First, some good news: the amount of plastic food packaging in the UK is falling; it was down three per cent between 2019 and 2022. Even better, figures from WRAP – the climate action group – show we recycled 55 per cent of all plastic packaging in 2022, compared with 44 per cent in 2018.


The food manufacturing industry has made significant changes to the plastics they use, too. For example, there has been a 96 per cent reduction in the amount of non-recyclable black plastic available. When was the last time you saw a black plastic food tray down the ready-meal aisle?

A new type of black plastic that can be detected by sorting lasers – so it can be recycled more easily – is also in use. In fact, 71 per cent of all plastic packaging is now recyclable. But there’s still a lot more we can do to reduce the amount of food packaging we use.

Here are five kinds of food packaging to avoid that can make a big difference to the environment.

1. Plastic bottles

Plastic bottles are one of the biggest polluters on the planet. Around the world, one million are sold every minute and most of them are single-use plastics, made using fossil fuels. Plastic bottles are also said to be the second most common type of plastic waste in our oceans.

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Although drinks manufacturers have made efforts to reduce plastic waste, such as fixing caps to bottles so they can be recycled together, nearly 80 per cent of all plastic packaging produced worldwide still ends up in landfill or lost in the environment, where it degrades into microplastics.

Microplastics have been found on every part of the planet, from Antarctic Sea ice to the soil on our farms. They’ve been discovered in fruits and vegetables, and in the fish and animals we eat – it’s thought that we consume around one credit card every week.

Ditching plastic bottles and investing in a reusable drinks bottle really is one of the most effective ways to protect the planet – and your wellbeing.

A plastic bottle of water

2. Fresh fruit and vegetable packaging

Individually wrapping fruit and veg appears to be less common than a few years ago, but some items are still packaged in plastic. Bags of potatoes, trays of apples and broccoli heads wrapped in plastic can all be found on supermarket shelves. This creates two problems: food and plastic waste.

Research by WRAP found we throw away £2.1bn of fresh fruit and veggies every year; food waste is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases. One reason is because we buy more than we need, thanks to all those plastic packets, so we end up binning the surplus.

WRAP says buying five of the most commonly wasted products – apples, bananas, broccoli, cucumbers and potatoes – loose could prevent 100,000 tonnes of food waste every year and remove 10,300 tonnes of plastic packaging. Together, that’s a saving of 130,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

So, remember to take reusable bags with you when shopping for fresh fruit and veg, and check if your supermarket has signed up to the UK Plastics Act.

3. Foil food pouches

A few years ago, food and drink pouches were one of the toughest plastic packaging items to recycle. Layers of super-thin aluminium and different plastics needed to be carefully separated before they could be recycled individually, and very few local councils had the technology to do so. Which meant billions ended up in landfill every year.

But there are a number of schemes now in place that will collect and recycle your food pouches. TerraCycle runs public drop-off points across the UK or you can sign up for their at-home zero-waste box programme. Pets at Home will also take your (clean) pet food pouches.

Most major supermarkets now recycle food and drink pouches, along with old plastic shopping bags, crisp packets and bread bags; find out more at Recycle Now. You can also buy products that come in ‘green’ food pouches but, as ever, it’s worth checking the small print.

Some new pouches may be described as biodegradable, but it could still take decades for them to break down. Other pouches might say they’re compostable – thanks to PLA, a new type of bioplastic made from plant materials – but this cannot be put in your home compost bin, and many local councils don’t yet have the technology to deal with PLA en-mass.

If you can’t avoid buying food and drink pouches completely, think about how and where you can recycle them before you do.

Plain white food pouches

4. Coffee pods and capsules

Coffee pods are known to be a huge environmental hazard; research shows 350,000 end up in landfill every year where they can take 500 years to break down. You can now recycle Lavazza pods with TerraCycle or join Podback, which collects capsules from brands including Nespresso, L’Or and Tassimo.

However, in 2022 Nespresso admitted only 32 per cent of its pods are recycled and some experts believe the global recycling rate for coffee capsules is only five per cent. So what can you do? Compostable pods are now available but – similar to foil food pouches – check if they can be composted at home and/or locally.

You could cut out capsules altogether, avoiding both the need to recycle them and stop aluminium from being mined to produce them in the first place. Stick to takeaway coffees for your caffeine fix – just don’t forget your reusable cup.

5. Glass jars and bottles

This might sound counterintuitive – glass is one of the most widely recycled materials on the planet and can be infinitely recycled – but there are still problems with using glass bottles and jars for food packaging.

One major issue is transportation costs. Glass is heavier than plastic, so transporting huge numbers of glass containers takes more fuel, which creates more carbon emissions. Creating new glass bottles and jars also has an environmental cost.

Glass is made from silica sand, but mining it has reportedly led to land deterioration and loss of biodiversity. Using silica may also be contributing to the global sand shortage. And don’t forget the higher temperatures needed to melt glass – and the fuel needed to do so – for both new and recycled glass.

One solution is to reuse your glass containers rather than recycle them. This cuts down the emissions produced during recycling and prevents you from buying new ones. If you do have to buy them, find out if they contain any recycled glass (100 per cent is best) and stick to that brand.

You can also follow these tips for more ways to become a better recycler. But the best tip of all is to consider the impact these five types of food packaging can have on the environment before writing out your shopping list.

More on packaging

10 ways to trash the plastic
10 tips for reducing your plastic waste
Reduce, reuse and recycle your plastic packaging
How to reduce food packaging waste
Recycling symbols explained

Paul Allen is a former BBC environmental editor and a director at Lark. Find him on X @larkingly


This article was updated on 8 March 2024. If you have any questions or suggestions for future content, please get in touch at

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