It’s crunch time: The UK potato crisp brands motivating to reduce plastic waste

By Gill Hyslop

- Last updated on GMT

 Pic: GettyImages/Yannasakamon Thamjamrassri
Pic: GettyImages/Yannasakamon Thamjamrassri

Related tags Sustainable packaging

More than eight billion packets of crisps are sold every year in the UK, the majority of which end up in landfill. With each single-use non-recyclable pack capable of remaining intact in the environment for up to 33 years, that equates to 264 billion empty packs clogging the junkheap by 2057. But there’s hope on the horizon…

According to Statista, Brits tucked into 8.3bn packets of crisps in 2017. By 2030, the consumer data firm expects that number to rise to 11.1bn each year.

The sheer volume of single use crisp packets has both environmental experts and crisp makers concerned.

The British Crisp Co, Walkers, KP Snacks, Fairfield Farm, Two Farmers and Off the Eaten Path are among those leading the packaging revolution in the UK to address the mounting waste.

World’s first fully recyclable crisp bag

British Crisp Co founder Tom Lock spent three years to unlock the holy grail of keeping crisps fresh in paper packaging that can be recycled in the same way as newspaper or cardboard.

The challenge with paper is that it doesn’t keep moisture in or out and doesn’t ‘seal’, meaning the crisps will go stale and soft before they are sold. Traditional potato crisp bags are made from plastic and metallized plastic film, designed to be airtight and extend the shelf life of the product, however, some experts contend it takes these packets 75-80 years to break down.

Despite the many challenges and setbacks, Lock has prevailed and his snack company has launched the world’s first fully recyclable crisp bag, developed in partnership with EvoPak, which specializes in paper-based flexible packaging.

The packaging is a unique combination of paper and Hydropol – a biodegradable and compostable polymer developed by Aquapak Polymers – covered by an ultra-thin layer of vacuum deposited aluminium to keep the crisps fresh without impacting the pack’s recyclability. Aquapak claims Hydropol can be recycled, re-pulped, composted and is distinctively compatible with anaerobic digestion.

“This launch marks a significant milestone for Aquapak and our Hydropol technology, which can be commercialized at scale,” said Aquapak CEO Mark Lapping.

“Producers now have a viable, environmentally safe and recyclable alternative that enables full fiber recovery in standard paper recycling and does not form microplastics in the process.”

Tom Lock The British Crisp Co
Tom Lock

Added British Crisp Co’s Lock, “We believe in more than just great taste and high-quality ingredients – we’re passionate about sustainability.

“That’s why we are delighted to be the world’s first crisp brand to bring to market a fully recyclable paper pack. In addition, we make our crisps on a UK farm that not only grows its own potatoes but is powered by renewable energy. So, we like to say that our crisps don’t just taste good, they do good, too.”

The packaging is OPRL-accredited, meaning it can display the ‘Recycle’ logo, along with an encouragement to consumers to ‘recycle me’. Rolling out across shops, pubs, hotels and coffee shops across the UK in the coming months, the new packaging will be used for three of the brand’s most popular vegan and gluten-free flavors, including Sea Salt, Salt & Vinegar and Cheese & Onion.

OPRL (On-pack Recycling Logo) is a nonprofit that works to drive circularity and a transformation in packaging resource efficiency.

According to Daniel McAlister, operations director for Evopak, Hydropol has “the potential to revolutionize packaging as we know it. The paper can be used in a range of applications from snacks and confectionary, to petcare and dry foods and cereals.”

Walkers unveils paper packaging

Walkers paper packaging

Last year, the PepsiCo-owned brand launched paper-based outer packaging for all Walkers Baked multipacks,​ with an aim to reduce its consumption of virgin plastic by approximately 180 tons per year. The transition to paper is also expected to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per pack by 52%.

PepsiCo Europe plans to wholly eliminate fossil-based plastic in crisp and snack bags by 2030, using 100% recycled or renewable materials for all its UK brands, including Snack A Jacks, Walkers, Doritos, Quavers, Wotsits and Pipers.

“Our outer paper multibag packs are working well on Walkers Baked, giving us the confidence to roll out this format across more of our snacks brands,” said PepsiCo UK packaging sustainability lead Gareth Callan.

