Dave McCourt thinks some thoughts...

Recycling misleading garlic bread

Posted in: Articles, Design, Ethics

Designing something to look like something it isn’t has always been a tricky subject for some. For others it’s not an issue – packaging designers for example are commonly required to do this. That huge packet of cereal is not just wasteful (card, space, storage, transport) but it is also deceitful. Tricking shoppers into thinking they are getting something more than they really are just isn’t right. This practice has unfortunately has been part of retail marketing and packaging for some time.

Here is an example:

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This is part of the film packaging of garlic bread from Morrisons. At first glance it looks great, Morrisons are doing their bit to help the environment and making their packaging recyclable. The smiley face and green tick suggests this is all recyclable and if I was looking at this quickly it would go into my recycling bin. But wait. Look again, the green tick – a usual symbol for ‘good’, ‘OK’, ‘suitable’ – in this case doesn’t mean OK. Here it means that this isn’t recyclable everywhere yet. Well the UK does have quite variable recycling facilities and so again this seems reasonable at first glance.

Looking around it does seem that PP or polypropylene isn’t widely recycled as it contains a mixture of compounds and is difficult to recycle. If you visit www.recyclenow.com as the packaging suggest you should, PP film isn’t listed under ‘What is recyclable?’ and the search function returns no results. It seems PP isn’t very common for plastic film [Recoup’s website does not allow direct linking to pages!] overall but is used occasionally because of its strength and this makes sense for frozen foods.

Figures for recycling collection of films is hard to come by but WRAP (a body funded by the Government to reduce UK waste) have produced a report Domestic Mixed Plastics Packaging Waste Management Options [PDF] which looks at the issues of recycling household plastics. On page 20 of the report it gives some ‘assumed’ figures for various plastics collected for recycling. PP film is just five per cent of total plastics collected.

Morrisons have won an award for their recycling logos and information (called ‘Recyclopedia’) on their packaging. The recyclopedia has ‘three easy to recognise symbols’ for packaging:

  • Big grin 100% recyclable or home compostable
  • Smiling partly recyclable
  • Not smiling yet not recyclable but we are working on it

Without seeing these icons next to one another, it is hard to know if this is a ‘big grin’ or ‘smiling partly’.

Making things clearer for people to be able to do their bit and recycle is surely a good thing. I take issue with using a smiley face and a green tick to make people assume that something is better than it is. Many people will see these icons and pop the film in their recycling bins. A lot of the time that is going to be sorted by the recycling company, separated out and end up in landfill. Morrisons need to add another icon to their arsenal, an ambiguous smile perhaps saying ‘This packaging may be recyclable. Check your local facility.’

The film is recyclable yes, but pretty much anything is recyclable if you want to spend  enough time and money to take it apart and re-make it. Paper and card are universally accepted for recycling; PP film is not. Morissons aren’t lying but they certainly aren’t being completely open either. They shouldn’t be passing off something that is barely recycled in the UK as the same as something which is recycled everywhere (they use the same symbol for PP and paper). Making your own-brand products to look more ‘ethical’ than they are is simply misleading.

Update: It seems that Marks and Spencer also use PP film for their garlic bread packaging. However their label states that it is: ‘Not currently recyclable’. I called M&S’s customer care line to ask why and was told they reason was that most councils do not have the facilities to recycle it. Marks and Spencer have tried to position themselves as the ethical retailer in the UK. I think if their labeling is anything to go by, they are at least making it clearer to the shopper what can realistically be recycled.

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I decided to see what the other supermarket’s did with their labelling as well…

Iceland’s garlic bread tesco Sainsbury’s agree with M&S it seems

Despite all (except Iceland) being members of the On Pack Recycling scheme only M&S and Sainsbury’s use the scheme’s labelling logos which are designed to help consumers with clearer guidance as part of ‘a simpler, UK-wide, consistent, recycling message’. Ha!