Binning the plastic

Date published: 30 December 2017

As you sift through the mountains of Christmas packaging destined for the bin, you may be wondering what can and can not actually be recycled in the Rochdale borough. After all, paper and card goes in the paper bin, and plastic is plastic, right?

Turns out, things are never that straight forward, as far as plastic goes, only plastic bottles without lids can be recycled in the borough of Rochdale.

In neighbouring Whitworth, where the bins are collected by Rossendale Council, various other forms of plastic are collected that would be discarded into general waste just miles away.

Despite the issue that bottles are the only plastic can be recycled locally, the overall kerbside recycling rate in October 2017 was up by 1% on last year at 52.9%. Although this is higher than last year, this does mean that just over half of items that can be recycled are.

Our reporter, Michelle Kight, has been so frustrated with this situation that for several years she saves all her plastic items that cannot be recycled in Rochdale and takes them to her family in Rossendale where it can be recycled.

In fact, like Michelle, you may wonder why so many manufacturers and supermarkets package their goods in so much plastic, especially when the public is being urged to do more to recycle and save the planet. How often have you picked up fruit in a plastic punnet, containers consisting of ‘mixed materials’ or pasta in a plastic bag – all difficult to recycle? Surely cutting out the plastic would make more sense?

Some preventative measures are taking place nationally – the 5p bag levy and the UK ban on microplastic beads in cosmetics, and polyethylene bag recycling at larger stores, like the Tesco at Sudden, for example. Celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall even took to the screen last year with his ‘war on waste’ revolution, campaigning for reduction in take-away coffee cups, and needless food and textile waste.

Is it enough?

According to Defra, the UK generated 202.8 million tonnes of total waste in 2014.

We can only recycle what our councils allow us, and the problem would be arguably easier to tackle if items came in recyclable packing in the first place.

Since the 1950s, approximately 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic has been produced. Of this, just 9% is recycled, with an eye-opening 79% having been thrown away. The rest is incinerated – and, it is estimated by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish on our planet.

Aside from the finite landfill space, plastic is a blight on the very environment it pollutes. It is estimated to take anywhere up to 1,000 years for plastic to decompose in landfill.

Some forms of plastic are toxic and can disrupt hormones or that microplastic particles have entered the food chain after they are often mistaken by fish for their usual food sources.

At local level, some measures are being taken to improve our recycling rates, public recycling bins in the town centre, recycling facilities at Freehold and Lower Falinge plus a bulky waste amnesty agreed for Middleton, Milnrow and Newhey after a successful initiative in Kingsway, and Balderstone and Kirkholt.

The local Recycling Week campaign saw recycling officers speaking residents at supermarket locations across the borough.

Locally, we also have the brown bin food waste recycling scheme and the large Tesco store at Sudden has proudly displayed 331 meals have been donated this week through the FareShare scheme, a scheme to tackle food waste as featured on ‘Hugh’s War On Waste’: small steps in the right direction.

Rochdale Online asked Rochdale Borough Council and the supermarkets with the largest local branches – Tesco, Asda, Morrisons – what they could do to address the packaging waste problem and reduce the amount of plastic used.

A spokesperson for the council said: “We are in contract with GMWDA, as are all authorities across Greater Manchester, please see below a statement from the GMWDA on this, as always we are totally committed to recycling in our borough as are residents.

"We only accept plastic bottles for recycling across Greater Manchester. A bottle and a food tray are made of the same type of plastic but not the same grade of plastic, therefore the grades of plastic will behave differently when they are recycled, as they melt at different temperatures.

"Our technology (MRF) cannot sort between the different grade of plastics, and so they can not be recycled together.

"There are really good reasons why we can only recycle plastic bottles in Greater Manchester.

  • Manufacturers that make new products demand high grade plastics. High grade equals plastic bottles.
  • Plastics like yoghurt pots, margarine tubs and plastic trays (pots tubs and trays) are a low grade plastic and the manufacturers just do not want these.
  • Our sorting machines cannot sort between plastic pots, tubs and trays and plastics bottles. This means that the low grade plastic pots, tubs and trays contaminate the high grade plastic bottles.
  • During the recycling process the plastic is melted. A plastic pot, tub, tray and a plastic bottle melt at different temperatures, meaning the pots, tubs and trays contaminate the bottles and the batch cannot be used to make new products.
  • Other areas may collect plastic pots, tubs and trays but currently very little are being recycled with most of it being turned into green energy.

"Plastics pots, tubs and trays do not go to waste. Residents are asked to put them in their general rubbish bin and they are turned into green electricity.”

A Morrisons spokesman said: "We know that the reduction of plastic is important - we are already working to address how we use plastic in our packaging. It is a complicated process as it is an important part of keeping the food fresh and avoiding food waste."

Tesco said: “We wish to assure you that we take sustainability of our products and packaging extremely seriously and always consider the environmental impact of our business on the environment.

"Firstly, we would assure you that we employ the most experienced and qualified people within our business to guide us on the right thing to do on packaging for our products and customers. Our technical manager for packaging is a chartered environmentalist and Tesco is one of two retailers who employ such a person.

