Only a third of plastic food packaging can be recycled, councils say

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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.

Quick guide

Plastics and our throwaway society

Why is plastic being demonised?

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.

Why are the supermarkets under fire?

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.

Who pays to clean up the waste?

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.

What can shoppers do to help?

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.

Sandra Laville


Photograph: ermingut/E+
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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.