelēz International), Seriously Spreadable Cheese (created by Lactalis) and Laughing Cow triangles (another Groupe Bel product) was all recyclable – but all had this important information missing from their labels at the time of testing.
By contrast, Philadelphia Soft White Cheese’s packaging is recyclable and was correctly labeled.
In a separate survey, Which? found the recyclability of grocery packaging is important to eight in 10 respondents (79%), and two thirds (67%) often or always look for recycling info on grocery packaging before deciding how to dispose of it.
In response to Which?’s findings, some manufacturers said food waste had a larger carbon footprint than plastic waste and claimed moving away from traditional packaging to recyclable alternatives could lead to compromised, stale or damaged food. Some also said their packaging was recyclable at TerraCycle collection points.
But Which? said it believes a lack of consistency and hugely varied approaches to grocery packaging shows that some manufacturers could be doing a lot more to ensure the materials used to package their products do not end up in landfill.
The responsible use of the right materials to package food is just one part of the problem. In order to tackle unnecessary waste, products also need to be correctly labeled with clear instructions of how packaging should be disposed of, the group said.
Which? said it is calling on the government to make recycling labelling simple, clear and mandatory, so that all consumers are able to make informed decisions when buying groceries.
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 that goes 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.”
Saputo told Which? its Cathedral City Minis do now have recycling labeling.
“It is correct that our flexible film packaging cannot be recycled through kerbside collection. Cheese film packaging is notoriously difficult to recycle. No UK manufacturer has film packaging that can be recycled through kerbside collection,” Saputo said.
“That is why, whilst we work on a permanent solution, we have launched a partnership with Terracycle to recycle the film packaging of not only Cathedral City, but of all brands and supermarket own label cheese, the first scheme of its type in the cheese category. All Cathedral City packaging has recently been updated to include the Terracycle information and clearer recycling information in general.
“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 trialing recyclable alternatives to the nets.”
Saputo told DairyReporter, “The netting packaging on Cathedral City Minis can be accepted for recycling by TerraCycle as part of our partnership with them, which covers all cheese film packaging - the first scheme of its type in the cheese category.
“The labeling on the Minis will be updated shortly to reflect this change. We are also currently trialling recyclable alternatives to the nets.”
Groupe Bel also responded to the report, with Gaelle Vernet, group marketing manager of Bel UK telling Which? “All elements of The Laughing Cow packaging are recyclable and our new pack design, which rolled out into stores from September 7, will carry the official On Pack Recycling Label (OPRL) to ensure clear signposting for consumers.
“For Mini Babybel, we are in the process of rolling out a UK & Ireland partnership with TerraCycle, offering customers a simple and free solution to recycling all elements of our packaging including the plastic cello, wax and net bags. This will be communicated clearly across all packs by the end of the year.
“Bel UK is absolutely committed to achieving 100% recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025 and have a dedicated team of people, along with heavy investment in our infrastructure, to ensure we continue to make positive steps and achieve this goal.”
DairyReporter reached out to Mondelēz International and Lactalis but received no response.