What are the best ways to cut packaging waste?

The Consumer guide to reducing your packaging consumption.

Pile of packaging waste waiting to be recycled

Keen to cut packaging waste but not quite ready to start making your own toothpaste? Consumer pressure is forcing companies to switch to “greener” packaging. Plenty are throwing around “compostable” and “recyclable” claims without solid evidence to back them up.

So how do you choose?

Single-use plastic has been understandably demonised: most of the plastic we’ve used in our life will outlive us, by several millennia. You’d think switching to recyclable materials such as glass and aluminium would be the sustainable choice, but it isn’t that simple, said Callaghan Innovation’s sustainable packaging expert Dr Kirsten Edgar.

Aluminium and steel must be mined, which releases pollutants, and require huge amounts of energy to create new products – and most is sent overseas to be recycled.

Glass production similarly chews up the power, and transporting the heavier bottles and jars requires more fuel and releases more carbon emissions than shipping aluminium or plastic containers (though purchasing local products could even things out).

Paper and cardboard also consume chemicals and lots of water in manufacturing, which releases pollutants. Recycling these materials is another energy-consuming process.

“At the moment, there is no perfect packaging choice,” Dr Edgar said. However, there are some straightforward ways you can cut packaging waste.

Easy everyday switches

Switch from packaged to unpackaged

Ditching the packaging for your meat, seafood and deli items is now easier, with BYO containers accepted at Countdown (nationwide), Four Square (North Island), New World (North Island, some South Island) and Pak’nSave (North Island) stores.

BYO plastic containers is now an option at most major supermarkets.
Filling reusable bags and jars with bulk bin goods also reduces packaging but it won’t always save you money.

When we gave it a go at two stores, the cleaning of BYO containers (mandatory at Countdown), filling and labelling took between one and three minutes. (Disposable towels can be used during the clean, so it isn’t necessarily waste free.)

Some shoppers have found the sticky price labels put on containers challenging to remove. Rather than buying new, it might be worth giving undamaged plastic packaging – for example, ice cream containers – a second life before recycling it.

Filling reusable bags and jars with bulk bin goods also reduces packaging but it won’t always save you money. Per 100g, our comparison found it can be more expensive than buying a packet.

  • dried apricots – $1.66 (unpackaged) vs $2.20 (packaged)
  • pine nuts – $9.69 (unpackaged) vs $7.80 (packaged)
  • pumpkin seeds – $2.19 (unpackaged) vs $1.85 (packaged)
  • raw almonds – $3.12 (unpackaged) vs $2.65 (packaged)
  • salted peanuts – $1.04 (unpackaged) vs $1.01 (packaged)
  • sultanas – $1.16 (unpackaged) vs $0.63 (packaged)
  • red lentils – $0.96 (unpackaged) vs $0.60 (packaged)

Countdown said bulk bins can attract additional costs including “maintaining health and safety [and] managing product waste and spills”. Keep the added expense and the risk of spoilage in mind if you’re considering making the switch.

GUIDE Average price includes discounted items.

Avoid multi-packs

Multi-packs are the classic example of packaging overload. They’re usually individually wrapped in soft plastics and wrapped together in another layer of soft plastic – most of which ends up at the dump. Ditching the multi-packs and divvying up 100g portions yourself can save cash as well as the environment.

Upsize everyday non-perishables


Buying a larger pack can reduce your packaging waste. Gram for gram, we found the largest pack size of four common household products had less packaging than the smallest.

Upsizing these products saved us coin but that’s not always the case with bigger packs, so check the unit pricing. To reduce packaging waste, go as big as you can with non-perishables.

UPSIZING calculations based on the weight of packaging per 100g of product contents. Washing powder scoop counted as contents, not packaging. Cost savings for Active, Morning Fresh, Persil and Quilton products based on Countdown and New World prices, as Pak’nSave had a limited range in this category. Per 100ml, Morning Fresh 900ml dishwashing liquid bottle had 21% less packaging than the 400ml bottle.

Our store surveys

We price-checked groceries at one Bin Inn, Countdown, New World and Pak’nSave in the Wellington region during the same week.

Think twice about Tetra Paks and plastic containers

These cartons, which typically feature a recycling symbol, are made from paper, plastic and aluminium. Only some paper recyclers can separate the components for re-use. As a result, most Tetra Paks end up in landfill. Our latest recycling survey found only Ashburton, Auckland, Buller, Gore, Invercargill, Kawerau and Southland councils accepted these cartons in their recycling bins. You’ll minimise waste by swapping a Tetra Pak for a bottle – though if it’s packed in plastic, look for recycling numbers 1 and 2.

Only some paper recyclers can separate the Tetra Pak components for re-use.
Only some paper recyclers can separate the components for re-use. As a result, most Tetra Paks end up in landfill.

