The Emperor is naked

Filed in Blog by on October 13, 2011 20 Comments
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Confused about recycling? You will be!

Confused about recycling? You will be!

He really he is! And I’m getting more and more frustrated that everyone is running around praising him for his beautiful robes and adjusting his hemlines.

In case you hadn’t guessed; it’s time for a Mrs Green rant.

This post has been brewing for many months but I’ve kept quiet, tried to be the optimist, congratulated those responsible for what IS being done.

But not enough has been done and it’s time to speak up. It’s going to ruffle feathers and offend some, but there you go.

Today’s rant, ladies and gentlemen is about the unamazing and uninspiring “On-Pack Recycling Label Scheme“.  Created by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), 125 companies have signed up to this voluntary scheme.

The objective of this label are two fold:

  • To help more consumers to recycle more packaging.
  • To help Local Authorities and others to increase recycling rates for those materials that could be recycled, but that currently have low collection and recycling rates.

Fine objectives, and ones which get my vote.

The On Pack Recycling Label Scheme has many wonderful testimonials such as Justin King, Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s Supermarkets who raves “The On-Pack Recycling Label is the industry standard for communicating with customers“.

Cllr Clare Whelan, Chair Climate Change Commission says “The On-Pack Recycling Label is a real step forward in helping consumers understand what packaging materials they can recycle“.

Meanwhile Edwin Poots, Minister for the Environment, Northern Ireland is overjoyed with the label saying “The single, standardised label system provides clear, practical information, making it easier for shoppers to make informed environmentally friendly choices about what they are buying whilst simultaneously educating consumers on how to dispose of the packaging“.

So you see, these wonderful people are bustling around the Emperor, adjusting his crown and making sure he doesn’t trip over his robes.

Is it only me who can see he is naked?

One of the major issues highlighted in the recent “Dispatches” programme about Rubbish in the UK was customer confusion. Morland Sanders took to the streets and asked residents to separate a typical bag of ‘rubbish’ into items that could be recycled and items that couldn’t. The poor results showed consumers were more confused than ever about what to do with their trash.

And it’s no surprise when you take a close look at the On Pack Recycling Label Scheme. Here’s a few examples.

Take these first two beauties and have a look at the recycling instructions:

Sainsbury butter wrapped in paper - widely recycled

Sainsbury butter wrapped in paper - widely recycled

Compared to Co-operative butter in paper which is not currently recycled

Compared to Co-operative butter in paper which is not currently recycled


Let’s move onto plastic film. Try these three on for size:

On this product you have to check local recycling for information

On this product you have to check local recycling for information

This product clearly tells the consumer that plastic film is NOT recycled

This product clearly tells the consumer that plastic film is NOT recycled

And this one gives hope to the masses

Ok, so this one isn't part of the On-Pack-Recycling system, but hey, it gives hope to the masses

But I’ve saved the best ’til last. Are you ready for this? Are you already weeping or banging your head against a brick wall? If not you will be!



I’m wondering how a conversation to my local council might turn out:

“Hi, I’ve got this old container and I don’t know how to responsibly dispose of it”

“What is it made from?”

“Well the jar is made from plastic”

“What sort of plastic?”

“I don’t know, it just says ‘plastic’ and it tells me it’s widely recycled”

“Hmmm; what’s the rest of the packaging made from?”

“Well the lid is plastic”

<Sharp intake of breath> “Plastic? What sort of plastic?”

“I don’t know, it just says ‘plastic’ and that I should check my local recycling”

“And the rest of the packaging?”

“Well there’s a plastic film too”

“What sort of plastic?”

“I don’t know, it just says ‘plastic’ and that it’s not currently recycled”

Quod Erat Demonstrandum…

About the Author ()

I am a long time supporter of the Green and Sustainable lifestyle. After being caught in the Boscastle floods in 2004, our family begun a journey to respect and promote the importance of Earth's fragile ecosystem, that focussed on reducing waste. Inspired by the beauty and resourcefulness of this wonderful planet, I have published numerous magazine articles on green issues and the author of four books.

Comments (20)

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  1. Kate says:

    Wow, here we at least have numbers so if something is marked you have some indication what it is made from…even if many things that could be recycled aren’t marked…
    Good. Grief.

  2. Hazel says:

    Nope, definitely sans clothing (was going to use a different phrase and decided not to!)

    I emailed the New York bagel company last week because they’ve changed their packaging from polythene to…who knows? but it falls apart in the freezer. You wouldn’t believe how many “we are wonderful and caring” ‘much bagel love’ signed emails it took to find out it’s number 5 plastic. But I’m still trying to find out where, if anywhere, I can recycle it (my council are pretty good but only take solid plastics).

