Halloween treats have a tricky problem: plastic packaging, which is difficult to recycle.
As America loads up on an estimated 600 million pounds of candy on Halloween, several companies are trying to make it easier to recycle all that wrapper. But they admit their efforts are only making 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 collection bags to U.S. consumers through its website and at community events. The bags can be filled with any brand of wrappers and packaging and mailed to a specialized recycler in Illinois for free. This recycler, G2 Revolution, forms the bags into pellets and uses them to make dog litter bags.
The bags hold about 4 ounces of material; if all 17,400 are returned, it will equal more than 2 tons of recycled packaging. But even then, a recycling program will solve only a small part of the problem.
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“What I’d like to see is that program really go away over time and we have a solution where it’s no longer needed and we’re completely re-engineering,” said Tim Lebel, president of sales for Mars Wrigley US
Mars is partnering with Lexington, Ky.-based Rubicon Technologies, a consultant and software provider that connects companies and municipalities with recyclers. Since 2019, Rubicon has had its own program called Trash or Treat, which sends one free box to schools, businesses and community groups to collect candy for recycling. An extra box or personal use box is $100; Rubicon says it covers the costs of making the box, shipping it both ways and recycling the wrappers. Rubicon expects to ship 5,000 boxes this year.
Mars and Rubicon won’t say how much they’re spending on their Halloween programming. Rubicon notes that UPS pays extra to offset the carbon emissions from shipping.
Plastic wrappers are ideal for candy for many reasons. They are cheap and lightweight, which reduces shipping costs, said Muhammad Rabnawaz, an assistant professor at Michigan State University’s School of Packaging. They are also easy to modify for different functions; some may have a coating to prevent candies from sticking to them, for example.
But plastic wrap is a problem for recycling companies. They often contain a mixture of materials, such as foil, that need to be separated. They are small and flimsy, allowing them to easily bypass conventional sorting equipment. They must be cleaned of fat, oil and other food waste. They are multi-colored, so if you mix them together, they turn out to be an unattractive brown.
Even when companies make efforts to recycle candy wrappers, they produce such cheap plastic that it doesn’t pay for the recycling costs.
“It has to be profitable. These guys are not social workers,” said Brandon Wright, a spokesman for the National Waste Recycling Association, which represents waste recycling companies.
As a result, a lot of plastic packaging is thrown away. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, in 2018, containers and packaging made up 21% of the trash that ended up in landfills.
That’s why it’s critical that food companies or individual consumers fund recycling efforts, said Tom Sacchi, CEO of TerraCycle.
The New Jersey-based recycling company recycles candy wrappers in the United Kingdom through partnerships with Nestle and Ferrero. In the US, the company will send boxes to consumers to collect candy and snack wrappers and return them for recycling. A small box costs $86; large is $218. TerraCycle said this covers the shipping costs and the recycling process for several parts.
Since 2014, TerraCycle has recycled about 40 million wrappers worldwide, Saki said.
Leah Carrer, a conservationist in Washington, D.C., bought a TerraCycle box in 2020 and collected 5 pounds of Halloween candy wrappers from about 20 neighbors. She enjoyed raising awareness and supporting TerraCycle, but she didn’t do it anymore because the box was so expensive.
“It’s not a cost-effective solution for most families when things can just be thrown in the bin to be picked up for free,” she said.
This year, she ordered a free bag from Mars to communicate that consumers care about plastic waste and want companies to switch to green packaging.
“The onus is not on the customer to solve the massive problem of plastic waste,” she said. “The solution is to change the system.”
Candy makers say they are spending millions to develop new packaging that is easier to recycle or compost.
Mondelez Cadbury introduced more recyclable packaging in select markets this year, made from 30% recycled plastic. Mars recently partnered with biotech company Danimer Scientific to develop compostable packaging. The Hershey Company has set a goal of making all of its packaging easily recyclable, reusable, or compostable by 2030.
The National Confectioners Association, which represents the confectionary industry, says federal, state and local governments also need to invest in better recycling.
But Janet Dominicz, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, said recycling alone never keeps up with the amount of packaging waste people create. Dominitz said single-use plastic packaging should be phased out entirely.
“The problem isn’t the amount of Halloween candy wrappers, it’s the fact that our infrastructure is set up to waste 365 days a year,” she said.
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