"In terms of our packaging, we would like to make the following points:

  • The first priority of packaging is to protect the product. We have carried out carbon impact studies and know that on average packaging represents 5% of the carbon impact of product and packaging. This means that for a small environmental impact, the packaging is protecting the largest impact which is of course the product itself. Food waste is a key priority for Tesco and we know that packaging reduces the amount of food waste generated.
  • In developing countries that have far less packaging, food waste can be as high as 40%, whilst in the UK where packaging protects product it is less than 5%. Tesco have signed up to the United Nations goal to reduce food waste and we believe packaging will have a part to play.
  • Although food waste has to be our priority, we also know that we can reduce packaging without increasing waste or impacting on product quality. We will always look for opportunities to do this and over the last 10 years we have reduced our packaging by 28% for packaged goods and 38% for all products including loose. However, this can continue for only so long before we believe product quality, shelf life, or waste is incurred – so only so much can be done. That said, where we see opportunity we will reduce.
  • On the subject of food waste, we have active projects not only to reduce waste in stores, but also to help customers reduce waste in the home. One example of this is portion control on chicken. Our customer research told us that customers really wanted a way to divide chicken breasts and use one immediately and store the other (without breaking the seal) in the fridge or freezer for use on another day. The waste in the home figures from WRAP demonstrated that a significant tonnage of chicken was being thrown away every year because of this. We have reacted to customers wishes and are delighted to have launched a first to market innovation that allows them to do this, saving over 1,300 tonnes of chicken every year.
  • In terms of our cooked meat, we have introduced a reseal mechanism on all our cooked meats and we are immensely proud of this as we know it allows the meats to last longer in the home at a better quality. This reduces food waste in the home – the environmental benefit of which far outweighs the impact of the packaging. An independent food waste report from WRAP is publically available, and this indicates that as much as 17,000 tonnes of cooked ham is thrown away every year in the UK. The reseal mechanism will help to reduce this impact.
  • Our next priority is to source our packaging in a sustainable way. We are therefore committed to using sustainable forests for our paper and board sourcing. We are driving the increased use of post-consumer plastic waste into our PET packaging (bottles and plastic trays, for example). This means we are effectively making new packaging from old and using less virgin plastics. It also has the very important message to local authorities that we want old packaging to be collected and recycled, so we are driving the demand for recycling.
  • We also wish to use less plastic types, to help recycling companies recycle the packaging more easily. We are reducing the amount of PVC and polystyrene (PS) as a priority. We are pleased to report that these two plastics combined represent less than 2% of the packaging we use. We are committed to reducing this further. Indeed, on cooked meat we have an active project to replace the PVC base tray with an alternative. The PVC tray on cooked meats is recyclable (the UK guidance is that all plastic trays, pots and tubs is widely recyclable), however, we wish to replace the PVC with a more environmentally beneficial plastic. A material called r-PET is what we are looking to do, which means we will then be using old plastic packaging to make new packaging.
  • In terms of recyclability, it is important to understand that there is a difference between technically recyclable materials and what is collected by local authorities for recycling. To use materials in packaging that are technically recyclable is in our control and we aim to do this. What is less in our control, but we do try to influence, is what each local authority will collect for recycling. We note that South Oxfordshire is partly successful at recycling, however, there is disparity in local authorities and this can be seen by looking at the recycling league tables. There is a range of between 14% and 67% for local authority performance. So we try to work with government to influence more collection of our recyclable packaging.
  • We strongly believe that for more recycling to occur in the UK, we all have a part to play – from retailers through to local authorities and recycling companies and indeed consumers. Collectively, the industry working groups that Tesco have played a part in have worked hard to improve the situation and although there is a great deal more to do. As a result of the work we and other retailers do, we are pleased to report that this year, plastic pots, tubs and trays have moved to widely recyclable from ‘check local recycling’.
  • The most difficult area is plastic films as these are classed as ‘not currently recyclable’. Our cooked meats do have top films on them and these films play a part in the reseal mechanism. Films make up about 10% of the Tesco portfolio by weight. The films are required as they are in fact often complex structures of different materials that impart special shelf life extension properties. These properties are extremely important to reduce food waste in consumers’ homes. Even if other materials or formats could replace them, the environmental impact of doing so would be negative. If you could replace films with paper/cardboard, metal, glass or rigid plastics then weight would increase as would volume – the latter meaning more transport lorries on the road. So we need to keep the films and we will always consider overall environmental impact (of which recycling is one aspect) to select the right material for the job. We of course continually monitor new materials and packaging formats as they are developed to establish where new opportunities may be.
  • Some films are actually recyclable, and these are essentially single material films (mono films). However, local authorities do not collect them for recycling and consumers have to place them in their general bins. This means we label them as ‘not currently recyclable’. To help customers a little more, we are beginning to label those materials that can be recycled as ‘recycle with carrier bags at front of store’. As this implies, these films are the same material as carrier bags and therefore Tesco have set up a closed loop recycling service, which means that at our larger stores you will find a carrier bag collection bank. We then take these materials and recycle them and create new bags – this is in our control and it is the right thing to do for the environment and customers. An example of such materials will be bread bags which are made from polyethylene – the same as the carrier bags. Unfortunately, for pasta bags, we use polypropylene as it is a more suitable material for this long life product. 
    We do need to get better at labelling those packs where this is possible and we are committed to doing so.
  • Reducing the amount of plastic we use is in our plans, where it does not cause an increase in food waste. One such example amongst others, is a trial we are currently conducting on mushrooms, where we have replaced a plastic punnet with one made from recyclable pulp. We are currently establishing that there is no increase in waste and we would then home to complete home composability trials before roll out.

"We do have a great deal more to do, but at the same time we hope the above gives you the insight that we are proactive in this area, and indeed - we hope - leading the way.”

Asda did not respond to an invitation to comment.


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