Halloween treats have a tricky problem: hard-to-recycle plastic packaging.
As America loads an estimated 600 million pounds of Halloween candy, a handful of companies are trying to make it easier to recycle all that packaging. But they acknowledge 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 US consumers through its website and at community events. Bags can be filled with wrappers and wrappers of any brand and sent to a specialty recycler in Illinois free of charge. This recycler, G2 Revolution, turns packaging into pellets and uses them to make dog waste bags.
Bags hold approximately 4 ounces of material; if all 17,400 are returned, that would equate to over 2 tons of recycled packaging. But even then, the recycling program would solve only a fraction of the problem.
“What I’d like to see is that this program goes away over time and we have a solution where it’s no longer needed and we’re fully recyclable,” said Tim LeBel, president of sales for Mars Wrigley. US.
Mars partners with Lexington, Kentucky-based Rubicon Technologies, a consultant and software provider that connects businesses and municipalities to recyclers. Since 2019, Rubicon has had its own program called Trick or Trash, which sends out a free box to schools, businesses, and community groups to collect candy wrappers to recycle. An additional box, or a box for personal use, costs $100; Rubicon says that covers the cost of making the box, shipping it back and forth, and recycling the packaging. Rubicon expects to ship 5,000 boxes this year.
Mars and Rubicon won’t say how much they spend on their Halloween programs. Rubicon notes that it pays a premium to UPS to offset the carbon emissions from shipping.
Plastic wrappers are ideal for candies for many reasons. They’re cheap and lightweight, which cuts shipping costs, said Muhammad Rabnawaz, an associate professor at Michigan State University’s school of packaging. They are also easy to modify for different functions; some may have a coating so the candies don’t stick, for example.
But plastic packaging presents a challenge for recycling companies. They often contain a mixture of materials, such as foil, that need to be separated. They are small and fragile, allowing them to easily bypass regular sorting equipment. They should be cleaned to remove grease, oil and other food waste. They are multi-colored so when mixed together they come out as an unattractive brown.
Even when companies make the effort to recycle candy wrappers, they produce such low-value plastic that it doesn’t recoup the cost of recycling.
“It has to be profitable. These guys are not social workers,” said Brandon Wright, spokesperson for the National Waste and Recycling Association, which represents waste management companies.
As a result, many plastic wrappers end up being thrown away. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, containers and packaging accounted for 21% of landfill waste 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 recycling company recycles candy wrappers in the UK through partnerships with Nestlé and Ferrero. In the United States, the company will ship boxes to consumers to collect candy and snack wrappers and return them for recycling. A small box costs $86; a large is $218. TerraCycle said this covers shipping costs and the multi-part recycling process.
Szaky said TerraCycle has recycled about 40 million candy wrappers globally since 2014.
Leah Karrer, an environmentalist in Washington DC, bought a TerraCycle box in 2020 and collected 5 pounds of Halloween candy wrappers from about 20 neighbors. She liked to raise awareness of the issue and support TerraCycle, but she didn’t do it again because the box was so expensive.
“It’s not a cost-effective solution for most families, when items can just be thrown in a bin to be picked up for free,” 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 businesses to switch to sustainable packaging.
“It cannot be the customer’s responsibility to solve the massive problem of plastic waste,” she said. “The solution is system change.”
Candy makers say they are spending millions to develop new packaging that would be easier to recycle or compost.
Mondelez’s Cadbury launched more easily recyclable packaging, made from 30% recycled plastic, in select markets this year. Mars recently partnered with Danimer Scientific, a biotechnology company, to develop compostable packaging. Hershey has set a goal to make all of its packaging readily 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 be enough to keep up with the amount of packaging waste people generate. Dominitz said single-use plastic packaging must be phased out completely.
“The problem is not the number of candy wrappers on Halloween, but the 365 days a year that our infrastructure is set to throw away,” she said.