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Are crisp packets the new plastic bags? It's crunch time for our favourite salty snack

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 21/09/2018 Pip Sloan

© Provided by Getty The variety of crisps available on our supermarket aisles is endless – from one end to the other, brands such as Walkers, McCoy’s, Pringles and Doritos, not to mention Kettle Chips, Tyrrells,  Pipers, and all the own brands, line up to exacerbate your craving for a salty snack. The flavours may be infinite, but one thing unites these potato-based foods – not one of the crisp packets is recyclable.

After the dangers of plastics were highlighted to us in David Attenborough's Blue Planet II, numerous campaigns including the straight ban of plastic bags in Tijuana have been introduced, yet nothing has been implemented to curb our crisp packet habit. 

In August, a petition by the not-for-profit campaigning organisation 38 Degrees gathered pace, calling upon the fried-potato heavyweights, Walkers, to develop an eco-friendly alternative to the crisp packet. So far, the petition has gained over 310,000 signatures. But, why hasn’t this issue been raised before?

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“It’s a mystery as to why the problem hasn’t been at the forefront of the recycling movement,” Geraint Ashcroft tells me. The retired teacher began the petition 10 months ago after reading about the non-recyclable status of crisp packets on his local council website and had gained 1,000 signatures after the first six months.

© Provided by Getty “One big problem is where the packets are used. Single-use cups are bought predominantly in towns and cities where there are bins on every corner and litter pickers hired to keep the streets tidy – meaning that they may be non-recyclable, but at least they’re off the streets. Crisps can be stuffed in your bag and taken out on the beach or in parks where there are no waste-disposal units, so they end up littering the beaches and causing havoc for the wildlife. This is why it’s a problem of biodegradability – it’s not enough to simply be recyclable, it has to be fully biodegradable.”

Although the inside of crisp packets may look like recyclable metal, they are in fact made of a metallised plastic film. “They are designed to keep their contents as fresh as possible and as such remain in the environment, particularly in our oceans, for decades,” explains Joanna Ruxton, co-founder of the Plastic Oceans foundation. During the filming of their documentary, A Plastic Ocean, the charity found crisp packets littering the shorelines and beaches of all of the 22 countries they visited. Some of the packets dated back well before the 1970s. And with 90 per cent of UK households regularly stocking crisps in their cupboard, Ruxton firmly believes it is the responsibility of the manufacturers to clean up their act.

As a result of his 38 Degrees campaign, Ashcroft has met with PepsiCo, who own the Leicester manufacturer Walkers, to discuss their plans to make more eco-friendly packets. He was told that the company are working to tackle waste challenges, and have committed to producing a 100 per cent recyclable packet by 2025. By then, there will be more than 20 billion extra crisp packets in circulation – enough to wrap their greasy film around the world 145 times.

Related: Everything you need to buy once and for all to eliminate single-use plastic from your life (Country Living UK)

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“This is not the first time PepsiCo have made seemingly empty promises to become eco-friendly,” explains Ashcroft. “In 2006, they developed a recyclable packet which they tested in the USA, who complained it was too noisy. Nothing else came from that. Then in 2010 the president of the company announced that within the next 18 months they would have a packet made entirely of potato starch. There was nothing committing them to their promise then, and there’s nothing now.”

After the biodegradable crisp packet was abandoned following consumer grumbles about it being too stiff and too loud, PepsiCo did develop a quieter bag, but chose not to trial it due to the bag failing to meet their quality control and health and safety standards. They are currently trialing a biodegradable packet in India (which begs the question, why do we have to wait until 2025?).

And what about Pringles, the most iconic alternative to the crisp packet, with its classic cardboard tube and ‘once you pop, you can’t stop’ foil seal? According to The Recycling Association, they are the worst offenders of all. Simon Ellin, chief executive of recycling cooperative, tells me, “I raised the issue of Pringles containers being a nightmare to recycle last year [due to the many different components, most of which are not recyclable and are also difficult to separate], but then again no crisp packet is a good alternative.”

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So, with new materials seemingly light years away from reaching our supermarkets, what can be done in the meantime?

Some companies have taken the initiative to work on the design of their crisp packets in order to reduce the amount of plastic per bag. KP Snacks, the makers of UK favourites such as McCoy’s, Hula Hoops, Skips and Tyrrells, have developed ‘flow-wrap technology’, a more compact packaging that has reduced the amount of plastic in their multipacks and reduced their plastic production by 11 per cent since 2007.

Likewise, Marks & Spencer’s ‘Project Thin Air’ initiative in 2017 saw the amount of plastic in the supermarket's popcorn packets slashed by 37 per cent, and in crisp packets by 20 per cent, through the use of thinner plastic. Over 140 further M&S products have also benefited from changes through Project Thin Air, resulting in 75 tonnes of packaging being saved in 2017.

But is this enough? A bag with less plastic is still a bag, whether the amount of plastic used is 11 per cent less or 40 per cent less. In August, images emerged of a rare fish found washed up on the coast of Indonesia in 2016. The coelacanth, one of a species that survived the extinction of the dinosaurs, had a Lay's crisp packet wrapped around its intestines.  I doubt its dying thought was, “well, at least the packet had flow-wrap technology.”

a screenshot of a cell phone: Plastic pledges | Five practical ways to prevent plastic entering the ocean © Provided by Telegraph Media Group Limited Plastic pledges | Five practical ways to prevent plastic entering the ocean In light of Ashcroft's campaign and the accounts of the many plastic campaigners I have spoken to, why aren't the likes of PepsiCo and KP Snacks sponsoring the placement of bins on beaches, litter picking brigades, or talks in schools on the dangers of littering? After speaking with their press office, I discovered that PepsiCo will in fact be working with Leeds City Council and recycling coalition Hubbub, as of September, in the six-month #Leedsbyexample campaign, but I don’t understand why, in the post-Blue-Planet-II age, this isn’t at the forefront of their advertising campaigns.

Furthermore, these companies should be footing the bill for the disposal of the waste they produce. The taxpayer currently pays for 90 per cent of the cost of recycling – why shouldn't manufacturers contibute?

In a recent proposal by the European Commission, companies will be obligated to cover the costs of waste management if they are not prepared to provide recyclable packaging. By comparison, the UK government’s litter strategy states that between now and 2020 they will be merely ‘encouraging businesses to work with others to deal with local litter problems’.

Michael Gove claims to have been “haunted” by the famous episode of Blue Planet II that highlighted the plastic problem, yet the Environment Secretary's promises remain a far cry from the action that the situation demands. There will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050, so we mustn’t make plans to reduce our plastic intake by 2025 or, worse still 2040, we must instigate them now – whether this be through the development of alternative materials, the proper disposal of our rubbish, or simply giving up your daily packet of ready salted.

Related: 21 Fun and Practical Uses for Old Straws (Mental Floss)

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