WWF investigates the recyclability of plastic packaging in 82 popular food products
From plastic tubs to shiny wrappers and plastic sachets within plastic wrap, plastic is inescapable in the supermarket. In most cases, it plays a very useful role - it protects the food we buy, makes food last longer, and tells us important information about a product. However, only 18% of plastic packaging is recycled in Australia with the majority of packaging ending up in landfill, or worse entering our oceans where it can exist for hundreds of years.
We analysed 82 of some of our favourite supermarket food products and found that only 16 were recyclable at home. Across the six categories we looked at, we found many cases where the packaging wasn’t recyclable at all and instances where brands could be doing better. It’s clear we need stronger rules to ensure that all food products use less unnecessary plastic and choose packaging that can actually be recycled at home.
The good news is the audit found almost half of the surveyed products use the Australasian Recycling Label (ARL), which tells you how to throw out each packaging item. Woolworths and Coles private label products had the highest use of the ARL and of those brands that didn’t, many are planning on including it this year.
To help our analysis, we enlisted five recycling experts to help us work out which items were recyclable and answer some of those difficult to answer recycling questions. Here’s what we found;
Number of products surveyed; 82
Products that are recyclable at home; 16 (19.5%)
Products that are conditionally recyclable (i.e. must have some elements taken to a collection point) ; 45 (55%)
Products that are currently difficult to collect and recycle; 21 (25.5%)
BISCUITS & CRACKERS
In the biscuit and cracker category, none of the surveyed products could be entirely recycled at home via kerbside recycling. The majority of packaging for biscuits and crackers use soft plastic which is an important material to preserve food but can only be recycled if taken to a REDcycle collection point. Brooke Donnelly, CEO of the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) explained that soft plastic is heavily relied upon in this category to prevent food waste as it helps achieve good oxygen barriers which keeps food fresher and edible for longer.
However, this category is also prone to over-packaging. Many products come in snack sizes which are individually wrapped (Shapes and Belvita Breakfast Biscuits) while others are housed in a carton, with a plastic film, and in a tray. For some of the products we surveyed, the plastic trays used were not recyclable (Oreo Family Pack and Coles’ Ultimate Apple Pie Cookies). This is unnecessary when other products (Arnott’s Allsorts) use trays made from PET which are recyclable.
Mondolez and Coles both told us they are switching to recyclable materials and that their products will soon be recyclable.
The majority of cereals surveyed were either in a soft plastic bag or in a cardboard box with an inner plastic liner. So these products can only be entirely recycled if you take the soft plastic to a REDcycle collection point.
The best cereal we found for packaging (and the only breakfast product surveyed that was kerbside recyclable) was Uncle Toby’s Oats which uses a cardboard box and displays clear recycling information. However, other oat products are commonly sold in individual sachets which our recycling experts said were unlikely to be recyclable as they most likely use waxed or plastic-lined paper.
The good news is that the packaging for most yoghurts (the tub, the lid and foil) should be recyclable at home. However, what a yoghurt tub is made of is very important for recyclability and we found that some brands are using plastic that can’t be easily recycled in Australia.
Planet Ark explained that some plastics are more recyclable than others and factors such as shape, weight, inks, laminates can also affect a plastics' recyclability. Plastics such as PVC and polystyrene are not economically viable to recycle in Australia as there is little demand and use for the end product. A number of surveyed products use these less-recyclable plastics including Farmers Union Natural Pot Set Yoghurt and Divine Creme Caramel.
Our recycling experts had one strong piece of advice for this category which is that the foil that is commonly used to seal yoghurt tubs is only recyclable if scrunched into a dense ball with other foil. The size of a golf ball is what you should be aiming for. Otherwise small bits of foil are easily lost or incorrectly sorted at the Material Recovery Facilities (where the different materials are sorted into their specific material streams) and end up in landfill.
We found that most chocolate bars are wrapped in a soft plastic wrapper. REDcycle told us that they can recycle chocolate and snack bar wrappers so these can be taken back to a REDcycle collection point. Only two of the surveyed chocolate bars could be recycled at home as they use a cardboard outer package and foil instead of soft plastic (Lindt 70% Cocoa Dark and Coles’ Belgian White Chocolate Block).
While soft plastics can be recycled and turned into new products via REDcycle, there is currently no kerbside collection for this material so it does require people to bring their soft plastics to a collection point. Currently in Australia, only a small percentage of soft plastics are recycled via REDcycle* and a recent Kellogg's study found that 85% of Australians aren’t aware that soft plastics can be recycled.* So while it’s great this material can technically be recycled and would often have a lower carbon footprint, until collection infrastructure is improved, packaging that can be recycled at home is a better option to avoid plastic ending up in landfill.
Again, none of the surveyed products in this category could be recycled at home. Due to the need to keep chips fresh and in-tact, the packaging options are limited and most chips are in plastic packets that can only be recycled via REDcycle. However, a lot of the chips surveyed helpfully displayed the ARL making it easier for people to work out how to recycle their chip bag.
