Are Supermarkets Really Recycling Our Flexible Plastic?

How to Refuse, Reduce and Reuse Flexible Plastic

Last week I read an article by Bloomberg about what really happens to flexible plastic collected by supermarkets for recycling. Unsurprisingly, what Bloomberg found confirmed my suspicions; often the plastic (which is usually low grade and not economically viable to be recycled) ends up being exported to countries like Poland and Turkey where it is incinerated or possibly even dumped.

Since some supermarkets introduced this “Recycle with carrier bags at larger stores” scheme a year or so ago, I’ve been happily saving flexible plastic (such as bread bags or film) to recycle at my local supermarket. At the back of my mind was a niggling doubt; is this type of plastic even recyclable? But I convinced myself that the supermarkets were acting responsibly. Having this facility probably increased my consumption of products packaged in plastic and I became lazy in avoiding plastic waste.

Reading the Bloomberg article has been a wake-up call for me. It has been the impetus I needed to redouble my efforts at reducing and maybe even eliminating plastic waste. With that in mind, I’ve had a good think about ways to refuse, reduce and reuse hard-to-recycle plastic packaging in our everyday lives. Here are a few ideas:

Bread Bags

One of the first things I noticed labelled “Recycle with carrier bags at larger supermarkets”. Before this, we had been regularly making our own bread using a breadmaker we had picked up in a charity shop. If you don’t have the time or energy to make your own bread, you could try buying directly from a baker (taking your own bag) or from the supermarket bakery section which often uses paper bags. Alternatively, reuse plastic bread bags as much as possible before recycling, maybe to wrap sandwiches or cakes for packed lunches.

Pet Food

We buy tins or trays of wet food for our cat, rather than plastic pouches. For dry food, we try to buy cardboard boxes or paper bags. If you have a fussy pet who has to eat a particular brand of biscuit that comes in plastic, again try to reuse the plastic bags as bin bags.

Crisp Packets

One of my guilty pleasures. We had been recycling our crisp packets through the Teracycle scheme which raised money for our local air ambulance. However, Walkers, who initiated the scheme, have pulled the plug and it ends on 25 April 2022. The reason given? “Today, there are now more than 3,500 local supermarket collection points where flexible plastics, such as crisp packets, can be recycled.” Having said that, it appears there is still a crisp packet recycling scheme with Teracycle for any brand of crisps. See if there’s a collection point near you here.

When it comes to reducing crisp packet packaging, what are the alternatives? Well, you could make your own, although I must confess I haven’t tried this yet. There are a few crisp manufacturers, such as Two Farmers, which use plastic-free packaging but they are often more expensive. My favourite zero waste shop has recently started stocking crisps, you just need to bring your own container.

If you can only get crisps from the supermarket because well, life, consider buying larger sharing packs and decanting into smaller tubs for packed lunches, reducing the amount of packets. I can foresee a problem with this last option – I could easily polish off a large family size packet of crisps in one go once opened!

Cereal Packet Inserts

It may be hard to avoid cereal packet inserts if your family eats a lot of breakfast cereal. Most zero waste shops stock cereals like muesli and granola, but they tend to be at the healthier end of the scale and less appealing to children. One popular alternative to kids’ breakfast cereals in our house is porridge which we make with oats from a zero waste shop or in home-compostable packaging.

That said, we do still buy breakfast cereal from the supermarket. As a result, I’m increasingly finding uses for cereal packet inserts. They work as a great alternative to cling film for wrapping food and as freezer bags. I’ve even heard of them being used as tracing paper!

Plastic-Wrapped Fruit & Veg

If you have the option in the supermarket, choose loose fruit and veg over plastic-wrapped. Perhaps take a reused cereal packet insert to put your items into! If you’re lucky enough to live near a local farmers market or greengrocer, take your own bags to buy fruit and veg. Other alternatives include getting a veg box delivered or growing your own fruit and vegetables (easier than you think)!

Pasta and Rice

Like crisps, if you buy pasta and rice in bulk, you instantly reduce the amount of plastic packaging. We buy 3kg bags of pasta; once finished, the bags make handy bin bags for a small rubbish bin or to take litter picking. Refill stores also often sell loose pasta and rice. For more tips on using zero waste stores, see our Beginner’s Guide to Zero Waste Shops.

Cheese Packaging

I’ve written before about my family’s cheese addiction; we have it with nearly every meal! If you’re lucky enough to have a local deli, you may be able to use your own container to buy cheese. Alternatively, Teracycle has a cheese packaging recycling scheme – you can find your nearest collection point here.

Treats

By treats I mean all the best things; biscuits, chocolate, sweets and the like!

With biscuits, probably the easiest way to avoid plastic packaging is to make your own (I am munching on a homemade ginger nut as I write this!). Zero waste shops are a great place to buy baking ingredients and even supermarkets still sell flour and sugar in paper bags. If you have neither the time nor inclination to do this, there is a Teracycle biscuit and snack recycling scheme where you can drop off any brand of non-savoury biscuit, cake bar and cracker wrappers. Find your local collection point here.

As for chocolate and sweets, there are more and more brands available now using non-plastic packaging (either paper, card or foil). You could even visit your local sweet shop and take your own container!

So it is easy enough to avoid plastic wrappers, unless you (like me) have an unfortunate addiction to Cadbury’s dairy milk orange. In this case Teracycle comes to the rescue once again. They offer a confectionery recycling scheme for chocolate bar wrappers and sweet packaging. For more information click here.

Other Eco-Actions

If you are choosing to refuse plastic packaged products, why not tell the manufacturer that you are and why by email or Tweet? It was as a result of consumers sending empty crisp packets back to Walkers in 2018 that the company introduced the soon to be scrapped Teracycle recycling scheme.

You could write to your supermarket asking them to explain what happens to the flimsy plastic they collect for recycling. Maybe ask how they can guarantee it will be recycled or urge them to further reduce plastic packaging in the first place.

Tell your MP that you want to see more action on single use plastics. Give the example of France which has recently banned plastic packaging for most fruit and vegetables.

Sign a petition calling for urgent action on single use plastics, such as these ones from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.

Take part in Greenpeace’s Big Plastic Count from 16-22 May. The idea is that you count your plastic waste for one week and submit your results online. By using this data, Greenpeace hope to gain a clear idea of how much plastic waste is really thrown away. This information will be used to put pressure on government to reduce single use plastic, find alternatives and stop exporting our plastic waste overseas.

With the worrying but perhaps unsurprising revelation that supermarket recycling schemes may be little better than greenwash, it’s clear that recycling our plastic waste should be a last resort. For the health of our planet, it’s far better to refuse, reduce and reuse!

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