You've probably spotted little numerals, surrounded by arrows, on the bottom or back of plastic packs. Plastic recycling numbers range from 1 to 7 and tell you the type of plastic used. Numbers 1 (polyethylene terephthalate) and 2 (high-density polyethylene) are easier than other plastics to recycle and there are facilities here that can do the job. This makes types 1 and 2 more valuable and is why some councils don’t accept plastics 3 to 7 in their kerbside recycling bins.

Be aware, it’s a challenge to find plastics 1 and 2 in the chilled, frozen and microwaveable food sections.

Soft plastics (such as bread bags, bubble wrap and frozen vege bags) are typically plastic number 4 (low-density polyethylene). We saw soft plastic wrap telling us to “recycle your soft plastics”, but right now this is only possible in some parts of Auckland and Waikato, where the soft plastic recycling scheme operates. In most areas, this plastic ends up in landfill.

Ignore “Oxo-degradable” claims

This plastic packaging contains additives that react to air and sunlight, breaking down the material into small fragments of plastic – but that’s it. These teensy fragments, known as “microplastics”, don’t degrade any faster than regular plastic.

The EU has announced a ban on oxo-degradable plastic that takes effect from 2021.

Select containers with recycled content

The higher the better. In the ideal low-waste world, used containers would be made into new packaging in a never-ending loop. Choosing products with recycled content (as well as being avid recyclers) supports this. When comparing products, check if the packaging is made from recycled materials. Some carry on-pack symbols.

If it’s clear hard plastic packaging, look for “RPET” – this means a proportion is recycled content. If the container carries the name of local company Flight Plastics, it’s been recycled here.

Aluminium and glass containers have a high proportion of recycled content, even if it’s not mentioned. Wellington City Council waste operations manager Emily Taylor-Hall said these materials are “infinitely” recyclable – in fact, many of today’s glass bottles descend from those our grandparents used.

If you compost, look for certified compostables

Compostable packaging comes in two types: items that only break down in commercial facilities and items suitable for home composting. Most compostable packaging is the former. Commercial composting facilities maintain a set temperature (55 degrees or higher), which the average backyard bin won’t get close to.

These are the “home compostable” certification symbols to keep an eye out for.
If you’re planning to compost at home, check for one of these three symbols.

If you’re planning to compost at home, check for one of these three symbols from international bodies certifying the packaging meets their composting standard. If there’s no certification tick, there’s no guarantee the packaging is compostable.

What happens to compostable packaging in landfill? It doesn’t always break down, said Janine Brinsdon, Waste Management Institute New Zealand chief executive. Worst case scenario, it releases the greenhouse gas methane, she said.

Most compostable packaging, such as corn starch bags and bottles, is marketed as being made from plants. However, renewable sources may contribute as little as 20%.

Packaging made from 100% plant-based plastics or “bioplastics” doesn’t require non-renewable oil to be manufactured. However, this packaging will end up in the tip unless it specifically says it’s recyclable or you can compost it.

Give feedback

If a company has re-jigged its packaging to reduce a product’s environmental impact, show your support. And if you want a company to re-think its products – let it know. Flick it an email or a message on social media. Consumer pressure works, as the campaign to ditch plastic supermarket bags showed.

Say no to receipts

Staff at New World (for purchases under $40) and self-checkout machines at Countdown (for totals under $20) allow you to opt out of printing a receipt. Some are paper and others plastic – but there’s no obvious way to tell.

Countdown said its receipts are recyclable and Foodstuffs (owner of the Four Square, New World and Pak’nSave brands) said it’s attempting “to resolve this issue”. Still, councils lack the time and ability to sort one from the other, so even the receipts in your recycle bin are likely to end up in landfill.

What is recyclable?

What is recyclable here?

Of the 1.3 million tonnes of recyclable materials collected each year, a fair chunk heads offshore, according to a Ministry for the Environment-commissioned report. This is how the figures break down:

  • aluminium and steel – at least 95% recycled overseas
  • glass – all recycled or “downcycled” in New Zealand
  • paper and cardboard – 40% recycled in New Zealand
  • plastic – 90% recycled overseas (only types 1 and 2 can be re-processed locally).

Transporting materials overseas to be recycled has an environmental cost and the government is investigating how to boost onshore recycling.

What is technically recyclable vs practically recyclable?

For some packaging – such as soft plastics – we have the technology to re-purpose it to create new products. However, that’s only part of the picture.

According to Ms Brinsdon, “many materials can be recycled if they are gathered separately, but then a collection bin would be needed for each individual [one]. In reality, materials can only be practically recycled if they can be collected and then easily separated back out again.”

