A bench made from old plastic bags in park or similar area

Turning a Walkers crisp packet into a bench is a start

Crisp packets are hard to recycle. The plastic in them pollutes our streets, parks, rivers and seas. But are solutions on the way?
By Paul Quinn    |      Published:  20 Dec 2018    |      10 minute read

“Crisp Packet Found On Beach” doesn’t sound like much of a news headline – or a surprise.

But in 2018, media outlets ran a story about a boy finding an almost intact 1980s-era Walkers crisp packet on a beach in Cornwall. Three decades of wind, waves and weather and you could still clearly read the writing on the bag.

It’s not a unique case either, or even the oldest packet found. Crisp bags from as far back as 1967 have turned up on beaches across the UK. And then there are the thousands of new ones polluting the streets and coasts that don’t make the news.

Plastic crisp packets are a really big problem

Crisp and snack packets are among the biggest everyday sources of plastic in our coastal and ocean environments. This is according to the report "Reducing Household Contributions to Marine Plastic Pollution" produced by research group Eunomia.

Bag-sized pieces of plastic waste are potential threats to sea life – from fish and seabirds to seals and dolphins. And as the packs break down, tiny pieces of microplastic are consumed by such creatures and become a hazard all the way along the food chain.

But it seems the public outcry over this particular “ancient crisp packet on the seashore” story has brought some encouraging developments in recent months.

Walkers crisp packet protest, and response

First there was an online petition by 38 Degrees asking Walkers, the UK’s biggest crisp producer, to make its crisp packaging recyclable. And preferably plastic-free. A third of a million people signed the petition in just a few months.

A lot of people took the added step of mailing their crisp packets - without an envelope - back to Walkers as part of the protest. This generated even more news coverage – turns out post office sorting machines don’t like crisp packets either.

Walkers, now owned by PepsiCo, responded. It committed to making all Walkers product packaging 100% recyclable, compostable or biodegradable by 2025.

Compostable and biodegradable packaging comes with its own problems, by the way. The vast majority of it ends up in landfill where it doesn't have the right conditions to break down.

And anyway, a 7-year wait seemed too long, so more protests followed.

Then Walkers launched the UK’s first-ever nationwide crisp-packet recycling scheme in December 2018. Working with recycling specialists TerraCycle, they created hundreds of public-access collection points, and announced that all crisp packets from all brands will be accepted.

For those unable to access a collection point, the snack manufacturer can arrange to collect packs by courier free of charge, though people will need to return a minimum 400 bags in this manner. Walkers recommends clubbing together with family, friends and colleagues in this case.

TerraCycle will extract the plastic from the bags and reuse it to make things like benches or fence posts.

A bench made from old plastic bags in park or similar area
Apparently this bench was made from old plastic bags. Will the crisp-packet benches look similar?
Credit: Jason Cartwright (CC BY 2.0)

This scheme seems a positive, helpful move, and we’re keen to see how well it works.

But recycling isn’t the end game. All manufacturers ought to be reducing the amount of plastic being produced in the first place.

Real solutions for plastic-free crisp-eating might not be easy, for reasons we’ll explore in this article. It will need a combined and determined effort from industry, government and the public, as well as from environmental groups.

But if we’re going to solve the huge plastic waste threat we face, we really do need to think outside the bag (sorry).

The scale of the crisp packet problem

If we are what we eat, us Brits must be about 20% crisp. Apparently we eat more crisps than the rest of Europe combined - a belt-stretching 6 billion packets a year.

An assortment of plastic crisp packets and other snacks including Frazzles, Twiglets and Hummus Chips
In the UK we clock up some serious munchy miles
Credit: Paul Quinn

For whatever reason, we’ve become addicted to these small sacks of salty, oil-soaked spud slivers. We already know they’re not great for our health; now researchers have highlighted the environmental damage our beloved crisps are doing too.

Around 20 million new crisp packets are churned out every day in the UK alone – roughly half of them by Walkers. Their main plant in Leicester is one of the biggest crisp factories in the world, producing as many as 4 billion packs per year.

Almost all crisps, and most other snacks, are now packaged in a plastic-foil hybrid material - even the healthier snacks that might otherwise seem better for us and for the environment. Organic, "free-from" or sustainably-sourced snacks are still usually sold in some kind of plastic-based wrapping.

How can you tell if a crisp packet is plastic?

Try the scrunch test: if you crumple the packet in your hand and it bounces back almost immediately, it’s almost certainly got plastic in it.

Even if it looks silvery or foil-like, that’s usually just a metallic layer coated onto plastic film.

What’s wrong with plastic crisp bags?

The trouble with the metallised-plastic packaging that crisp makers seem to love is that almost no recycling facilities can cope with it – so far at least.

