Wander round your local supermarket and you’d be forgiven for thinking that most of the products on display have recyclable packaging. Paper, glass, metal, many plastics, all can be put in household recycling collections.

But an investigation by consumer group Which? has found that little more than a third (34%) of the UK’s best-selling branded groceries has packaging that’s fully recyclable. Not only that, but just one in four (41%) have no relevant labelling, meaning that consumers are given no indication of whether the packaging is able to be recycled or not.

Variety pack

Which? analysed 89 popular branded products in 10 different food categories, including chocolate, fizzy drinks, crisps, yoghurts, drinks, cheese and bread. Each piece of packaging was broken down into its different elements, weighed, then assessed as to how recyclable each element was.

What the consumer group found was that the recyclability of product packaging not only varied hugely between food categories, but between brands in each category. While breakfast cereals and juice drinks generally have packaging that’s widely recycled, crisps, chocolate and cheese are packaged in materials that are difficult to recycle. These three categories also had some of the worst labelling, with just 10% of chocolate bars indicating whether its packaging could be recycled.

“To reduce the waste to landfill, the government must make labelling mandatory, simple and clear,” said Natalie Hitchins, Which? Head of Home Products and Services. “This enables shoppers to know exactly how to dispose of the packaging on the products they consume.”

The good, the bad and the unrecyclable

Crisps, chocolate and cheese may have poor recycling records when it comes to their packaging, but other categories have their own issues. The sustainability of yoghurt pots was found to be different depending on the brand, with some Muller and Cadbury pots being made of polystyrene – a difficult material to recycle. However, Onken prove that it can be done, with its polypropylene pot and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) lid, which are both widely recyclable.

Simon Ellin, CEO of The Recycling Association, said: ‘There’s no excuse not to redesign polystyrene pots. It’s a simple change.’

More work to be done

The Which? report shows that despite the many brand campaigns, launches and announcements around sustainability, there’s still a long way to go for many household brands in making their packaging fully recyclable. The consumer group carried out a similar report two years ago, which found that up to 29% of supermarket own-label grocery packaging was not easily recyclable, so you could argue that there’s not been a great deal of progress in that time.

“Consumers are crying out for brands that take sustainability seriously and products that are easy to recycle,” said Natalie Hitchins. “But for any real difference to be made to the environment, manufacturers need to maximise their use of recyclable and recycled materials, and ensure products are correctly labelled.”