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    Trick or trash: Candy makers grapple with plastic waste

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

    As America loads up on an estimated 600 million pounds of candy for Halloween, a handful of companies are trying to make it easier to recycle all those wrappers. But they acknowledge their efforts are only making a small dent and say more fundamental changes are needed.

    Since the beginning of October, Mars – the maker of Snickers and M&Ms – has distributed 17,400 candy waste collection bags to United States (US) consumers through its website and at community events. The bags can be filled with wrappers and packaging from any brand and mailed free to a specialty recycler in Illinois. That recycler, G2 Revolution, forms the packages into pellets and uses them to make waste bags for dogs.

    The bags fit around four ounces of material; if all 17,400 are returned, that would equal more than two tonnes of recycled wrappers. But even then, the recycling programme would still address just a fraction of the problem.

    “What I’d like to see is this programme actually goes away over time and we have a solution where it’s no longer required and we’re fully recyclable,” said Mars Wrigley US president of sales Tim LeBel.

    Mars is partnering with Lexington, Kentucky-based Rubicon Technologies, a consultant and software provider that connects companies and municipalities to recyclers. Since 2019, Rubicon has had its own programme called Trick or Trash, which mails one free box to schools, businesses and community groups to collect candy wrappers for recycling. An additional box, or a box for personal use, is USD100; Rubicon said that covers the cost of making the box, shipping it both ways and recycling the wrappers. Rubicon expects to send out 5,000 boxes this year.

    Mars and Rubicon won’t say how much they’re spending on their Halloween programmes.

    Rubicon noted that it pays extra to UPS to offset the carbon emissions from shipping.

    Plastic wrappers are ideal for candy for lots of reasons. They’re cheap and lightweight, which cuts down on shipping costs, said Michigan State University school of packaging associate professor Muhammad Rabnawaz. They’re also easy to modify for different functions; some might have a coating so candy doesn’t stick to them, for example.

    But plastic wrappers are a challenge for recycling companies. They often contain a mix of materials, like foil, which must be separated. They’re small and flimsy, making it easy for them to bypass typical sorting equipment. They have to be cleaned to remove grease, oil and other food waste. They’re multi-coloured, so when they’re mixed together they come out as an unappealing brown.

    Even when companies do go to the effort of recycling candy wrappers, they produce such a low-value plastic that it doesn’t recoup the cost of recycling.

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

    As a result, a lot of plastic packaging ends up getting thrown away. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, containers and packaging made up 21 per cent of trash going into landfills in 2018.

    That’s why it’s critical to have food companies or individual consumers funding recycling efforts, said TerraCycle CEO Tom Szaky. 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 ship boxes to consumers to collect candy and snack wrappers and return them for recycling. A small box is USD86; a large one is USD218. TerraCycle said that covers the cost of shipping and the multi-part recycling process.

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

    Washington DC conservationist Leah Karrer bought a TerraCycle box in 2020 and collected five pounds of Halloween candy wrappers from about 20 neighbours. She liked raising awareness about the problem and supporting TerraCycle, but she hasn’t done it again because the box was so expensive.

    “This is not a cost-effective solution for most families, when the items can simply be thrown into a trash container to be picked up for free,” she said.

    This year, she ordered a free bag from Mars, so that she can send a message that consumers care about plastic waste and want companies to switch to sustainable packaging. “The onus cannot be on the customer to fix the massive plastic waste problem,” she said.

    “The solution is system change.”

    Candy makers said they’re spending millions to develop new packaging that would be easier to recycle or compost.

    Mondelez’s Cadbury introduced more easily recyclable packaging – made of 30 per cent recycled plastic – in some markets this year. Mars recently partnered with Danimer Scientific, a biotech company, to develop compostable packaging. Hershey has set a goal of making all its packaging easily recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2030. The National Confectioners Association, which represents the candy industry, said federal, state, and local governments also need to invest in more advanced recycling.

    But Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group executive director Janet Dominitz said recycling alone will never keep up with amount of packaging waste people generate.

    Dominitz said single-use plastic packaging needs to be eliminated altogether.

    “The problem isn’t the number of candy wrappers on Halloween, but the 365 days a year that our infrastructure is set up to throw away,” she said.

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