This means that even if empty crisp packets are put into recycling bins (whether as metal foil or plastic) they will probably end up in landfill anyway. And they will possibly contaminate whole batches of recycling in the process.

That’s if they even make it to any kind of bin at all. Crisps are so convenient and versatile that they’re usually eaten outside the home. Who doesn’t enjoy a crisp-sandwich lunch break?

Empty packets are often dropped as litter on streets, in parks or even on beaches. And being lightweight, they can drift into and pollute waterways, rivers and the sea.

An empty Walkers salt-and-vinegar crisp packet lying in grass
The plastic in crisp packets ends up polluting our parks, rivers and seas.
Credit: Allen Watkin (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Have crisp packets always been a problem?

A quick historical aside.

Cooked potato slices have been eaten as a snack since 1817 at least, but they weren’t sold in handy sealed packets until the 1920s. That’s when Laura Scudder in the US came up with the idea of selling portions of potato crisps (or chips as they call them) in waxed paper bags – rather than in tins or boxes, or loose, as they were before.

The problem was that these bags were not air-tight, so the crisps had a limited shelf life before they went stale or soggy, or the cooking oil turned rancid.

Since the 1950s and 60s, crisps have been packaged in plastic bags, which proved a marketing masterstroke and sales success, if a dietary disaster. At first they were made from mainly see-through, single-layer plastic, with the crisps visible through a clear window.

A 1950s advert for a snack called Korn Kurls showing 3 transparent plastic packets and hands dipping in.
We've been using plastic packets for snacks like crisps since the 1950s.
Credit: SenseiAlan (CC BY 2.0)

But it seems even plain, clear plastic wasn’t quite enough to ensure the quality control the customers and retailers gradually demanded.

Crisp packets are now expected to perform many jobs. They not only keep air, moisture, light and any possible contaminants away from the crisps, they also seal in any greasiness, as well as preserving full crispiness and flavour.

Thanks to a squirt of nitrogen gas inside each bag, they also act a bit like pillows, protecting the crisps from impacts and crumbling.

That’s why, in the past decade or so, the plain transparent plastic crisp pack has been gradually but comprehensively replaced by slightly more robust and usually glossy metallised plastic packets.

The new packs are also more versatile when it comes to printing and branding.

Why aren’t crisp packets recyclable?

A good, simple question, with a rather complicated answer.

Today’s bags are technically aluminium-coated polypropylene (PP) or polyethylene (PET) – very like the mylar material that Christmas tinsel and helium balloons are made from.

These new crisp packs are still relatively thin and light, good for keeping transport costs down. But they’re a sophisticated construction of three or more separate layers of different plastics plus a very thin coating of aluminium, usually sprayed onto the plastic.

Each layer has a different role, and the combination does a very good job of keeping crisps fresh, crunchy, protected and flavourful – sometimes for a year or more. That means increased shelf life and more scope for bulk purchasing by retailers.

But at what environmental cost? It’s the combination of layers and materials that makes them so hard to recycle, though not impossible, as the Walkers/TerraCycle scheme proves.

Plastic-only packets do still exist – from brands like Regal in the UK for example. But they’re a small minority now. And in any case, although preferable to the hybrid foil bags, they’re still not widely recycled.

What can be done to cut crisp packet pollution?

As we’ve said, it’ll take a concerted effort from industry, politicians and the public to achieve significant changes.

We need to see more innovative packaging design and materials. But the immediate focus has to be on encouraging buyers to recycle packets – stopping the plastic in them from polluting our roads, rivers, seashores and oceans.

What industry can do

Retailers can help by working with companies offering a recycling service, like TerraCycle, and providing more collection points in shops. This is already done with carrier bags in many places.

They should also re-think whether their long shelf-life requirements are creating the demand for non-recyclable packaging. They should work with manufacturers to determine what sort of packaging is really essential.

Crisp manufacturers - as well as the kind of welcome recycling scheme that Walkers is trialling, they ought to be reducing or removing the plastic used in their packaging in the first place.

A Marks & Spencer’s initiative in 2017, Project Thin Air, reduced the amount of plastic in its crisp packets by 20%, just by using thinner plastic.

A good effort, although it’s still a plastic bag, and could still end up in our rivers and seas. Also, having smaller amounts of plastic in packaging is actually less valuable to recyclers – making them even less likely to be recycled.

Pringles cardboard tubes would seem to be a less plasticky option. In reality, though, they’re unpopular with recyclers because they’re also a tricky blend of cardboard, plastic and metal. Walkers’ similarly-shaped Stax tubes are apparently more recyclable, but seem to come in either plastic or cardboard varieties.

