The European Commission has set an EU-wide objective for all packaging to be recyclable or reusable by 2030. But crisp packets are a particular headache for policymakers and the recycling industry because they are so tiny and lightweight.
Walkers, Britain’s largest crisp manufacturer, announced in October it was launching a scheme to recycle the 7,000 non-recyclable crisp packets it produces every minute.
The announcement was made after the company came under intense pressure from hundreds of activists who grabbed headlines by posting their packets back to Walkers.
But achieving high recycling rates will be a tall order for Walkers. Indeed, crisp packets are so lightweight that there is no real value even in collecting them for recycling, said Delphine Lévi Alvarès, from the Rethink Plastic Alliance, a group of environmental NGOs.
“It might be recyclable but it’s not going to be recycled,” she told a EURACTIV event last year. “Light-weighting has always come at the expense of re-usability and recyclability,” which are the cornerstones of the circular economy, she explained.
Recyclers are well aware of this and some have adapted their sorting plants to be able to deal with smaller, lightweight items. However, they haven’t found an economically-viable solution yet.
“Lightweight plastic is indeed very difficult to recycle. We have little incentives and, technically, it’s complicated to separate the different linings,” said Bénédicte Wallez from Veolia, a French company involved in waste management who participated in the EURACTIV event.
Betting on innovation
Crisp packets are made from a fusion of plastic and aluminium foil. Crisps are packaged like this because of their high fat content, which means they can quickly go rancid when exposed to oxygen.
By 2030, “we hope that innovations will have been made” to ensure all single-use plastic items including crisp packets can be more easily collected and recycled, said Leonardo Mazza, an EU official in charge of waste policy at the European Commission’s environment directorate.
But there is still “quite a lot of efforts to make” within the plastic supply chain and among public authorities in charge of waste collection in order to turn this vision into reality, he told participants at the event, supported by the European Snacks Association.
Producers of lightweight plastics say they can make the job of recyclers easier by making crisp packets recyclable. Greater investment in collection and sorting processes will increase the potential for recycling, they argue.
“There are interesting recycling technologies under development,” said Achim Grefenstein, senior vice president at Constantia Flexibles, a manufacturer of flexible packaging headquartered in Vienna, Austria. And “brand owners often ask us whether we can produce packaging with recycled content” or renewable feedstocks produced from agriculture.
“But today it’s not possible with state-of-the-art recycling technology,” he said, asking: “Why go for the Holy Grail” of recycling when lightweight plastics represent just 1% of plastic consumption?
“I think then, even incineration is better,” he said.
Manufacturers have sought to innovate by developing alternatives like plant-based plastics as a way of improving the ecological footprint of lightweight packaging.
“Biopolymers might be of help to get rid of the dependence on oil,” Grefenstein pointed out, saying they are “a key option for the future”. However, he warned that such items are not bio-degradable and therefore won’t solve the problem of littering.
“Today, there is not one single biopolymer that would degrade in the ocean,” Grefenstein said. “Most biopolymers just degrade in industrial composting plants. And therefore, you need a collection system anyhow,” he said, adding this won’t be a solution for emerging markets in Asia where plastic littering is a major public concern.
“I’m not happy to say that, but it’s the sad truth,” Grefenstein said.
In fact, green activists are quite sceptical of plant-based plastics. “This is not what we are pushing for,” said Alvarès, warning that EU policymakers have “fallen into the trap of substitution” over waste reduction.
Just like other agricultural crops, plant-based plastics need fertilisers, water and pesticides to grow, Alvarès pointed out, warning this only displaces the environmental impact of plastic pollution into the agriculture sphere. Another concern is that bio-plastics can lead to increased littering because people assume the product is bio-degradable and therefore throw it away quite easily.
The Break Free From Plastic movement, an NGO coalition, has done a brand audit of plastic litter most commonly found on beaches across the world. It found Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé were the three most frequently identified brands, with Coke-branded plastic pollution found in 40 of the 42 participating countries.
Packaging producers have focused their efforts on consumer campaigns, saying they can go a long way towards the prevention of littering.
In February last year, Coca-Cola announced its World Without Waste initiative, with a commitment to use only recyclable plastic in its bottles by 2025. By 2030, an average of 50% of Coca-Cola bottles will be made from recycled content.
But campaigners say brands should look beyond packaging and focus on the product instead. “You are not selling packaging, you are selling products – food, toys, etc.,” said Alvarès. “The product is what’s important, not the packaging that’s around it,” she insisted.
The good news, she said, is that there are alternatives such as packaging-free supermarkets, which are becoming more popular and also tend to sell healthier foods, produced locally.
“The alternatives are out there and people are asking for it,” Alvarès said, calling on brands and consumers to rethink their approach to packaging.