Recyclers also need enough demand for the substance to make the process viable. The government is also reviewing national collection systems so more materials can be practically recycled.

What is “downcycling”?

Some types of plastics can only be recycled once. When collected from our kerbside bins, they’re used to make a new product, for example a bucket or fence post. However, once this product wears out, it ends up in the landfill. This is termed downcycling. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s circular recycling – where old packaging is used to make new versions in an infinite circuit, as happens with glass and metal (unless it rusts). Plastics 1 and 2, and paper sit in the middle – they can be recycled a few times but eventually the components break down.

Recycling 101

Here are our tips for kerbside recycling:

  • rinse all items, as excessively dirty ones end up in landfill. If you can’t rinse it – for example, cardboard – compost or bin any with food residue
  • keep recycling loose, unless your council says otherwise
  • don’t “wish-cycle” (throw it in hoping it’s recyclable). If in doubt, give your council a ring or check its website to find which items it accepts.

You can also go beyond the council collections. For example, household batteries can be dropped off for recycling.

Member comments

Get access to comment

Eddie v.
19 Sep 2019
Bulk Bins

I am sure the supermarkets do have some waste to cover from the bulk bins, but not to the extent that they can justify charging so much more than the packaged products. My local charges about $4 per kg more for raw peanuts than packaged - I make my own peanut butter, so to cut packaging I buy peanuts from Bin Inn, which mysteriously manages to charge significantly less! I think the supermarkets are just paying lip service to cutting down on waste.

Peter H.
16 Sep 2019
Small packs are often cheaper

Over a few years of shopping at Pak'n Save and Countdown we found many products cheaper in smaller packs, often significantly so. Buying in bulk we found usually dearer than packaged.

I think the govt. should investigate modern incinerators. Apparently plants exist with very low emissions AND they produce significant amounts of electricity.

Still, count your blessings: we now live in rural Thailand. Tap water is not drinkable, there is no waste collection at all in our village and there is not one sewage treatment plant in the whole country. On the up side, you get paid to recycle cardboard and some packaging.

Graeme C.
16 Sep 2019
Receipts

Another option would be to e-mail the receipt. They already have my e-mail address through my New World and AA/Countdown cards. A health shop in Auckland e-mailed my receipt and I had it before leaving the shop.

Barbara H.
15 Sep 2019
Receipts

Most often I say no receipt, but the checkout prints it out anyway and the operator bins it. Can I change this by how/when I request that no receipt be given?

Consumer staff
16 Sep 2019
Re: Receipts

Hi Barbara,

We’d suggest mentioning that you don’t need a receipt before you make your payment. However, if it’s over the set dollar threshold, there may be nothing you or the operator can do to prevent the receipt from being printed. You’d hope if a supermarket is throwing out lots of unwanted receipts each day, it may spur innovation. Another idea would be to email the supermarket – or contact them on social media – asking them to re-think their systems, or at least downsize their receipts. We’ll keep in touch with the supermarkets and monitor their progress.

Kind regards,

Natalie - Consumer NZ staff

Angela F.
15 Sep 2019
Plastic stickers on fruit!

These are my bug-bear. Why????? Is it because check-out staff can't recognise which fruit is which? As a keen composter, it's easy to miss these little beggars and they end up in my pile no matter how careful I am. They seem completely and totally unnecessary.

Barbara H.
15 Sep 2019
Fruit stickers

Yummy stickers get collected and sent to my local school who collects tham and sends them in for sports equipment. Stickers also drive me crazy. As I unpack my shopping I take them all off as I put them in the fruit bowl. Still a mad moment but at least it is only once every shop!

Eddie v.
19 Sep 2019
Stickers

They drive me nuts as well - we take them off when we bag the fruit, and leave them at the supermarket!!

Iain R.
06 Oct 2019
Sick of stickers

Something we feel frustrated by also! More micro-plastic.

J W.
15 Sep 2019
email receipts?

Countdown knows who I am (by my onecard). It would be simple to automatically email every receipt loaded against that card to me. Thermal paper is such a poor medium for receipts anyway.

Peter - Power To Care
16 Sep 2019
Brilliant idea!

Any store with a loyalty card should be able to do this... with any luck it should arrive in my inbox before I leave the store.

John T.
14 Sep 2019
"Can be dropped off for recycling" link

Unfortunately the link on waste drop off leaves you none the wiser - certainly no information on disposal of household batteries.

Barbara H.
15 Sep 2019
Battery recycling

A couple of times a year, there is a drop off drive advised for all electronic items plus batteries in the Hutt Valley, so I save them up and do a job lot. Maybe this happens in your area?