Boxerchips, as the name implies, come in a cardboard box, but even that is sealed in a metallised plastic bag. The box idea may have some merits – perhaps combined with a sealed greaseproof paper bag for combined protection and freshness. Would that satisfy today’s fussy consumers and retailers?

Some manufacturers, like Walkers, insist they are still striving to find suitable alternative materials for their packaging. Others seem to have just gone ahead and done it – there are a few examples we’re aware of already.

Compostable crisp packets were trialled by Frito Lay in the US for its Sun Chip range back in 2010. The bags were made from poly-lactic acid, a corn based bio-polymer, which can biodegrade at varying speeds in different environments. But the experimental packets were taken off the market within a year after public complaints about how noisy they were.

For goodness sake, who eats crisps without making a noise?

There are concerns about biodegradable packaging, though. It doesn't really decompose in harsh environments like the sea – and like normal plastic, it's a risk to wildlife in its unbroken-down state.

Compostable crisp packets hit home

In Europe a few companies claim their crisp packets are biodegradable/compostable. A couple of Dutch and German organic snack brands, Trafo and MyChipBox, both use bio-based packaging made by German company Bio4Pack.

And a new independent company in the UK, Two Farmers, has launched its new crisps in innovative packets. The packs are made by Parkside Flexibles using NatureFlex, a eucalyptus-derived material originally created by Japanese packaging experts Futamura.

They say the packs will “completely break down in a home composting environment in 26 weeks”. You can even watch a Two Farmers crisp packet decompose in real time on this Twitter experiment.

It’s claimed that the production methods used for this material are less harsh and chemically intensive than some other forms of cellulose. It’s also claimed that the eucalyptus raw materials come from sustainable sources – which is not always the case in some parts of the world, where natural native forests have been cleared for huge eucalyptus plantations.

This new packaging is still a lot more expensive to produce, at the moment at least. So, perhaps inevitably, crisps like this tend to be aimed at the artisan market rather than the budget crisp buyer - the retail price is over £1 for a 40g bag.

Two Farmers does offer a large 300g tin of crisps (looks like a fancy paint tin, complete with handle) and a refill service for catering outlets.

What government and local authorities can do

There are 4 main things that politicians and councils can do to prevent crisp packet pollution:

1. Improve waste collection

Reduce the number of packets being littered or blown into rivers and waterways by providing more bins and emptying them more often. Step up public awareness campaigns too.

2. Improve recycling facilities . . .

. . . so that they can cope better with crisp packaging of all types. As well as being difficult materials to process, lightweight items like crisp packets are seen as low value and so not worth collecting. This has to change.

It’s not good enough to have a situation where certain types of plastic waste can be recycled by some councils but not others. Surely, if it can be recycled, it should be recycled everywhere.

3. Work alongside manufacturers and retailers

Provide clear information and encourage people to make better buying choices – looking out for more sustainable, recyclable and compostable packaging.

4. Introduce new regulation . . .

. . . that drives a reduction in the use of non-essential plastics and aims to phase out all plastic pollution.

The government should make sure that producers are legally and financially responsible for the fate of their packaging, including the full costs of clearing up litter.

For crisp producers this would be another incentive to redesign packets, or put in place mechanisms to reduce littering or increase recycling.

What we can all do

We all have choices when we shop. When it comes to crisps, we can choose to move away from non-recyclable packaging, or even reduce the amount of crisps we eat (think of the health benefits).

We can support things like the new Walkers crisp packet recycling initiative, and demand that it’s rolled out to more places.

While we’re waiting for industry and politicians to get their act together, here are a couple more ideas:

1. Buy big bags

If you must have crisps, buy the biggest packets available – not multipacks, but single large packets. Those will usually contain less plastic packaging overall.

As long as you can resist the temptation to eat the whole giant bag at once, you can just decant a small portion of crisps at a time – either into a bowl for home snacking or into greaseproof paper bags for munching on the move.

2. Upcycle your bags into something new

Instead of binning your used crisp packets, do something constructive with them – like making a trendy purse. You can find lots more ideas online.

If you do get rid of your empty packet, always make sure you bin it properly, so that it can't get blown away by the wind or got at by foxes. At least in landfill it’s not choking sea life.

Crisp packets of the future

Ultimately the solution to the crisp packet dilemma might well involve hybrid packaging, especially if it has to meet all of today’s criteria for protection, hygiene, freshness and shelf life etc.

Or there may be acceptable compromises. Could manufacturers and retailers cope with a shorter shelf-life for their snacks?

Crisp fans might have to be more forgiving of new-style packets – which may look, feel or sound different from what they’ve become used to. Not a serious hardship compared to having our oceans clogged with packs.

In the meantime, I’m wondering if easing off on the crisp sandwiches would be a good idea all round anyway.