Trick or Trash: candy manufacturers deal with plastic waste

Halloween treats have a tricky problem: plastic packaging that’s difficult to recycle.

As America dumps an estimated 600 million pounds of candy for Halloween, a handful of companies are trying to make it easier to recycle all that packaging. However, they acknowledge that their efforts leave only a small dent and say more fundamental changes are needed.

Since early October, Mars — the maker of Snickers and M&Ms — has distributed 17,400 candy waste collection bags to US consumers through its website and at community events. The bags can be filled with any brand of packaging and packaging and shipped free of charge to a specialty recycler in Illinois. This recycler, G2 Revolution, pelletizes the packaging and uses it to make dog waste bags.

The pockets fit about 4 ounces of material; If all 17,400 are returned, that equates to over 2 tonnes of recycled packaging. But even then, the recycling program would still only address a fraction of the problem.

“What I would like to see is that over time this program actually falls away and we have a solution where it is no longer needed and we are completely recyclable,” said Tim LeBel, President of Sales, Mars Wrigley US

Mars is working with Rubicon Technologies of Lexington, Kentucky, a consulting and software provider that connects businesses and communities with recyclers. As of 2019, Rubicon has its own program called Trick or Trash, which sends out a free box to schools, businesses, and community groups to collect candy wrappers for recycling. An additional box or a box for personal use costs $100; Rubicon says this covers the cost of making the box, shipping it both ways, and recycling the packaging. Rubicon expects to ship 5,000 boxes this year.

Mars and Rubicon won’t say how much they’re spending on their Halloween programs. Rubicon notes that it pays UPS extra to offset the carbon emissions of shipping.

Plastic wrap is ideal for candy for many reasons. They’re cheap and lightweight, which lowers shipping costs, said Muhammad Rabnawaz, an associate professor in Michigan State University’s School of Packaging. They are also easily modified for different functions; Some may have a coating so that candy, for example, does not stick to it.

However, plastic packaging is a challenge for recycling companies. They often contain a mix of materials, such as foil, that needs to be separated. They are small and thin, making it easy for them to bypass typical sorting equipment. They need to be cleaned to remove grease, oil and other food debris. They are multicolored, so when mixed together they make an unattractive brown.

Even when companies make the effort to recycle candy wrappers, they produce such a low-quality plastic that it doesn’t recoup the recycling costs.

“It has to be profitable. These guys aren’t social workers,” said Brandon Wright, a spokesman for the National Waste and Recycling Association, which represents waste management companies.

As a result, a lot of plastic packaging ends up in the trash. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, containers and packaging accounted for 21% of the garbage that ended up in landfills in 2018.

That’s why it’s critical that food companies or individual consumers fund recycling efforts, said Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle.

The New Jersey-based recycler recycles candy wrappers in the UK through partnerships with Nestlé and Ferrero. In the US, the company will ship boxes to consumers to collect and return candy and snack wrappers for recycling. A small box costs $86; a large costs $218. TerraCycle said this covers the cost of shipping and the multi-part recycling process.

Szaky said TerraCycle has recycled about 40 million candy wrappers worldwide since 2014.

Leah Karrer, a conservationist in Washington DC, bought a TerraCycle box in 2020 and collected 5 pounds of Halloween candy wrappers from about 20 neighbors. She was happy to draw attention to the problem and support TerraCycle, but she didn’t do it again because the box was so expensive.

“This is not a cost-effective solution for most families when the items can just be thrown in a dumpster for free pickup,” she said.

This year, she ordered a free bag from Mars to send a signal that consumers care about plastic waste and urge companies to switch to sustainable packaging.

“The burden cannot be on the customer to solve the massive plastic waste problem,” she said. “The solution is a system change.”

Confectionery makers say they are spending millions to develop new packaging that would be easier to recycle or compost.

Mondelez’s Cadbury introduced more recyclable packaging made from 30% recycled plastic in some markets this year. Mars recently partnered with Danimer Scientific, a biotech company, to develop compostable packaging. Hershey aims to make all of its packaging easily recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2030.

The National Confectioners Association, which represents the confectionery industry, says federal, state and local governments also need to invest in more advanced recycling.

But Janet Dominitz, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, said recycling alone will never keep up with the amount of packaging waste people generate. Dominitz said single-use plastic packaging must be eliminated entirely.

“The problem isn’t the number of candy wrappers on Halloween, it’s the 365 days a year that our infrastructure is designed to throw out,” she said.

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