Pringles tubes and Lucozade Sport bottles are the “villains” of the recycling world, a trade body has said.
The Recycling Association named them in a list of products that pose the biggest challenges for reuse.
The greater the number of materials used in packaging, the harder it is for recycling machines to separate them.
The distinctive Pringles packaging – with its metal base, plastic cap, metal tear-off lid, and foil-lined cardboard sleeve – was said to be a “nightmare”.
Lucozade’s bottle is recyclable but it is enclosed in a sleeve made from a different kind of plastic.
A $2m prize for inventors to devise products that are practical and easily recycled will be launched by Prince Charles in London later.
Simon Ellin, CEO of the UK Recycling Association, welcomed the competition, adding: “Improvements are desperately needed in product design.”
Simon Ellin’s worst recycling offenders:
- Pringles (and products with similar packaging): “Number One recycling villain. These things are a… nightmare. Impossible to separate the parts.”
- Lucozade Sport (and drinks with similar packaging): “Number Two villain. This bottle is so confusing to computer scanners that it has to be picked by hand off the recycling conveyor. Then it often just gets chucked away.”
- Cleaning spray bottles: “Labels often say the product is recyclable, but that’s only the body. The spray has two or three other polymers and a metal spring. It’s almost impossible.”
- Black plastic food trays: “Supermarkets think black trays make meat look redder so they colour the tray black but that makes it worthless for recycling. Also, if someone leaves the torn film on the tray, with a bloody card below it, we just have to chuck it anyway.”
- Whisky packaging: “It grieves me to say this as one who likes his whisky but whisky causes us problems. The metal bottom and top to the sleeve, the glass bottle, the metal cap… very hard for us.”
So what’s the answer?
The Plastics Economy Innovation Prize, promoted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, is split into two sections.
One seeks ideas to prevent the sea being strewn with small plastic items like coffee cup lids, plastic straws and plastic bottle tops.
The other seeks innovations in general product design and materials so items are easier to recycle.
One of the competition organisers, Chris Grantham from the London branch of the global design consultancy Ideo, agreed that Pringles and Lucozade Sport – and brands with similar packaging – were singled out by the industry as almost impossible to recycle.
He listed examples of easily-recyclable products:
- Milk bottles: “Britain’s milk suppliers got together and agreed that all plastic milk bottles and caps should be made of the same plastic.
- Ringpull can: “When I was a kid the playground was littered with ringpulls that used to cut your knees when you fell.
- Japanese yoghurt drink: “The suppliers have made a little groove in the bottle where you can slide your used straw. It stops it blowing away.”
In future, Mr Grantham said, designers would need to produce items that could be used again and again as pressure on materials increases from a growing population.
More new thinking is emerging with the growth in online grocery shopping – if the customer has already bought a product like a ready meal online, he says, that product doesn’t need branding.
The technology exists, Mr Grantham says, for a fridge to be fitted with a mini-projector to project branding on a blank container.
One task, he says, is to persuade supermarkets not to copy problematic complex designs.
Minimising food waste
The Pringles carton is iconic in the world of branding and has been replicated by own-brand retailers in what’s become known as the “Pringleisation” of packaging.
And Kelloggs, the owner of Pringles, said there was an environmental advantage to its design.
“All parts of a Pringles can act as a barrier to keep [the crisps] fresh. That means a longer shelf life, which minimises food waste,” a spokesman said.
Lucozade said it was reducing carbon emissions, adding: “We recognise our responsibility to limit our impact on the environment and welcome any technological breakthroughs that support this ambition.”
The design competition is part of a growing movement to reduce the impact of plastics on the environment. It’s estimated that 32% of plastic packaging escapes collection systems, generating economic costs by harming the oceans and clogging city infrastructure.
The EU is aiming to move towards what’s known as a Circular Economy in which materials are generally reused rather than discarded.
But the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) says member states led by Finland and Denmark are blocking a Commission driver towards more ambitious rules. The UK has not revealed its position.
Piotr Barczak, waste policy officer at the EEB, said: “We hear every day that governments are committed to reducing waste in order to reap the benefits of the circular economy. But what happens in the negotiations, behind closed doors, is sometimes a completely different story.”
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