    My favourite conversation is the one I had with Dove (as in yeast rather than soap) on Monday. If you look at their website, they are the pinnacle of ecological and ethical responsibility. By email:

    “I see you sell regular yeast in tins. The quick yeast is in irritating packets that fall over, won’t reseal because the tab has got covered in yeast and they’re labelled as made from polyester. I don’t know how I can recycle it. Why can’t you sell the quick yeast in tins that I can reuse and recycle?”

    “We can’t sell quick yeast in tins because it has to be vacuum packed and contains a rehydration agent. It’s not suitable.”

    “So how can I recycle the polyester? I’m sure a company as responsible as Dove will have considered customer packaging disposal.”

    “You can’t recycle the polyester. But we’re looking into packaging the quick yeast in tins.”


    Yeo Valley are driving me mad with their butter wrappers too. All these companies purport to be ecologically driven and then you get these ‘fob off’ emails saying how hard they’re trying. They all do the bare minimum to appear concerned. In my opinion.

  3. Chris says:

    It gets more confusing when each local authority has different rules and different rules for the same thing. We can recycle plastic bottles but not yoghurt pots made from the same type of plastic, or white envelopes but brown ones, office paper but not packaging paper.

  4. Tracey says:

    THANK YOU!!! This has been driving me nuts! Why can’t they just use the little triangles for plastic.

    Yey for wanting to introduce an labelling system for recycling, but what worries me is that it is obviously designed by someone who has never tried to recycle anything in their life!!! Surely the wrong type of inspirational minds for this kind of project! /sigh!

    I’m also worried that some companies who currently DO use the numbering system might turn around and say “that’s the system everyone wants to use” and end up going backwards! 🙁

  5. LJayne says:

    Hazel, my DH is complaining about the very same plastic as we re-used it for all sorts and now it is rubbish!

    Mrs G, I totally agree with you although Sainsburys is much better than Tescos. Lots of their stuff carries the number so you know what it is made from. I recently rang Tescos to complain because they had a packaging update on their cheese (I used to work for a major supermarket so know a bit about this kind of thing) and STILL they’d not taken the step to put the number plastic it was made from.

    I asked the poor Customer Service woman to ask the question ” how hard can it possibly be” and also to point out that there are all sorts of ways of recycling stuff where the end consumer pays to do it and there are enough of us out here willing to do that “IF ONLY WE KNEW WHAT THE *£&$(“*£&$(*£&$(£* STUFF WAS” (please excuse my French!)

  6. I find even the number systems to be confusing. But thats simply my local councils fault; they will happily collect plastic bottles, which can come under both No1 for PET, or No2 for HDPE, and occasionally No4 for LDPE if you buy squeezy bottles! But they wont take other items that come under these numbers such as plastic food containers, bags, lids and containers!

    As you said though, I find these schemes tiresome and uninspiring. I much prefer small independant makers. Some of the products found at the farmshop where I used to work had a much brighter outlook: Jar lids emblazoned with “eat me, love me, re-use me!” , gorgeous handmade shopping baskets that begged you to take them home; “take me to lovely farm shops and farmers markets and never forsake me for a plastic bag!”.

    Im still waiting for the day when jars and packaging come with tips for create re-use! So the idea is embedded the moment you buy the product, then people have no excuse to get crafty! 😉

  7. Sue C says:

    Our local council (Tandridge, Surrey ) has just asked residents to complete a survey about their waste and recycling collection. I suggested a leaflet explaining the different types of plastic recycling options would be great, and also facilities to recycle plastic pots etc would be great as currently our nearest collector is Southwark (or maybe Southall – I stopped paying attention at that point as a round journey of 40 miles was a tad unfeasible) – or Lakeside Thurrock, in Essex. I find it a touch unbelievable that the capital has such limited facilities….

    I put all (washed) food wrappings that look vaguely like plastic bags in the container at my local supermarket, and I’m afraid to say I’m rather naughty and like most of the tandridge residents we put our yoghurt pots etc etc in the plastic bottle skip at the recycling centre – hoping they take the hint.

  8. Julie Day says:

    It does get v confusing. Esp with the ones that have multiple symbols on it. I now know what each number means and where I can recycle it but not everyone does. Hey ho.

  9. Peter says:

    Ah…. but… just think of the meetings held, targets met, boxes ticked, quango directors bonussed, CSR managers praised, ministers made happily aware and box of rocks media PR’d so that oodles of cash can go not where it will do some good, but into endless, often-competing ‘initiatives’, backed by multi-million ad campaigns.

