Manufacturers challenged to rethink plastic food packaging

Manufacturers are being challenged by the Local Government Association to rethink plastic food packaging so that councils can increase recycling and reduce waste sent to landfill.

food packaging

According to LGA, 525,000 tonnes of plastic pots, tubs and trays are used by households a year but just 169,145 tonnes of this waste is recyclable. Consequently, LGA is calling for manufacturers to work with councils to develop a plan to stop unrecyclable food packaging from entering the environment.

Packaging for food can be made from a variety of polymers that need to be separated out to remove “low grade” and non-recyclable polymers such as polystyrene. LGA state that fruit and vegetable punnets are often made from three different types of polymers including polystyrene. Some plastic packaging is made from a combination of polymers, as different plastics are used in the body and lid of a yoghurt pot.

In addition to developing a plan that ensures recyclable packaging is used where possible, councils are calling on the government to consider a ban on low-grade plastics, and for producers and manufacturers to contribute to the cost of collection or disposal.

Nearly all councils (99 per cent) collect plastic bottles for recycling and 77 per cent collect pots, tubs and trays, but the inclusion of these polymers is said to be hampering recycling efforts. Alternatives to certain plastics could include cardboard, paper or a recyclable version of pots.

Cllr Judith Blake, LGA Environment spokesperson, said: “It’s time for manufacturers to stop letting a smorgasboard of unrecyclable and damaging plastic flow into our environment. Some of the measures that could help us reduce landfill and increase recycling are no- brainers; for instance, microwave meals should be stored in a container that is any other colour than black, to enable quicker recycling.

“We’ve been calling for producers of unrecyclable material to develop a plan to stop this from entering the environment for years. That needs to happen urgently, but the government should now consider banning low-grade plastics, particularly those for single use, in order to increase recycling.

“If manufacturers don’t want to get serious about producing material which can be recycled and protecting our environment, then they should at least contribute towards the cost that local taxpayers have to pay to clear it up.

“We need an industry-wide, collaborative approach where together we can reduce the amount of material having an impact on the environment. But if industry won’t help us get there, then the government should step in to help councils ensure we can preserve our environment for generations to come.”

Problematic food packaging
Margarine and Ice Cream Tubs. This packaging contains the polymer polypropylene, which is extremely difficult to recycle. An alternative to this could be making them out of plastic used for water bottles which can be easily recycled.

Microwave meal and meat packaging. These materials can be re-sorted and recycled easily, but need to be sorted using an optical scanner beforehand. The optical scanner can sort this material from any other colour other than black, yet manufacturers choose use black packaging for aesthetic reasons. Changing the colour of these trays could lead to a real increase in recycling.

Fruit and vegetable punnets. Though simple in design, these punnets are complex in construction, with three polymers used in the construction of them. Councils are calling for a simpler design using recyclable materials.

Yoghurt pots use a mixture of two polymers, polypropylene and polystyrene, which are difficult to recycle. Some companies now use yoghurt pots made out of polyethylene terephthalate – the same material that is used for plastic bottles, making them easily recyclable.

Bakery goods trays. The lining which is used to house cakes and baked goods contains two difficult-to-recycle polymers, polyethelene terephthalate and polystyrene. More recyclable materials are available to store baked goods.