Only a third of the plastic in packaging pots and trays for food can be recycled, local authorities have said.
Town hall chiefs urged manufacturers to scrap the “smorgasbord” of plastics used to package foods from fruit and vegetables to yoghurt, margarine and microwave meals to help cut waste and increase recycling.
Analysis by the Local Government Association (LGA) suggests housholds use 525,000 tonnes of plastic pots, tubs and trays a year.
Plastics and our throwaway society
Since the 1950s, 8.3bn tonnes of plastic has been produced. Plastic is seen as a versatile, indispensable product, but the environmental impact is becoming more stark. Plastic is now so pervasive that recycling systems cannot keep up and the leakage into the environment is such that by 2050 plastic in the ocean will outweigh fish. Last year scientists found plastic fibres in tap water, and plastic has been found in the stomachs of sea creatures in the deepest part of the ocean. Most plastic waste ends up in landfill sites or leaks into the natural environment, where it is causing huge damage to eco-systems on land and sea, creating near permanent contamination. According to academics in the United States, by 2015, of all the plastic waste generated since the 1950s, only 9% has been recycled, with 12% incinerated and 79% accumulated in landfill sites or the environment.
Producers of plastic include retailers, drinks companies and supermarkets. The Guardian revealed that supermarkets create more than half of the plastic waste in the household stream in the UK. But they refuse to reveal how much they put on to the streets and how much they pay towards recycling it. Supermarkets are under pressure to reduce their plastic packaging and campaigners argue they have the power to turn off the tap. Much of the packaging they sell to consumers is not recyclable: plastic film, black plastic trays, sleeves on drinks bottles and some coloured plastic. The Recycling Association and other experts believe supermarkets could do much more to make packaging 100% recyclable and reduce the use of plastic.
The taxpayer, overwhelmingly. Producers and retailers pay the lowest towards recycling and dealing with their waste in Europe. In other countries, the “polluter” is forced to pay much more. In France, a sliding system of charges means those who put more non- recyclable material on the market pay more.
Supermarkets are under pressure, not least from the prime minister, to create plastic-free aisles. A growing number of zero-waste shops are springing up and consumers are being encouraged to ask for products to be sold without plastic.
Only 169,145 tonnes can be recycled, however, leaving two-thirds bound for landfill or incineration.
The LGA said councils had done all they could to tackle plastic waste, with 99% of local authorities collecting plastic bottles for recycling and 77% picking up pots, tubs and trays.
Packaging for food can be made from a variety of polymers, the molecules which make up plastic, which need to be separated out to remove low-grade and non-recyclable types of plastic such as polystyrene.
Some packaging uses different plastics such as the body and lid of a yoghurt pot, while fruit and vegetables punnets are made from three types of polymer, and microwave meals are contained in black plastic which cannot be easily sorted.
Manufacturers should work with councils and develop a plan to stop the use of unrecyclable plastic, the government should consider a ban on low-grade plastics and producers should contribute to the cost of collecting or disposing of the products, the LGA urged.
Judith Blake, the LGA’s environment spokeswoman, said: “It’s time for manufacturers to stop letting a smorgasboard of unrecyclable and damaging plastic flow into our environment. 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.”
A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokeswoman said: “Our recycling rates are rising, less waste is now sent to landfill and separate food waste collections are increasing.
“However, there is much more to do. That’s why we are working with industry to improve the nation’s recycling rates further, including by making more products recyclable.”
The LGA outlined five examples of everyday packaging that uses plastic that is difficult to deal with:
- Margarine and ice-cream tubs use polypropylene, which is difficult to recycle, but they could be made with the plastic used for water bottles which can be easily recycled.
- Microwave meal and meat packaging often uses black plastic that cannot be easily scanned and sorted, but changing the colour of these trays could lead to an increase in recycling.
- Fruit and vegetable punnets use three polymers in their construction, so 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 but some companies now use the same material as used for plastic bottles, making them easily recyclable.
- Bakery goods trays use two hard-to-recycle polymers, but more recyclable materials are available to store baked goods.