Halloween treats have a thorny problem. Plastic packaging is difficult to recycle.
America loads an estimated 600 million pounds of candy for Halloween, so a few companies are trying to make it easier to recycle all those wrappers. But they admit their efforts are only creating a small dent, and say more radical changes are needed.
Mars, maker of Snickers and M&M, has distributed 17,400 candy waste collection bags to US consumers since early October through its website and community events. The bags can be filled with any brand of wrapper and packaging and mailed free of charge to a professional recycler in Illinois. That recycler, her G2 Revolution, molds the packages into pellets and uses them to make dog litter bags.
The bag fits approximately 4 ounces of material. All 17,400 returned equates to over 2 tons of recycled wrappers. But even then, recycling programs only address a fraction of the problem.
“What I want is for this program to actually go away over time, no longer needed, and have a completely recyclable solution.
Mars has partnered with Lexington, Kentucky-based Rubicon Technologies. Rubicon Technologies is a consultant and software provider connecting businesses, local governments and recyclers. Since 2019, Rubicon has run its own program called Trick or Trash, where he mails one free box to schools, businesses and community groups to collect candy wrappers for recycling. I’m here. Additional or personal boxes are $100. According to Rubicon, this will cover the cost of making the box, shipping it back and forth, and recycling the wrapper. Rubicon plans to ship 5,000 boxes this year.
Mars and Rubicon have not disclosed how much they are spending on their Halloween programs. Rubicon says it pays UPS extra to offset carbon emissions from shipping.
Plastic wrappers are great for candy for many reasons. They’re cheap and lightweight, which reduces shipping costs, said Muhammad Rabnawaz, an associate professor in the packaging department at Michigan State University. It can also be easily modified for different functions. For example, some are coated to prevent candy from sticking.
However, plastic wrappers are a challenge for recycling companies. In many cases, materials such as foil are mixed together and must be separated. Because they are small and fragile, they can easily bypass typical sorting equipment. It should be cleaned to remove grease, oil and other food waste. They are multicolored, so when you mix them together, you get an unattractive brown.
Even if companies try to recycle candy wrappers, they can’t recoup the recycling costs because they produce low-value plastic.
“They have to make a profit. They’re not social workers,” said Brandon Wright, spokesman for the National Waste and Recycling Association, which represents waste management companies.
As a result, many plastic packages end up in the waste. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, packaging accounted for 21% of his landfill waste in 2018.
That’s why it’s important for food companies and individual consumers to fund recycling efforts, said Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle.
A New Jersey-based recycling company recycles candy wrappers in the UK through partnerships with Nestlé and Ferrero. In the United States, the company ships boxes to consumers to collect candy and snack wrappers and return them for recycling. A small box is $86. The large one is $218. TerraCycle says this will cover shipping costs and a multi-part recycling process.
Szaky says TerraCycle has recycled about 40 million candy wrappers worldwide since 2014.
Washington DC conservationist Leah Karrer bought a TerraCycle box in 2020 and collected 5 pounds of Halloween candy wrappers from about 20 neighbors. She raised her awareness of the issue and preferred to support TerraCycle, but she never did it again because the box was so expensive.
“This is not a cost-effective solution for most households, as they can simply throw the item in the trash and pick it up for free,” she said.
This year she ordered a free bag from Mars. This is so that consumers can send a message that they care about plastic waste and want companies to switch to sustainable packaging.
“We can’t hold our customers accountable for solving the mass plastic waste problem,” she said. “Solution is system change.”
Candy makers are spending millions of dollars developing new packaging that is easier to recycle and compost.
Mondelez’s Cadbury introduced more easily recyclable packaging (30% made from recycled plastic) in select markets this year. Mars recently partnered with biotech company Danimer Scientific to develop a compostable package. Hershey has set a goal to make all packaging easily recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2030.
The National Confectionery Association, which represents the candy industry, says federal, state and local governments should also invest in more advanced recycling.
But Janet Dominitz, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, says recycling alone cannot keep up with the amount of packaging waste people create. Dominitz said single-use plastic packaging should be completely eliminated.
“The problem isn’t the number of Halloween candy wrappers, it’s the 365 days a year our infrastructure is set to throw away,” she said.