    Meanwhile in the real world…

  10. Layla says:

    hmm, does anyone else think it might be ‘let’s create more confusion so people will give up and not oppose incinerators anymore’ approach?

    greasy/waxed paper as far as I know is difficult to recycle – if they do recycle it, it would be great if they’d tell where and how, so this could be double-checked

    plastic bottles are supposed to be ‘reliable’ and made of what the triangle sign says they are made of, everything else I assume is like plastic cups or yogurt pots where companies might use different materials according to what is cheaper. This should be more regulated and more inspectors and biger penalties put on this.

    And ‘film plastics’ etc are probably not ‘economical’ to recycle, bulk and low weight make transport and recycling expensive, especially when oil prices might be low – there have been calculations as for price and energy use necessary on some sites…

    I guess it’s just ‘cheaper’ to fund more wars (and better for the war industry too!) and drill some more oil from oceans etc!! yikes

  11. Veronica says:

    At my local ASDA carpark in Bristol one can put any sort of plastic container in the skip any sort of waxed drink container and tetrapacks in a different skip and plastic bags in a tiny container that is always overflowing. I keep meaning to make a sign that says ‘If it’s only been used once, do not put in here. Take it into the store and reuse it!”
    I feel very lucky to be able to dispose of these pesky items so easily. But I am guessing that the plastic is used for low grade items, as it is so mixed.
    I also saw the Dispatches programme and thought it did a good job, especially when the reporter said that everyone should have to visit a landfill site. It’s exactly what made me realise where my rubbish was going when I visited a site about 15 years ago.. It smelled like the inside of a dustbin and I could see my local paper spilling out of a plastic bag in the middle of Bedfordshire.
    It’s a hard sell, I help run a course at weekends, full of thinking, really nice people. We have a recycling point and compost bins. But myself and another green minded person still find plastic, cans, foil and paper in the ‘landfill’ bins. And this is 3 years into the course!
    My home bin is full of plastic film and not much else. This is the final problem!

  12. Chris Levey says:

    I think I must be lucky. I live in Rochford Essex, my council take all rigid or semi rigid plastic food containers including yoghut pots, they run an A-Z guide on there website of how to recycle most given products. WEE waste has to go to the recycling centre or they will pick up for a fee,other than that most things go in the mixed recycling bin. We have a green compostables bin that takes all garden and kitchen waste [mine is usually empty as we have large compost bins]. All that goes in the rubbish is tablet packets, toothpaste tubes and film [maybe I can take the film to Waitrose]. If interested look at the Rochford Council website.Incidently the waxed tetrapax go to make wall insulation

  13. CarSue says:

    Please, please, please….don’t ever put materials into the incorrect bin! One of the commenters confessed to putting yogurt tubs into the bins where they weren’t supposed to go! I work for our local recycling center, and I can assure you, no one is “taking the hint.” We are paying extra money to cart these items to a MRF (material recovery facility) for sorting and bailing. And if there is more than 10% contamination upon delivery, the whole lot is rejected and has to be landfilled, because we simply lack the manpower, time, space, etc. to sort it out. If only certain types of plastics are accepted, it’s because those are the onyl types of plastics for which there is a market in the area. Recycling is a market driven industry, like anything else. You can’t just feel warm and fuzzy for throwing all your plastic in the wrong bin. You are making the system slow, costly, and inefficient. We will recycle all that we can, but you are not helping, but rather hindering, when you act like this.

    Sorry, rant of my own.

  14. Tracey Dixon says:

    @CarSue: I am kinda lucky in that my council recycle 1, 2 and 4-plastics, my Mam’s council recycle tetrapacks and 5-plastics, so I save these for her!

    The council don’t specify what shape the plastic has to be, so I had always assumed that, as long as it was the right number, it shouldn’t matter what shape the plastic is (although I’m starting to worry after watching Dispatches, that all of the bits of 4-plastic that’s flimsy like paper is getting caught in the paper at the sorting plant and messing up the bales to be used for paper recycling! – GRRR our lazy government!).

    I imagine the poster who said they popped yoghurt pots in with the bottle bank would be thinking similar… If it’s a 5-plastic yoghurt pot, would it matter…?

    I realise most yoghurt pots aren’t as simple as that (details of why:, but if it IS the same type of plastic as the bottles, would it still cause the bale to be landfilled?