Consumer staff
26 Sep 2019
Re: "Can be dropped off for recycling" link

Hi John,

Thanks for your feedback. We will have an article dedicated specifically to battery recycling going up on our website in the next few days.

Kind regards,

Natalie - Consumer NZ staff.

André
14 Sep 2019
False advertising with packaging

There are many products which are packaged in excessive packaging, so that it looks like you are getting a lot for your money. A popular vitamin C plastic container is only half full, and it's not due to settling (another common BS excuse). And that's not the only product that uses that trick. Manufacturers need to be held accountable, as they cause the waste, not the consumer.

Jane C.
14 Sep 2019
Bread bags

Must be one of the biggest plastic bag polluters. Bread sold in paper are the higher priced loaves. Countdown advise they have no plans to move to non-plastic packaging. If supermarkets insisted bakeries package their bread in paper it would take a lot of plastic out of the landfills.

Karen D.
14 Sep 2019
Recycling and reducing waste

Someone commented on RNZ recently that biodegradable plastic bin liners made with cornstarch can be a problem if you put wet stuff in the bin and take a while to fill it - the bin liner starts to disintegrate. And re buying from bins rather than buying packaged goods - one big plus with bins is that you can buy exactly what you need of a specialist item (maybe for a particular recipe) - so no waste.

L H.
14 Sep 2019
Supermarket Fuel Vouchers

I fail to see why Pak n Save (and probably New World) automatically give customers Z Energy Fuel Vouchers for 6c off per litre of fuel when we don't need a voucher to obtain 6c off at Z. Presumably this is a marketing ploy by Z who reward the Foodstuffs chain for handing them out? Waste of paper, ink, and more rubbish floating around the supermarket carpark.

Graeme C.
16 Sep 2019
Agreeed

I Agree, the bin at our local New World is full of fuel vouchers. Would be good to have an option not to print this voucher. We don't even have a Z Fuel Station which probably also confused people.

Lloyd B.
14 Sep 2019
Commercial compostable containers such as coffee cups with bio plastics

Bio plastics are green washing because although they can be composted in commercial composting plants, they contaminate the end product which then loses its organic qualification and then can't be used. Council transfer stations have to shift them to landfill

Peter K H.
14 Sep 2019
Receipts

I appreciate receipts generate more paper, but if you keep detailed accounts of grocery items, it is impossible to do so without the receipt. The receipts occasionally reveal overcharges or two items being rung up as three, or specials which are on the shelf price but have not been entered into the computer. Also, if you have only a few items you are carrying in your hand you need proof to show security that you have paid for them, especially if you are visiting several stores.

Bill
14 Sep 2019
Agree

You also need your receipt to check against bank or credit card statements to ensure their deductions are correct. I note that New World now have "e-receipts" which is a copy of your receipt available on their website if you have a Clubcard account. Useful for when you get home but not so much if you need proof of purchase for overcharged items, etc.

Celia B.
14 Sep 2019
ewaste

It would be good to hear from Consumer about ewaste and recycling.

Consumer staff
16 Sep 2019
Re: ewaste

Hello Celia,

Thank you for your comment. You can read more about E-Waste and recycling in our articles below:

https://www.consumer.org.nz/articles/e-waste

https://www.consumer.org.nz/articles/what-you-can-and-can-t-recycle

Kind regards,

Natalie - Consumer NZ staff

Anne C.
14 Sep 2019
Corn starch bin liners

Are these liners as biodegrable as claimed?

Karen T.
15 Sep 2019
Avoiding bin liners

Avoid putting food waste into the bin. If it can't be home composted, put it in the freezer until rubbish collection day.
Putting clean (washed and dried) rubbish in a bin means no mess and no smell. Washing the bin is better than using liners .

Consumer staff
16 Sep 2019
Re: Corn starch bin liners

Hi Anne,

Thanks for your question. The answer depends on two things – first, whether the corn starch bag (and the rubbish inside) goes into a compost pile and second, whether the product has been tested and certified.

If the first answer is the bag is destined for the landfill, then we can’t be sure. Corn starch bags are often described as compostable, but the conditions in landfill are very different to a well-maintained compost pile – for example, the latter will be well aerated. Expert Janine Brinsdon told us if the corn starch bags do break down in the dump, they may release methane – which is a potent greenhouse gas. (As an aside, we haven’t found any studies analysing whether it’s better for the environment to use corn starch bins liners as opposed to plastic ones if you send your rubbish to the tip, though we’ll keep an eye out.)

If the corn starch bags end up in compost, we can only be sure they’ll biodegrade if they are certified as compostable. If you’re a home composter, we recommend you look for these home compostable symbols.

Unfortunately, the greenest solution may be to avoid single-use bin liners altogether. I hope this has helped somewhat!

Kind regards,

Natalie - Consumer NZ