The Consumer guide to reducing your packaging consumption.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We used calibrated scales at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to weigh the products.
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.
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.
GUIDE ᴬAverage price includes discounted items. 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.
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, Southland and Waimakariri 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Transporting materials overseas to be recycled has an environmental cost and the government is investigating how to boost onshore recycling.
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.
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.
Here are our tips for kerbside recycling:
You can also go beyond the council collections. For example, household batteries can be dropped off for recycling.