A lot of the materials used in food packaging aren’t recyclable. For example, fast food groceries, shopping bags and frozen vegetables in the supermarket.  After careful examination of what can and can’t be recycled, it is clear that most of the materials we use would end up in a landfill because of the incapability of manufacturers to produce packaging materials that can be recycled. What is the solution to this problem?

Due to the advancements in technology and different eating habits, the availability of food has been improved in many different ways. These improvements do not just affect the availability of fresh foods directly from farms but also processed foods that come in a variety of containers and packaging which for a buyers or consumers convenience. All these factors put together make it easier for us to eat more continently, go on outings and enjoy long distance travels and to save us valuable time by eating on the go. The side effect of this is the ever increasing number of non-recyclable food packaging resulting in waste. Joint research conducted by the American Plastic Council and EPA in 2006. It showed that polyethylene terephthalate which is used in the production of containers for foods. About 2860 thousand tons of it are used and only 540 thousand tons of it is recycled. This leaves 2320 thousand tons which becomes waste.  Also, a research study carried out by the EU shows that in 2015, 166.3 kg of packaging waste was generated per inhabitant in the EU-28. This quantity varied between 51.2 kg per inhabitant in Croatia and 222.2 kg per inhabitant in Germany this shows a significant amount of food packaging is wasted. The majority of that waste has to do with the material so much food is packed in.

To find out what irritates people the most about recycling in the UK, online label manufacturer Seareach surveyed over 3,000 people aged over 18 asking them: “What frustrates you most about recycling?” Asking people to choose how they feel about the current recycling situation in the UK, they found the most significant issues included:

  • Manufacturers using too much packaging – 39%
  • Not knowing what you can and can’t recycle – 24%
  • Lack of local recycling options – 11%
  • Onus on the consumer, not manufacturers – 11%
  • Poor recycling labels – 6%
  • Confusing information – 6%

Consumers are frustrated at the rate at which recyclable packaging is increasing by the day. They urge manufacturers to reduce packaging and utilize hi-tech methods for recycling packages.

Food producers have to seriously consider the implications when selecting the type of materials to be used when packaging their foods, and as a result, they have factored in more considerations apart from just the recyclability of the materials used when packaging their food. Food packaging is there to ensure their contents remain safe to eat and have a long and stable shelf life; and it is a real task to find a material that is both safe and recyclable so there are times that these recyclable packaging can provide a safe environment for the food and there are times it can’t. When we come across food packages that aren’t recyclable, it doesn’t mean that it’s awful. This is because what cannot be recycled, they may be other advantages of that packaging, for example being reusable. These non-recyclable packagings also have benefits like shelf stability that allows for to last longer and this helps prevent food wastage in the long run. The food packaging used in soup cartons or coffee pouches are significantly more convenient because they weigh less compared to their alternative, the metal cans. More weight consumes more fuel, so when these lighter weight packages are transported from the manufacturer to the store, it reduces the amount of fuel consumed and the amount of greenhouse gas emitted, when compared to other more substantial materials.

This doesn’t support the food production industry from producing and promoting better food packaging options, and this should be one of the objectives of such companies.  For example, Keurig is working to ensure that all single server brew cups are recyclable by 2020.

Finding a recyclable packaging material that meets all the functions of both recyclable and non-recyclable materials for big companies is a challenging task which includes maintaining food shelf life and lightweight pakaging. However, there are roles consumers can play which was help. We could decide to start making wiser purchasing decisions.

Following on from this survey, Seareach asked respondents what they thought would be useful solutions to the current recycling situation in the UK. They asked: “What ideas would you like to see adopted?” They found people wanted:

  • Recycling at supermarkets for all packaging – 68%
  • Consistent and understandable labeling – 67%
  • Councils to be more transparent about recycling – 65%
  • Apps to scan barcodes for recycling info – 38%