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Candy makers grapple with plastic waste this Halloween

Halloween snacks have a dilemma: plastic packaging is hard to recycle.

As America consumes an estimated 600 million pounds of candy for Halloween, a handful of companies are trying to make it easier to recycle all that wrapper. But they admit their efforts have made 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 garbage collection bags to American consumers through its website and at community events. These bags can be filled with wrappers and packaging from any brand and are sent free of charge to a special recycler in Illinois. That recycling company, G2 Revolution, packaged it into pellets and used them to make dog waste bags.

The bags fit about 4 ounces of material; if all 17,400 were returned, that would equal more than 2 tons of recycled wrapping paper. But even then, recycling only solves a small part of the problem.

“What I’d like to see is that this program actually goes away over time and we have a solution where it’s no longer needed and we can completely recycle,” said Tim LeBel, president of sales at Mars. Wrigley US said.

Mars is partnering with Lexington, Kentucky-based Rubicon Technologies, a consultant and software provider that connects companies and cities with recyclers. Since 2019, Rubicon has had its own program called Trash or Treat, which sends a free box to schools, businesses and community groups to collect candy wrappers for recycling. An additional box, or a box for personal use, is $100; Rubicon says that includes the cost of making the box, shipping it both ways, and recycling the wrapping paper. Rubicon expects to ship 5,000 boxes this year.

Mars and Rubicon won’t say how much they spend on their Halloween shows. Rubicon notes that it pays UPS extra to offset its carbon footprint from shipping.

Plastic wrappers are ideal for candies for many reasons. Muhammad Rabnawaz, an associate professor in the school of packaging at Michigan State University, says they’re cheap and light, which cuts shipping costs. They are also easily modified for different functions; For example, some may have a coating so the candy doesn’t stick to them.

But plastic packaging is a challenge for recycling companies. They often contain a mixture of materials, like foil, that must be kept separate. They are small and fragile, making them easy to bypass conventional sorting devices. They must be cleaned to remove grease and other food waste. They come in many colors, so when they’re mixed together, they create an unappealing brown.

Even as companies make efforts to recycle candy wrappers, they still produce a plastic of such low value that it does not recover the cost of recycling.

“It has to be profitable. These people are not 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 being thrown away. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, containers and packaging accounted for 21% of the waste entering landfills in 2018.

That’s why it’s important to have food companies or individual consumers sponsor recycling efforts, said Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle.

The New Jersey-based recycling company recycles candy wrappers in the UK through partnerships with Nestle and Ferrero. In the US, the company will ship boxes to consumers to collect candy and snack wrappers and return them for recycling. A small box is $86; a large one is $218. TerraCycle says this includes shipping and multipart recycling.

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

Leah Karrer, a conservationist in Washington DC, purchased a TerraCycle box in 2020 and collected 5 pounds of Halloween candy wrappers from about 20 neighbors. She loved raising awareness about the issue and supporting TerraCycle, but she didn’t do it again because the box was too expensive.

“This is not a cost-effective solution for most families, when those items can simply be thrown in the trash for free pick-up,” she said.

This year, she ordered a free bag from Mars so she could send the message that consumers care about plastic waste and want companies to switch to sustainable packaging.

“You cannot rely on customers to fix the huge plastic waste problem,” she said. “The solution is to change the system.”

Candy makers say they are spending millions to develop new packaging that’s easy to recycle or compost.

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

The National Confectionery Association, which represents the candy 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 needs to be completely eliminated.

“It’s not about the amount of candy wrappers on Halloween, it’s the 365 days a year that our infrastructure is set up to throw away,” she said.

10:04ET October 29-22



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