  15. LJayne says:

    It would here Tracey – I’m in East Berkshire. Our council are very specific that only bottles of plastics 1 and 2 are acceptable at the moment. There was a campaign recently by the food co-operative Suma where they had started switching to 1 and 2 flexible plastic for their packaging – they were encouraging people to roll it up and stick it inside their 1 and 2 bottles for recycling. But that would be a big no-no here so although it is tempting, I do echo CarSue above when she says please don’t do it.

    If your council doesn’t specify then that’s a different thing altogether.

  16. Tracey Dixon says:

    There’s obviously a lot more I still need to learn about the recycling processes – I just assumed it was all melted together and re-shaped, therefore it didn’t matter what the starting shapes are! 😛

    Obviously I have more knowledge to absorb! 🙂

  17. David Cannon says:

    Oh thanks so0 much for this. I thought I was going mad. The Emperor is truly in the all together. Just a quick comment from a retired local authority recycling officer to try and shed a bit of light. It is complicated and there are two main factors at play in relation to plastics. One is the type of plastic and they do need to be sorted into individual types (some or all of types 1 to 6) to produce anything marketable. The second factor is how it is sorted. If it is hand picked off a fast moving conveyor belt, plastic bottles are the only items that can be identified, grabbed and sorted quickly enough. Pots tubs and trays simply cannot be hand picked fast enough. So even though some of these items might be made of the same stuff and could be combined with bottles, they will just go off the end of the belt to landfill. However if it is a high tech automated sorting system such as we saw at Viridor on the Dispatches film, bottles, pots, tubs, trays and film can all be sorted. Loads more to say but it’s very late so more later.

  18. Jane says:

    Been totally exasperated by this for ages but didn’t want to discourage anybody from recycling. Thought it was some sort of delaying tactic. So exasperated by the only bottles business I suggested and suggest still that we request as many things as possible be packaged in bottles!

    Extremely irritating when once the plastic was numbered to find it with the arrows and even less information. Pandering to the plastics lobby methinks.

  19. Jane says:

    This BRC labelling works on a percentage system. Depending on what percentage is currently being recycled (in the UK?) that is what the labelling is supposed to show.

    Of course your local Council may have been doorstep collecting and recycling all plastic since the year dot but unless the percentage as a whole reaches a certain amount the labelling will stay saying not currently recycled. CHECK YOUR LOCAL COUNCIL’S WEBSITE and after that CHECK ALL SUPERMARKETS AND LEISURE CENTRES ETC THAT YOU VISIT! After that there may be places YOU CAN SEND recycling to as well.

    (It is a bit like foods that don’t admit in the labelling to having ingredients that are under a certain percentage because they don’t have to under the law.)

  20. Mrs Green says:

    @Kate: That information is often missing – it would assume we don’t have the infrastructure to cope with these materials even if we know what they are!

    @Hazel: I hear you! I’ve had enough of the ‘because we care’ emails too – I write back a couple of years later and nothing has changed!!

    @Chris: Yes, it’s a real challenge that we do not have a ‘one size fits all’ system in the UK; this needs to change…

    @Tracey: 😀 it seems we’re taking one step forward, two steps back sometimes…I admire your dedication in a crazy system; we need people like you who care enough to learn and make changes rather than just giving up.

    @LJayne: Hahahaha, French away my lovely…and well done for speaking out to Tescos…I was very concerned about the info Suma were giving about recycling their plastic film; I felt it was very wrong and confusing. I LOVE them as a company, but questioned this practise.

    @Michelle Morgan @ Eco-Centricity: I love the sound of those jars – what a lovely message that cannot fail to make you smile (and then more likely to listen and do what you’ve been advised …)

    @Sue C: Hopefully something positive will come from the survey – it’s good you took the time to join in and share your ideas

    @Julie Day: You’re right; multiple labels are confusing to people who are time poor and offer little incentive to recycle

    @Peter: You sound cynical Peter 😉

    @Layla: Layla, I have secretly wondered about it being a big ploy to bring in more incinerators too – I hate to admit that!

    @Veronica: I’ve heard very good reports about Bristol and their commitment to recycling; sounds like you have a good system in place – we could all learn from that!

    @Chris Levey: Thanks for sharing that Chris – it’s good to hear of councils making good efforts in recycling – do you have links to tetra pak cartons being used for wall insulation?

    @CarSue: Thanks for sharing all the information about recyclate contamination; I have a friend who does this too and it’s an ‘agree to disagree’ issue between us 😉

    @David Cannon: thanks for sharing the information David – it’s good to hear from the ‘inside’

    @Jane: It IS a challenge because I don’t want to discourage people either, but like you, I want to see positive changes so it becomes easier and more efficient…

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