The problem products in this category were Pringles and private label equivalent stacked chips. All these tubes are made up of cardboard and metal so can’t be easily separated to be recycled. A representative from the City of Sydney recommended getting around this by using a can opener to separate the metal parts from the cardboard tube then placing each part in the recycling bin. But we don’t think it should be this difficult.
We wrote to Pringles who told us they are working on an easier solution for their Pringles cans as part of their 2025 commitment that all packaging will be recyclable, reusable or compostable.
We found that there was a lot of variation of packaging in the cheese category; blocks of cheese in soft plastic, single slices of cheese, cheese in plastic tubs and pods of cheese in plastic netting.
Only three products we surveyed were able to be recycled at home (Perfect Italiano Ricotta, Laughing Cow and Woolworths spreadable cream cheese) and many products were not able to be recycled at all (Cracker Barrel Extra Sharp, Philadelphia Original and Woolworths Danish Havarti Cheese Slices). Overall there was a lot of over-packaging in this category; a lot of brands sell individually wrapped cheese slices or pods and use plastic netting to bundle up their cheese products (Dairylea Cheese Pods).
Planet Ark told us that REDcycle accepts plastic netting but advised that it is imperative to take off the metal clip first. Woolworths also let us know that as part of their packaging commitment to get to 100% recyclable by 2023, they’ll be working on a suitable alternative for their Havarti Cheese packaging.
*REDcycle reports it has collected 7,350 tonnes of soft plastic since it began in 2011 (email from REDcycle). Production of consumer soft plastics was approximately 237,900 in 2019-20 (annual Australian production of bags, liners, wraps and film seals = 366,000 tonnes. Consumer use portion (65%) = 237,900 - Australian Packaging Consumption Resource and Recovery Data, 2019). The percentage of collected soft plastic via REDcycle is therefore very small considering the overall consumption of soft plastic.
STRONGER RULES NEEDED
It shouldn’t be up to each of us to determine whether a product is recyclable, we should be guaranteed that every packaged item we buy is made from material that can be recycled. There are currently voluntary targets that would ensure that 100% of packaging is recyclable, reusable or compostable and 70% of plastic packaging is actually recycled by 2025 in Australia. While many companies have committed to these targets, we can only have confidence they will be met, if they are made mandatory.
WWF-Australia is calling for mandatory rules that require all packaging in Australia to be recyclable, reusable or compostable.This would reduce the amount of plastic entering landfill and our oceans. We also think that people would greatly benefit from all supermarket products displaying clear recycling labelling via the Australasian Recycling Label.
TIPS FOR RECYCLING
We know that people want to do the right thing when it comes to recycling. But it’s not always as straightforward as we hope. Here are some of the best tips our recycling experts told us;
Look for the Australasian Recycling Label (ARL). Recycling is dependent on lots of factors, like material, shape, size, colour and any other additives. That is why the ARL is so important because it considers all of these factors and provides simple instructions on how to recycle each packaging component. If a brand doesn’t display the ARL, email them and tell them you would like to see this information.
Soft plastics can be recycled and made into new products such as indoor and outdoor furniture. Remember to collect soft plastics at home and take them to participating Woolworths and Coles supermarkets or via other REDcycle at collection points. Don’t place soft plastics in your recycling bin as it can contaminate the recycling stream.
Foil can be recycled if scrunched into a large ball. Aim for the size of a golf or tennis ball.
If in doubt, leave it out! Sometimes the desire to recycle results in contamination. The advice from the recycling experts is to leave an item out of the recycling if you are not sure.
Check out your local council’s recycling webpage or check out RecyclingNearYou.com.au for local council recycling information. All councils treat waste and recycling slightly differently, so it’s best to always check what your council says about recycling.
FOOD WASTE V PACKAGING
Packaging plays a vital role in maintaining a food’s longevity and preventing food waste. So removing plastic entirely from packaging is not necessarily the best environmental solution. Reducing excessive packaging and unnecessary single-use plastic should be a key focus. But where plastic is necessary and helps prevent or reduce food waste, we need to make sure that it can be reused and recycled. This is why WWF supports mandatory packaging targets.
HOW WE SURVEYED
We chose six key categories of food that have different packaging formats and requirements; biscuits and crackers, breakfast cereals, yoghurts, confectionary, chips and cheeses. From these categories we surveyed products from the top selling brands using 2018 retail sales data. To determine whether a product was kerbside recyclable, conditionally recyclable or difficult to recycle, we relied upon the Australasian Recycling Label. Where there was no recycling information, we enlisted help from our recycling experts and/or contacted the companies directly to find out more about their packaging.
MEET THE EXPERTS
Amanda Monaco is Waste Program Officer at City of Sydney
Ryan Collins is Head of Circular Economy Programs and Alejandra Laclette is Recycling Campaign Manager at Planet Ark
Brooke Donnelly is the CEO of the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO)
Jenni Downes is a waste and recycling expert and Research Fellow at Monash Sustainable Development Institute
Lara Barclay is a waste and recycling expert and Managing Director at Adaptation Environmental Support