What to do with milk bottle tops? On recycling, unbending industry and responsible consumers

 milk_bottle_recycling_400A couple of months ago Guardian’s weekly environmental column featured an article addressing the issue of recycling and, specifically, the challenges of successful processing of plastic milk bottles. It turns out that red, green and blue milk bottle tops, intended to help consumers to easily distinguish between skimmed, semi-skimmed and full fat milk, present a serious problem when it comes to converting old bottles into a reusable material. During the recycling process, coloured lids mix in with the bottle plastic:  the resulting material – bluish, reddish or greenish  HDPE (High Density Polyethylene, which is what modern milk bottles are made of) – is unfit for the production of new clear white milk bottles. Closed loop recycling offers a solution (this video featuring a M&S milk bottle – no advertising intended! – provides a good demonstration of the process) but the effectiveness of the technology is in inverse relationship with its efficiency – for the end material to be perfectly untinged the sorting conveyor belt must operate at low speed. Reduced efficiency widens the existent gap between supply and demand for recycled material and is a serious setback in the industry’s plans to convert to 30% recycled HDPE in milk bottles by 2015. The most obvious solution – to make the bottle tops white – has been rejected by supermarkets which are too worried about keeping their customers happy to risk depriving them of the convenience of coloured bottle lids. Less intensely coloured tops are the retailers’ compromise – this improves the recycling rates although does not completely solve the problem. The consequences of the industry’s inflexibility is that the responsibility for successful recycling is simply placed on the shoulders of the consumers who are required to remove the tops before putting plastic bottles in the recycling bin.

The article has sparked my interest in the recycling issue – this is a fascinating subject deserving separate consideration (an entire blog post can be easily spent on discussing the various types of waste prevention alone – pre-cycling, up-cycling, down-cycling, recycling, reusing, repurposing – sounds baffling doesn’t it?). But this time I stayed true to my ubiquitous focus on consumers and went to the comment section to get a sense of the public’s views on the issue. Having gone through 94 comments I realized that, despite retailers’ concerns, consumers do not seem to be too fussy about the colour of their milk bottle tops. Different types of milk can be just as easily distinguished by the label, removable coloured stickers or a single strap printed on the white lid, readers suggest. Tetra-pak-topsSome offered radical solutions such as re-introducing the deposit and return system for drink containers – buy a bottle of drink, return the bottle and get the money back – which, in an ideal world, would eliminate the need for the production of bottles altogether bringing us a step closer to a waste-free food chain. Other commentators were at a loss to understand why milk bottles can’t be simply washed and re-used rather than broken down and made into new – exactly the same – ones (this is where the difference between recycling and re-using comes into play!). Finally, people also generally didn’t mind taking a little extra effort to remove the top before putting the bottle in the recycling bin. Recycling-proactive consumers might be exactly what is needed at the time when the government is loosening the rules on domestic recycling – recycling targets previously imposed on councils have been recently removed.

So it seems consumers are not that resistant as supermarkets imagine them to be and would not mind the packaging makeover for the sake of a good cause (although, of course, the sample of several dozens of Guardian readers is by no means representative of all the country’s milk drinkers). A consumer education campaign precipitating the industry-wide transformation of milk bottles’ appearance could be a good way to inform people as well as assuage retailers’ concerns over loosing exacting customers. In the meantime, well-meaning consumers can set aside the lids for reasons other than environmental – many charities are now raising money for good causes by collecting milk bottle tops and selling them to companies. GHS recycling runs one such recycling scheme) and the cosmetics producer Lush has been collecting lids from the customers to raise money for environmental charities since 2011 .

And yes, while you are deciding what to do with your milk bottle tops, see if you can spot the slight change in their colour next time you pass by the dairy section.

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