In April 2023, the snack producer began a rollout of paper outer bags for all Snack A Jacks multipacks, aiming to decrease its use of virgin plastic by 65 tons annually. This was followed in December with new packaging that contains 50% recycled plastic for its Sunbites range.

Ramping up its packaging improvement program

KP Snacks three brands

KP Snacks kicked off 2024 with a renewed focus on packaging commitment:​ boosting investment that will see a significant reduction in the flow-wrap packaging across its Discos, Roysters and Frisps brands and more recently, introducing 25% recycled content packaging across its Tyrrells sharing range.

The flow wrapping process will see a 35% plastic packaging reduction for the six-packs across the three brands – saving the equivalent of 100 tons of plastic packaging annually.

Additionally, because the packs take up less space, larger quotas of product can be transported at the same time, which will translate to 620 fewer lorry journeys per year and a significant reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

KP Snacks Tyrrells

The snack producer has also started rolling out 25% recycled content packs for its bestselling Tyrrells flavors, including Lightly Sea Salted, Sea Salt & Cider Vinegar, Sweet Chilli & Red Pepper and Mature Cheddar & Chive (all 150g formats).

The packs incorporates recycled soft plastics, thus reducing reliance on virgin plastics.

“As an industry leader, we understand we have a responsibility to drive change,” said John Leslie, packaging technology manager for KP Snacks.

“We aim to support the use of recycled plastic in our packaging as it becomes available, facilitating the drive towards a circular economy and a more sustainable future.

“By introducing recycled content to our Tyrrells sharing bags, we are beginning to close the loop on packaging while reducing the need for virgin plastics. This latest packaging innovation forms part of a broader cross-brand strategy designed to minimize our environmental footprint.”

Compostable vs recyclable?

Recycle vs compostable Getty
Pic: GettyImages

Two Farmers claims to be the UK’s first 100% compostable and plastic-free crisp brand.

The packets are made from cellulose and sustainably grown eucalyptus trees from managed plantations. In addition, the snack producer uses plant-based inks and glues that are biodegradable.

Packaging made from sustainable cellulose materials is more eco-friendly than plastic-based packaging. It’s made from sustainable materials like eucalyptus, hemp, wood, or cotton and helps to keep a lot of harmful plastic out of the environment.

However, according to founders Mark Green and Sean Mason, their packaging is compostable as long as it is placed under proper composting conditions. The brand added a second layer of cellulose for freshness, but this means the composting process takes 27-36 weeks.

Two Farmers isn't the only UK brand working to make its packaging more sustainable. Off the Eaten Path has adopted plant-based commercially compostable bags, meaning they’re not suitable for home composting. The brand invites consumers to return the bags to be recycled by TerraCycle.

Similarly, Fairfield Farm’s handcooked crisps are wrapped in packs that are recyclable at large supermarkets.

According to the company, it skipped the compostable option, as this packaging needs to go to a very specific type of industrial composting facility, of which there are very few in the UK.

In 2019, the UK’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said, “Although industrially compostable plastic packaging is appealing as an alternative to conventional plastics, the general waste management infrastructure to manage it is not yet fit for purpose.

“In addition, we are concerned that consumers are confused about how to dispose of compostable packaging, particularly if there is no dedicated compostable waste bin available. This could result in contamination of dry recycling as well as littering. We therefore don’t support a general increase in the use of industrially compostable packaging at this stage.”

The crisp packet

Potato chips in packet Getty MarkGillow
Pic: GettyImages/MarkGillow

The first sealed packet of crisps was created by Laura Scudder in the 1920s using waxed paper bags. Back then, crisps were distributed in bulk from barrels or tins, which caused them to go stale quickly or get broken. Scudder found that ironing wax paper to form bags kept the crisps fresh and crisp for longer. The Laura Scudder Potato Chip Factory was also the first to put a freshness date on food products.

The wax packaging, however, was not airtight, which led on to the development of plastic bags. The crisp packets of the 50s and 60s were made from a single layer of plastic, evolving to today’s packaging, which often has a number of layers and made from polypropylene or polyethylene with an aluminium coating.

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