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Pringles: Snacktime Hero or Recycling Villain?

The UK Recycling Association speaks out against hard-to-recycle products

(Mike Mozart/Flickr Commons)
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Pringles are known for their signature packaging: a brightly colored tube, perfectly suited for stacking the brand’s saddle-shaped chips. But as Roger Harrabin reports for the BBC, the UK’s Recycling Association had some harsh words for the tasty chip brand, labeling Pringles packaging as one of the most difficult products to recycle.

Simon Ellin, CEO of the Recycling Association, said that Pringles tubes are a “nightmare” and “the No.1 recycling villain,” according to Harrabin. The problem with the chip’s packaging is that it contains a number of different materials: a cardboard sleeve, a foil lining, a metal base, a plastic cap, a metal tear-off lid. These materials are difficult to separate, which in turn makes them hard to recycle.

During a press conference in London, Ellin continued to give Pringles a tongue-lashing. “What idiot designed this in terms of recyclability?” he said, according to Ryan Hooper of The Scotsman. “The Pringles factor—right at the design stage, we’ve got to get that right. What we’re putting in our recycling bins has got to be recyclable. We’ve got to get away from the Pringles factor.”

Responding to the criticism, a Pringles spokesperson said, “We take our responsibilities to the planet we all share seriously and are continuously working to improve our environmental performance," according to Damien Gayle at the Guardian

Pringles isn't the only offender when it comes to hard-to-recycle products. Harrabin of the BBC reports that Elllin deemed bottles containing Lucozade Sport, a type of energy drink, the “No. 2 villain” because they are confusing to computer scanners that separate recycling. Black plastic trays are problematic for a similar reason: carbon black pigments can’t be picked out by sorting systems. Cleaning spray bottles, which have a metal spring in the cap that is not recyclable, are another culprit, as are whiskey bottles.   

“It grieves me to say this as one who likes his whisky but whisky causes us problems,” Ellin said, the BBC reports. “The metal bottom and top to the sleeve, the glass bottle, the metal cap... very hard for us."

To try and address these recycling woes, Prince Charles' International Sustainability Unit has teamed up with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a UK-based charity, to launch a multi-million dollar prize for innovators who can come up with a better packaging system. According to a press statement from the Foundation, the Plastics Economy Innovation Prize is divided into two parallel challenges, each with a reward of $1 million.

The first challenge focuses on rethinking small plastics, like straws and coffee cup lids, which are rarely recycled and often end up in the environment. The second asks competitors to devise a way to make all plastic packaging recyclable, so recycling officials aren’t faced with the difficult task of untangling multiple layers of materials. 

“The demand for plastics products is expected to double in the next 20 years – but the plastics system is broken,” the statement reads. “Only 14 percent of plastic packaging is recycled, with the remainder, worth $80-120 billion, lost as waste. Most plastic packaging items are used only once before being discarded, often ending up polluting the environment. If nothing changes, there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.”

Some companies have already introduced innovations to improve their packaging. The consumer giant Unilever, for instance, recently announced that it had developed a way to recycle its single-use sachets, which had previously ended up in landfills and oceans. More businesses will hopefully follow suit, so our snacks—and cleaning supplies and alcoholic beverages—don’t continue to take a toll on the environment.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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