Reduce, reuse and recycle your plastic packaging

Plastic food packaging is everywhere, littering our streets and oceans, and going to landfill when it can't be recycled. Cut back your waste with these tips.

Plastic bottles and waste floating on water

Maybe you saw the devastating effects of plastic pollution on BBC One’s Blue Planet II. Perhaps you’ve heard about China now refusing plastic waste from the UK via ‘recycling’ programmes. It’s unlikely that you’ve missed the recent government pledge to drastically reduce single-use plastic. Like plastic itself, the issue of plastic pollution isn’t going away.

Governments and supermarkets are starting to take overuse of plastic more seriously. Many consumers – and not just environmentalists – are worried about the effects of plastic pollution on the earth, and what happens when plastic returns to our food system when we eat fish. There’s no denying it, we need to cut back on single-use plastic.

But the issue is complex. Some food packaging helps to protect products and prevent waste. Take wrapped cucumbers. Just 2g of packaging keeps them fresh for 14 days rather than three. So there are trade-offs. But keeping in mind that some plastics take 1,000 years to biodegrade, anything you can do to REDUCE, REUSE, and – failing that – RECYCLE will make a difference. The three Rs.


REDUCE the single-use plastic in your life

  • Cook from raw ingredients when you have the time and inclination – this often results in less packaging, and less food waste too.
  • Cut back on unnecessary packaging by trying out scoop shops, or by buying from greengrocers and delis who use paper bags. You could also look out for ‘zero-waste’ shops such as Bulk Market in East London or The Zero Waste Shop in Totnes, Devon.
  • Try alternative packaging systems and product refills via home deliveries. Milk floats are having a moment with some consumers shunning plastic in favour of bottled milk.
  • Look for takeaway lunch places that serve food in cardboard boxes rather than plastic (or just bring in last night’s leftovers for lunch at work).
  • Buy loose leaf tea – many people don’t realise that teabags contain plastic.
  • Support supermarkets’ endeavors to reduce plastic. For example, Iceland has pledged a significant reduction in plastic use and Lidl now has plastic-free rice and couscous products. By supporting these measures, you can encourage other food sellers to follow suit.

REUSE the plastics you have already

  • Get a keep coffee cup – the government has said that throwaway cups should be prohibited altogether by 2023, part of its 25-year environmental plan, which addresses plastic pollution.
  • Top up your reusable water bottle. Bristol (and now other locations) has a refill initiative with stickers in restaurants and venue windows indicating ‘re-fill stations’, where you can fill up your bottle with tap water.
  • Don’t be shy to decline a plastic straw when you’re out drinking. Or get a reusable one. Standard bar plastic straws can’t be recycled and can take 200 years to break down. Spread the word – the Scottish village of Ullapool had a successful #NaeStrawAtAw campaign, led by children, leading to plastic straws being scrapped from all venues.
  • Use old food tubs for storing leftover food and look for biodegradable cling film.

Four reusable water bottles


RECYCLE plastics and other materials

  • At the supermarket look for products with recyclable packaging. For example, avoid polystyrene pizza discs and look for cardboard instead. 
  • Check on the website of your local waste company to be sure that you are recycling everything that can be recycled – for example yogurt pots, margarine tubs and Tetra Pak juice containers. Many areas will not collect black plastic, but there might be some surprises. For example, used kitchen foil can be recycled through many services.
  • Recycle carrier bags if you have had to use them (many supermarkets have carrier bag recycling facilities).
  • Try the MSC plastic challenge with your family to monitor your non-recyclable and recyclable plastic use. 
  • If you think an item has used excess packaging, complain about it via the supermarket or manufacturers. Ask supermarkets for refillable product containers and keep an eye out for alternative packaging. Consumer pressure will encourage supermarkets to up their game.

Make do and mend 

Equipment-share websites are a great way to save space in your kitchen and to reduce eventual landfill and packaging waste. Keep your old stuff going with a spot of tinkering. Repair cafés are springing up around the country from The Edinburgh Remakery to London’s Restart Project where volunteers can help fix your equipment.

Read more about reducing plastic waste...

10 ways to trash the plastic
How to reduce food packaging waste

Are you considering ways to reduce, reuse and recyle your plastic? Leave a comment below...

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