activism waste

Today, crisp packets. Tomorrow the world.

Britain is a nation of crisp fans – or potato chips for American readers. We apparently get through 6 billion packets of crisps a year, equivalent to 150 packets each. All of the empty packets go in the bin, and then into landfill. It takes a long time for them to degrade. Litter picks and beach cleans turn up packets from the 90s on a regular basis.

With the outcry over single-use plastics that has gripped Britain in 2018, the Walkers company began to get some unwanted attention. As the largest crisp manufacturer by far, they were an obvious target. They had pledged to make all their packaging recyclable or compostable by 2025, but campaigners pointed out that their factories turn out 7,000 crisp packets every single minute. By 2025 they would have added another 28 billion packets to landfill. Couldn’t they do something faster?

A petition took off on 38 Degrees, and signatories took to Twitter to rebuke Walkers for the delay. And then someone had the smart idea of sticking a label on their empty crisp packet and posting it back to the company. They urged others to do it too, and took photos of themselves posting packets into letterboxes.

This brought an immediate intervention from the Royal Mail, who wanted people to know that you can’t just post rubbish into their letter boxes. It won’t go through their sorting machines and if you want to post litter, put it in an envelope first. That prompted a new round of media interest, and presumably more squirming at Walkers headquarters.

So they acted. They are partnering with recycling company Terracycle to set up a return scheme. Customers will be able to send back packets by mail or drop them off at collection points, and they will be shredded and recycled into plastic goods. The scheme will open in December, which means you can start bundling up those crisps packets now. They don’t even need to be Walkers – the scheme will take all brands.

The petition sat unnoticed for several months before it took off, but this is still an unusually quick victory for campaigners. At the end of September the BBC was publishing sneering letters about the whole idea. Ten days later Walkers announced their solution. There’s a big element of luck in a campaign getting media attention, but it’s worth pausing to think about why it worked so well this time. For one thing, it captured a moment of real interest in plastic. It connected with something very ordinary and every day, and focused on one iconic brand name. Then people did something silly and eye-catching that anyone could copy and do.

Interestingly, this was not the work of an organisation or professional campaigners. There was no team or strategy behind it. The petition was set up by Geraint Ashcroft, a grandad from Pontypridd in Wales. He looked up whether or not you could recycle crisp packets, found that you can’t, and did something about it. Good work Mr Ashcroft – you’ve shifted billions of crisp packets out of landfill.

Perhaps that’s the most important lesson from this story. If there’s something that’s bothering you, do something about it. It doesn’t matter how half-baked your idea is, or how small you think your contribution might be. Yes, there’s every chance that it won’t become a national story and create a major change – but you don’t know that. If it catches the imagination and resonates with people, you have no idea where it might go.

2 comments

    1. By 2025 is the promise. They have experimented with them in a few places already, but not found anything that quite works. Lay’s (Walkers in the US) introduced biodegradeable packaging in 2010 and then had to drop it again when customers complained. Apparently they thought it was too noisy – so some of it is the consumers fault too.

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